GIF Breakdown: Yusei Kikuchi’s Spring Training Debut

We can’t make assessments based on spring training numbers. We know better than that. But we can watch new starters and make our first impressions with GIFs that we’ll watch incessantly because we’re starving and we need this.

Today the Mariners showcased an arm we haven’t seen yet against major league hitting, their Japanese import Yusei Kikuchi and likely ace of the staff.

Adam Garland did an excellent job over the winter outlining what we should be expecting, which you need to read if you haven’t already. It details a fastball that sits low-to-mid 90s from the left side, paired with a sweeping slider that is sure to miss bats. There’s room to grow in his mid 70s curveball and rare changeup, with the pair comprising of less than 20% of Kikuchi’s pitches. If the heater and bender are on point, Kikuchi can mask his curveball and changeup ineffectiveness.

That’s the idea coming into today. That idea may have changed a little in today’s performance and allow me to outline what I saw in Yusei Kikuchi’s two innings of work against the Cincinnati Reds:

 

First Inning

 

Out of the gate, it’s no surprise that Kikuchi established his fastball. It’s what you do.

Nothing special here as I swore loudly at the camera angle that hides plenty of movement on Kikuchi’s pitches from the left side. One day we’ll get fantastic camera angles in all ballparks.

Now 0-1, Kikuchi pounded the zone again:

Not a great heater here for Kikuchi, left out over the middle for Nick Senzel to give the ball a ride to right-field. But this is literally the second pitch Kikuchi has thrown this spring – of course, he’s going to groove a fastball or two.

Joey Votto followed and I was curious what approach we’d see:

We may be observing Kikuchi’s blueprint against left-handers as he opened the at-bat to Joey Votto: stay away from lefties down-and-away with heat to set up a slider in the same location after. I want to see Kikuchi face more lefties to see if he goes high-and-tight with heaters as well.

At 2-2, I’m expecting that signature slider to show up and I was surprised. So was Votto:

Okay, a lot to talk about here and it’s time to discuss his deception. Kikuchi does an excellent job of hiding the ball until release. The Mariners showcased this video from a bullpen of his last week and you can see it here – Votto can’t pick up the ball until very late, making it hard to pick up exactly what is coming a little later than usual.

There is a downside to this, though. Keeping your hand this low later than usual relies on your arm snap to whip faster than most to catch up. It generally speaks to more inconsistent command – getting the timing exactly right on that arm twitch can be very difficult – though Kikuchi does have the look of precision and consistency more than the average arm. It’s definitely something to monitor through the year.

Regarding the pitch itself, it actually isn’t a great curveball. It was intended down-and-away and floated up-and-in, but it caught Votto in no-man’s land, trying to resist the potential backward K, but not perceiving its movement enough to make contact. In other words, Kikuchi got a bit lucky with this one and it’s weird to add caution among the normal celebration of making Joey Votto look foolish.

With Yasiel Puig next, we finally got to see what I expected out of the gate. Watch Kikuchi first spot a 1-0 fastball on the inside corner:

Then follow with a slider starting in the same location but ending at Puig’s ankles for strike two:

This works in the same location against batters on both sides of the plate and it could be the strongest bullet in Kikuchi’s chamber.

Now 2-2 and facing an off-balanced Puig, Kikuchi executed a fantastic fastball up-and-in to Puig that resulted in an easy groundout to first:

You can see the plan of attack and effectiveness of Kikuchi when he lands his heater, the only question is how much we can rely on that command. Great to see his potential in action from the very first inning.

 

Second Inning

 

Kikcuhi’s command didn’t look great to start the second. A hittable heater and poor slider brought the count to 1-1. A wild heater set up this 2-1 heater Suarez just missed, located right in his wheelhouse.

At 2-2, Kikuchi turned to the curveball again, which floated up arm-side just like against Votto:

At a full count, Kikuchi featured a decent slider fouled off by Suarez, forcing Kikuchi to locate a fastball at another 3-2 count:

This was a tough at-bat to watch. Kikuchi struggled with each pitch, trying to balance giving in to Suarez and nibbling, failing to find the middle ground that could disrupt Suarez. At this point, Suarez was looking for heat and had an easy time laying off for a carefree stroll down to first.

Kikuchi did recover, though. This very next pitch to Chris Okey was well placed on the inside-corner, inducing what would normally be a double play:

That’s baseball. Sometimes you make a terrible pitch and rewarded, while you can do everything right and it’s all wrong.

With another right-hander at the plate, I expected either a slider or fastball inside to try for another double-play ball. But instead, we got another deuce:

Interesting to see Kikuchi turn to the yacker once again, especially since we expected his slider to be the main breaker. This is the spring, though, and the biggest question about Kikuchi is the performance of his third pitch. I imagine Kikuchi is simply taking the time to work on the big hook and saving the slider dominance for the later weeks.

At 1-0, Kikuchi produced what I’ve been looking for: a strong heater high-and-tight.

This is excellent. I preach the importance for left-handers to jam right-handers up-and-in – just look at James Paxton’s surge last year – and painting this fastball not only opens the plate away but also sets up his slider down-and-in as well.

After hitting the spot and earning a 1-1 pitch, Kikuchi tries to go back again and this time catches too much of the plate, leading to a single slapped up the middle:

It’s hard to hit that corner of the zone consistently. Tremendously hard. Too far in and you bruise the batter. Too far away and it becomes hittable. The greats have this precision, those lost in mediocrity struggle. It’s the spring and in no way will I make judgments here about Kikuchi’s ability to hit the spot. Instead, I’ll sit here smiling that we have a prime example of its necessity.

Kikuchi quickly recovered, surprisingly as expected with his curveball once again. Kikuchi executed a strong 1-0 hook, resulting in a pulled grounder to third and the innings first two outs:

Effectively, Kikuchi hit the reset button here. Yes, he allowed a run, but the bases are cleared with two outs on the board, and a lefty is ready to be carved and served.

It looked as though Kikuchi recognized this, painting a 95mph fastball down-and-away:

Then followed it up with what seemed to be a poorly located slider:

It earned a strike, which is all Kikuchi wanted, but I was really hoping for this bender to land away as intended. There is a blueprint that Kikuchi will follow during the year – painting heat away followed by a slider that starts in the same location but swerves off the plate – and I selfishly wanted to see it now. 

But fine. Kikuchi is now 0-2 and he gave me something else that I wanted to see – a high-and-tight fastball to a left-handed batter:

It wasn’t a strikeout, but executing the pitch earned an out all the same, concluding Kikuchi’s spring training debut on his 29th pitch.

Conclusion

 

This was the first start for Yusei Kikuchi and I need to reiterate that we shouldn’t be making any rash judgments based on it. There were still a few takeaways. I was a little surprised to see his curveball more than his slider, though the hook was effective and paired with an apparently solid slider makes for a strong secondary pair to complement his 93-95 mph heater. The fastball was a bit wild, though there seems to be a good amount of deception with the pitch as he dances in-and-out with it. I loved seeing the pitch located high-and-tight to batters on both sides of the plate, which will open up breakers often. It’s simply a matter of what consistency wee’ll see.

The reports of a strong heater with strikeout potential seem legitimate thus far. It will come down to the command of that fastball, though nothing here is making me afraid of those reports. Assuming the deadly slider we saw incredibly briefly is a consistent weapon, the sweeper matched with his curveball should return a starter that will go deep into games effectively.

I see the Mariners ace here and a solid #4/5 starter for fantasy purposes. All that’s left is to see his slider live up to its name.

Nick Pollack

Founder of PitcherList.com. Rotographs and Washington Post contributor and has worked with CBS Sports, Grantland, and SB Nation. Former pitching coach and Brandeis alum.

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Comments


Travis Brown

Man, if he can somehow work on a change-up, to go along with that “hide the ball” 95 mph heater, he could have some pretty good success

Eric Knowles

This was awesome Nick, thank you. I watched the first 3 innings last night. I though he definitely is saving the slider and I liked the fact he was up to 95 with this FB on February 25

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