Southpaw Yusei Kikuchi comes to the Mariners without the same type of fanfare of a Masahiro Tanaka or Shohei Ohtani. He simply doesn’t have that type of upside potential, though he’s put together back-to-back strong seasons pitching for the Seibu Lions in Japan:
Outside of 2017 his strikeout rate has been fairly consistent, but there is hope that he could at least maintain that type of mark in his first season in the Majors. While battling shoulder issues last season Kikuchi appeared to make adjustments to his repertoire. Former MLBer Frank Hermann was quoted by MLB.com’s John Morosi as saying (click here for the entire article):
“When we have faced him, we have hit him pretty well, and that’s with a heavy left-handed lineup,” Herrmann told MLB.com. “The and sharpness of the slider seems to be down from last year. The one positive I’ve seen from him is that is he’s becoming more than a [two-pitch] guy, which he predominantly was last season. He will now flip in a curveball early in the count and uses his changeup to guys that [are] on his fastball. Last year, there was never a need to get away from the [fastball/slider] combo.
“The slightly diminished stuff in ’18 could be a positive once the shoulder gets back to full strength, because I think he’s gained confidence in his other secondary offerings out of necessity.”
His fastball is his main weapon, which David Adler of MLB.com described by saying (click here for the article):
Kikuchi’s fastball averages around 92-94 mph, and he can reach 96-98 mph at times. That’s not only unusual velocity among NPB left-handers, it’s also above-average for the Major Leagues. In 2018, the average fastball velocity among left-handed MLB starters was 91.4 mph.
He pairs that with his slider, his main secondary pitch, as well as the increased usage of his changeup and curveball. With that four pitch mix he should continue to have success, especially with the unfamiliarity MLB hitters have with him, and it’s possible his strikeout rate continues to be above his career mark (think in the 8.25-8.50 K/9 type range). Even if the control rises back up into the 3.00 range (though it could be a little bit better than that), it’s a solid makeup.
Kikuchi has given up more home runs over the past two years (HR/9 of 0.8 and 0.9), and that could be an issue, plus pitching in Seattle could mean limited opportunities for wins. Throw in questions about how many innings he’ll throw (only twice over 143.0 innings, both coming in the past two years) and the overall upside could be capped if you want to view him like one of the potentially elite who have recently made the jump.
He may not be an ace, but he does have the potential to emerge as a Top 25-30ish type given the solid control and potential for strikeouts. That’s a best case scenario, and drafting him more as a Top 35-40, making him a SP4 on your roster, is a spot we’d be comfortable with. He should be better than that, but he also carries a fair amount of risk given the unknown of how his stuff will truly translate.
Sources – Baseball Reference, MLB.com
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