By Jim Allen
Yusei Kikuchi may not be the best pitcher in Japan, but he is among the best. On top of that, he is expected to move to the majors after this season ends. Nine years after his eyes filled with tears when he announced he would turn his back on major league offers to sign with Nippon Professional Baseball’s Seibu Lions, Kikuchi has now grown into an elite starter in NPB, and is making the most of the TrackMan pitch tracking data the Lions have been using at the end of the 2016.
“Now I check each game’s data with our analysts, three or four points, my release point, my extension and so on,” he said Saturday, a night after he threw seven scoreless innings against the Pacific League-rival Lotte Marines. “It allows me to make adjustments, and as I make adjustments and see how they go in games, I get a sense for where I need to be.”
“My release point has been higher recently. I noticed in my game against the Giants (on June 8). It turned out to be 9 centimeters higher than a year ago. I worked on that by tilting my torso slightly and got it down to around 3 cm higher than last year in my last start against Chunichi (June 15). I haven’t seen the data for last night’s game, but I would bet that in my final inning, I was within a centimeter of the release point I want, which is 167 cm.”
“In the past, all I had to relay on was video. This is completely different because just looking at a video didn’t give you an exact figure. In the end it was always about feel.”
Many, including myself, have attributed Kikuchi’s dramatic improvement in strikeouts and control to his maturity, and his growing confidence that he can attack batters in the zone, but after striking out around 8 batters per nine innings through most of his career, the lefty hit 10.5 a year ago. Where he had walked over 10 percent of the batters he faced in his first three full seasons in the rotation, 2017 saw that drop to 7 percent. This season, it’s 6.