Blue Jays’ Kikuchi Making Positive Progress After Disastrous 2022 Season

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Yusei Kikuchi has a lot to prove to the Blue Jays after an unusually poor 2022 campaign.  (associated Press)
Yusei Kikuchi has a lot to prove to the Blue Jays after an unusually poor 2022 campaign. (associated Press)

No one wants to see Yusei Kikuchi make a comeback this season more than the 31-year-old, and the Toronto Blue Jays left-hander has certainly gotten off to a stellar start this spring.

After a miserable inaugural campaign north of the border that featured a 5.19 ERA in 100.2 innings and 32 appearances, Kikuchi entered the offseason determined to improve his craft and return with better results in Year 2 with the franchise. Did. And it should be attainable, considering how bad his first season was.

While the 6-foot lefty still has to wait more than three weeks for Opening Day, the early returns on his spring training performance have been very encouraging so far. He has thrown seven shutout innings, allowing only one hit and three walks, while striking out nine hitters in three starts.

It’s hard to gather much information from such a small sample size, let alone determine whether Kikuchi will provide any additional value to the Blue Jays in 2023. Add to this that they faced the Pittsburgh Pirates twice and the Baltimore Orioles once, and the situation becomes even trickier to evaluate.

Therein poses a dilemma for Blue Jays captain John Schneider and pitching coach Pete Walker, who have been closely watching Kikuchi’s progress over the past several weeks. So too is pitching strategist David Howell, who suggested veteran lefty change the angle of its slider,

This conversation happened two weeks ago. And yet, Kikuchi has already bought in and reaped the rewards of that adjustment throughout the spring. What’s better is that all it took was a minor tweak involving its release point.

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Success was immediate for Kikuchi, who threw his slider 13 times against the Pirates on February 25 — his 2023 spring training debut — generating six strikeouts over eight swings. In doing so, it was responsible for three of its five strikes in the afternoon.

The hard-throwing lefty from Toronto has since continued to lean heavily on his breaking ball, employing it as his primary strikeout weapon. It has also helped him establish his fastball and split-changeup, allowing him to attack different quadrants of the strike zone.

Kikuchi has also made great strides in making the in-game adjustments that bothered him last season, and proved as much against Pittsburgh on Tuesday. After featuring a heavy dose of sliders in the first matchup, he opted for more fastballs in the rematch, with his mid-90s heater hitting both of his strikeouts and four whiffs on seven swings.

Although six of Kikuchi’s 15 four-seamers ended outside the strike zone, two probably should have been called strikes, and only a pair missed wide off the arm side—a big step up from last season’s inconsistent fastball command. .

via Baseball Savant

via Baseball Savant

Dealing with mental challenges is another area where Kikuchi has found early success. It derailed his entire innings whenever he batted in 2022. Now if he issues a free pass, he focuses on getting the first-pitch strike instead of stressing about the runner on first base.

Dealing with issues on the fly was a sign of disaster for the Japanese Hitler. This happened in the last season and during the second half of 2021. But not this spring, and part of that is he doesn’t have time to worry about his struggles or what to throw next with the new pitch clock in the game.

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Instead, if something does go wrong, the constant countdown helps keep his rhythm and prevents any misfortune from disrupting his momentum. With 20 runners on the pitch with only 15 seconds to deliver with the bases empty, he had to rely more heavily on his catchers on the mound, which proved to be extremely successful.

Baseball is not just a physical game. It also requires strong mental fortitude, although this can often be lost throughout the game. For Kikuchi, overthinking played a huge role in his performance in 2022, which resulted in his worst performance of his career.

The Blue Jays should be happy with what they’ve seen from Kikuchi so far. While Schneider is not yet ready to label him as the club’s No. 5 starter, barring the fear of an unexpected decline or injury, the job is currently his to lose.

Mitch White’s offseason throwing program has been delayed by a right shoulder injury, with the young right-hander still facing live hitters this spring and likely to start the regular season on the 15-day injured list Is. That would leave Zach Thompson as the club’s immediate starting rotation reserve — a less-than-ideal choice for a playoff contender.

Therefore, Toronto desperately needed Kikuchi to round out its starting rotation more than three weeks after his Opening Day start. He needs to act as a stopgap until others arrive — such as top prospects Ricky Tiedemann and Yosvar Zulueta, and Hyun Jin Ryu, who will attempt to make a mid-season comeback from Tommy John surgery.

The former Mariner doesn’t need to be an All-Star as he was in the first half of 2021, though it would be a bonus for a rotation already filled with front-line talent like Alec Manoh, Kevin Gausman and Chris Bassitt Has happened. , Add a redemption season from two-time All-Star, Jose Berrios, and Toronto will have one of the top rotations in baseball.

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In reality, though, all the Blue Jays need from Kikuchi this season are above-replacement-level results. And he definitely has a hold of her. After all, he was worth 1.1 fWAR in two of his three seasons (2020, 2021) with the Seattle Mariners.

If a similar version still exists that can, at least, serve as a two-order pitcher, Kikuchi could be well on his way to turning last season’s shortcomings into building blocks.