Merging two below-average tools into one can often be a difference-maker for a major league pitcher, a mindset that is certainly paying off for Blue Jays starter Yusei Kikuchi in 2023.
The Toronto Blue Jays hurler has been an early surprise this season, posting a 3.35 ERA over his first seven starts, while tossing at least six innings in three of those contests — a benchmark he reached just three times in all of last season.
Kikuchi has looked like a completely different pitcher in Year 2 with the franchise, operating confidently and providing quality results nearly every time he’s taken the hill. The pitch clock has done wonders for him, creating a rhythm and preventing him from overthinking on the mound.
As much as Kikuchi has thrived early on, though, he likely wouldn’t be in this position if not for the hurdles he endured during his inaugural campaign with the club, struggling to a 5.25 ERA and a 5.94 FIP across 20 games as a starter before being moved to the bullpen in August.
But as it turns out, that positional change may have been a blessing in disguise for the 31-year-old left-hander, paving the way for his bounce-back 2023 performance.
Walks were among his biggest concerns last season, as his 12.8% rate was a career-worst and placed in the third percentile of the majors. He displayed improved command as a reliever, though, walking just five of his 72 batters faced (6.9%) over his final 10 relief outings.
Allowing home runs and hard contact remained an issue, evidenced by his poor home-run-to-fly-ball ratio (36.4%) and hard-hit rate against (47.2%), but were mitigated with fewer runners on base compared to his time in the starting rotation.
As Kikuchi started pounding the strike zone more consistently, hitters had to respect his arsenal, increasing his strikeout rate north of 40% across those final 10 appearances. And that quickly transformed the veteran lefty into an encouraging multi-inning reliever.
Crediting Kikuchi’s resurgence as just improved command is probably a bit of an oversimplification, though. It was far more complex than that. Not only did he refine his mechanics, but he also altered his secondary weapon.
The 2021 All-Star took two of his least-effective pitches, his cutter and slider — which earned +5 and +7 run values in 2022, respectively — and combined them into a single offering. A hybrid of the two, if you will. And it wasn’t long before he took a liking to it.
It took a few outings to feel comfortable with it, but Kikuchi started to master it last September, throwing it over 50% of the time, with opponents hitting .233 AVG and .197 xAVG against it. It also excelled at generating swings and missing, recording a 40.8% whiff rate.
Part of what made it so effective was its properties, as it featured a cutter’s mid-to-high 80s velocity and a slider’s horizontal break, helping it play off his mid-90s fastball that tops out at 97-98 mph. Since that recipe proved successful, he has carried it over into this season.
Kikuchi’s redesigned slider has elevated to new heights in 2023, which has seen him manipulate its velocities more frequently to keep hitters off balance. Thus, his breaking ball — featuring a 32.2% whiff rate — can miss bats in multiple ways.
The former Seattle Mariner can dish out a slower slider, generating more east-west movement than his harder one, which ranges in the mid-80s and finishes down and in versus righties, low and away to lefties.
Yusei Kikuchi, Filthy Sliders...and K Struts. pic.twitter.com/Amdz3dgjav
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 15, 2023
But if he needs another tool at his disposal, Kikuchi will increase his slider’s velocity to as high as the low-90s, making it look more like a cutter. And when tunnelled correctly, it effectively disguises his explosive four-seamer.
That game plan has worked to near-perfection early on this season, as hitters are swinging at his fastball over 10% more than they did in 2022. It is allowing more contact, although its walk output has declined significantly from a year ago — a trade-off the Blue Jays will happily take.
Yusei Kikuchi, 95mph Fastball and 92mph hard Slider/Cutter, Overlay pic.twitter.com/x6RDad2cz4
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 26, 2023
Without question, however, Kikuchi’s slider has been his most valuable pitch this season. It features a -5 run value, the best amongst his four-pitch arsenal and tied for fourth-best in the majors among qualified sliders (min. 50 plate appearances).
Opponents are hitting just .207 AVG/.414 SLG/.284 wOBA against it, and it’s responsible for 18 of his 33 punchouts on the year. Hitters are also swinging and missing at it over half the time when chasing outside the strike zone.
Kikuchi has relied heavily on his new toy, as he did last season, with its usage reaching a career-high 31.9% in 2023. Its frequency during two-strike counts has increased slightly as well, rising by 0.5%.
But the most significant improvement in these situations has been its overall effectiveness, as it’s allowed a .128 AVG, .231 SLG and a .166 wOBA over 40 PAs. Last season, meanwhile, it registered a .185 AVG, .467 SLG and a .327 wOBA in 106 PAs.
This season’s sample size is much smaller than last season’s, of course, but the proof is in the pudding of how Kikuchi has found success out of the gate. It might not always be glamorous, though it has done the job more often than not.
A few warning signs remain — like the 47.5% hard-hit rate against his slider, for example — but most of the damage it’s surrendered has come with the bases empty. And when he’s yielded a loud hit or walk, he has shaken it off and focused on the next batter, which eluded him in 2022.
That has kept Kikuchi’s pitch count relatively low each time out, allowing the Blue Jays lefty to face a batting order twice or three times through while pitching into the fifth inning in all seven starts. It has also seen his walk rate fall to a career-low 5.2%.
Even as Toronto’s No. 5 starter, you can’t help but feel confident when this new-and-improved version of Kikuchi takes the bump every fifth day.