Who is Yusei Kikuchi?
The 27-year-old lefty tried to move to the States in 2009, when he was a senior at Hanamaki Higashi High School, in northeastern Japan’s Iwate Prefecture–graduating just before Shohei Ohtani entered as a freshman. The Pacific League’s Seibu Lions won his negotiating rights in a draft-day lottery, when half of NPB’s 12 teams selected him as their first-round choice.
Kikuchi signed with Seibu, announcing his decision in a tearful press conference. Many in NPB have spoken in whispers about how the Lions strong-armed the youngster into staying in Japan.
“…he is aggressive with his fastball. He’s not trying to fool guys. Major league teams like to see that. They need to see that guys aren’t afraid to throw their fastball in the zone.”
The day before his posting, he appeared back in Hanamaki with two of his teammates to participate in an event, where he spoke of his upcoming challenge.
“I’m not going to be on an emotional roller coaster,” Kikuchi said about the posting according to Nikkan Sports. “The negotiating period is 30 days and a lot of unexpected things are likely to happen I suppose, so I’m going to train and prepare so that I can produce next season.”
When he first turned pro, Kikuchi’s first year was more or less wiped out by injury and he had an up-and-down NPB apprenticeship that largely consisted of managing shoulder stiffness and inflammation with one detour for elbow discomfort. Despite all that, he’s become one of NPB’s top pitchers–it just took him a little longer to get there.
What scouts say
In a poll I conducted this past year of major league scouts who cover NPB, Kikuchi was rated the fifth-best prospect of any player in Japan–including those who are not yet eligible to leave.
“He’s a left-handed power arm. What’s not to like about him? He’s developed control of his offspeed pitches and he is aggressive with his fastball. He’s not trying to fool guys. Major league teams like to see that. They need to see that guys aren’t afraid to throw their fastball in the zone.”
“Even in Japan, Kenta Maeda, threw mostly sliders, and major league teams want to see more confidence in the fastball.”
“He used to always be missing something. He used to have a lot of things going on. He had a reputation as being injury prone. But his body is a lot larger now (100 kg). He’s now confident in what he does. He appears more mature.”
To a man, the scouts see Kikuchi as a valuable middle-rotation starting pitcher.
Overall: Kikuchi is primarily a fastball-slider pitcher. He got swinging strikes on 12.2 percent of his pitches this year, fourth most among pitchers throwing 90-plus innings. Hitters made below average contact on his pitches in the zone, but he was No. 1 in terms of least contact out of the zone and well above average in getting batters to chase.
Fastball: Averaged 147.3 KPH this year. Kikuchi threw it about 49 percent of the time and got swinging strikes 9.6 percent of the time, the third highest figure of pitchers throwing 1,000-plus fastballs this year. In 2017, it was arguably the best fastball in NPB.
Slider: Since the start of his pro career, the slider has gradually become Kikuchi’s big pitch, and is easily the best slider thrown by an NPB starting pitcher. This past year, 35 percent of Kikuchi’s pitches were sliders, the highest figure for anyone who threw 2,000-plus pitches. He locates it extremely well, and got swinging strikes on 17.0 percent of his sliders – a shade behind the 17.1 posted by four-time PL strikeout leader Takahiro Norimoto, who lacks Kikuchi’s location.
Curve: Kikuchi’s No. 2 secondary pitch, thrown about 10 percent of the time. It’s not a great pitch, but like a lot of Japanese pitchers, he’ll throw it for strikes to get ahead in counts a few times in a game.
Change: Used about 5 percent of the time and it has been effective in limited applications. It’s a chase pitch, generally not thrown for strikes.
Others: A few of his pitches in 2017 were labeled splitters, and a few this past season were designated as two-seamers–depending on who you ask. It’s not unusual in Japan for MLB-bound players to play around with two-seamers. Kikuchi might also have tried it in 2017, when Seibu’s mound was reportedly made harder.
Where he is now
In 2017, everything came together for Kikuchi. He was healthy the entire year, and was dominating the league, umpires flagged Kikuchi for his double-leg-pump pitching motion in August. It didn’t seem to bother him though, as he allowed just three runs over his last six starts of the season, (including one in the postseason) striking out 57 batters in 49 innings. He was named the PL’s pitcher of the month for September and October.
“I hated it that anyone might say I was getting people out because of that (illegal) delivery,” he said after winning the monthly honor.
This past May, Kikuchi dealt with a shoulder issue diagnosed as “degradation” of the shoulder that delayed recovery after his starts. He was deactivated from May 6 to June 1.
“It’s a concern of course,” one scout said about Kikuchi’s health and less-dominant results this year. “That’s where we scouts come in to see what he actually is doing.”
Another scout said, “Let’s see, he’s a lefty with great command of his slider who throws 92 miles per hour and throws strikes. I think somebody will be interested.”
The injury issue is a question mark because he will be throwing a different ball from harder mounds that put more stress on the knees than the somewhat softer NPB mounds he’s used to. He’s been hurt in the spring, and he’s going to go through a spring training that is quite different from what he’s used to.
The less-intense but everyday workouts force new Japanese players to question whether they are getting enough work in or whether they will be ready when preseason games start a week after the start of camp instead of having a month before they start.
Kikuchi has become a strike thrower and is more confident and mature than the pitcher who started a game after feeling a tinge from an old shoulder injury and didn’t tell anyone until it began to hurt during the game.
His first pro season was limited to two minor league games due to pain in his left shoulder. He was sent back to the farm after 11 days when he couldn’t crack the starting rotation. He was brought up for spot starts throughout the 2011 season, spending the last 1-1/2 months on the first team.
2012 was a big step forward despite not making his first start until July 1. He started all 17 of his games, going 9-4 with three shutouts over 108 innings, but shoulder inflammation caused him to miss two weeks from July 13 only to be deactivated seven days later when the problem was diagnosed. He finished the season on the farm, pitching as part of his rehab. His 2013 season was a similar story, going back to the farm to deal with shoulder discomfort on Aug. 8 and finishing the season in the minors pitching in rehab games.
Kikuchi didn’t start the 2015 season with the first team after suffering left elbow inflammation in camp as he was trying to iron out his mechanics.
On June 23, 2016, Kikuchi felt pain when he threw hard in his right oblique muscles. He returned on Aug. 5, and finished the year with the first team for just the second time in five seasons and with the exception of some shoulder fatigue this spring, has been fairly fit.
Activation / deactivation history
Figures in green represent Opening Day.
|9/23/2010||End of 2010 season|
|10/29/2011||End of 2011 season|
|8/8/2012||End of 2012 season|
|8/6/2014||End of 2014 season|
|4/28/2015||End of 2015 season|
|3/23/2016||6/23/2016||Right oblique muscle|
|8/5/2016||End of 2016 season|
|10/14/2017||End of 2017 season|
|10/17/2018||End of 2018 season|
Notes: NPB teams often deactivate starting pitchers around the all-star break and prior to the postseason, since there are no limits on roster moves other than the 10-day period it takes to reactivate a player.