Yusei Kikuchi’s rise to Blue Jays stardom isn’t talked about enough, but it should be

Toronto Blue Jays v Tampa Bay Rays
Toronto Blue Jays v Tampa Bay Rays / Julio Aguilar/GettyImages

It was the top of the sixth inning on Tuesday night. New York Yankees’ star Juan Soto managed to start off the inning with a single off Toronto Blue Jays’ starter Yusei Kikuchi, who was allowed to face the daunting lineup for a third time. After appearing to aggravate something on his side, Kikuchi reached back and grinded it out to retire the Yankees’ heart of the order to keep the Jays ahead 3-1 and sustain the momentum for the home team. In doing so, the Jays eventually won a close one, 5-4 over their arch division rivals. More importantly, this has become the new norm for Kikuchi for quite some time now.

After enduring a forgettable first year with the club in which he struggled to a 5.19 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, along with giving up a whopping 23 home runs in just a little over 100 innings pitched, Kikuchi was determined to show everyone that he was way better than that last season. He ended up putting together the best campaign of his MLB career where he set personal bests in wins (11), ERA (3.86), WHIP (1.27) and strikeouts (181). Included within that impressive season was a dominant stretch following the All-Star break where he performed like one of the best pitchers in all of baseball, showing the enormous promise and potential he could actually bring to the team.

For those that were still skeptical that Kikuchi just got lucky in 2023 and that he would revert back to his old form in no time, he has set out to prove all his doubters wrong once again in 2024. It may only be four starts into the new year, but Kikuchi not only has maintained his consistency and dominance, he appears to be even better than before.

Looking at Kikuchi’s advanced statistical metrics, he currently ranks at the 80th percentile and above in multiple prominent categories, including xERA, average exit velocity, strikeout rate and ground ball rate. In addition, his increased usage of his curveball to complement his mid-90s fastball has kept opposing hitters off balance, while significantly minimizing the hard contact that he usually gave up in his previous seasons.

To date, Kikuchi has compiled a 1-1 record with a stellar 2.08 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, along with just 8 walks and 29 strikeouts in just 21.2 innings pitched. More notably, he has only given up one home run all season, after averaging close to 1.6 home runs per nine innings for his career. If it hadn’t been for José Berríos and his outstanding performances so far in 2024, Kikuchi should even be considered the frontrunner as the new ace of the Jays’ pitching staff, as he has been that good.

Tuesday’s game against the Yankees was just another example of Kikuchi’s pitching reaching the next level this season. Facing a potent offensive lineup, he held them to just four hits while striking out nine over six solid innings, including striking out the side in the first inning to set the tone for the rest of the night.

His masterpiece helped secure the series win for the Jays, along with giving the team the much-needed boost of confidence after a slow start to the season. If Kikuchi’s rise to prominence hasn’t been talked about enough already, it may be about time people start taking notice of it so that he finally gets the recognition that he truly deserves. And at this rate, he is exactly the difference maker that the Jays desperately need to make a successful World Series title run.