Moving Yusei Kikuchi to bullpen was Blue Jays’ only sensible option

·7 min read

Sometimes things just don’t go according to plan, and that’s been the case for Toronto Blue Jays left-hander Yusei Kikuchi as he’s struggled to find his footing all season long.

After the Blue Jays signed Kikuchi to a three-year, $36-million contract last winter, they hoped he could serve as a quality member of their starting rotation. The opposite has transpired thus far.

The 31-year-old has faltered to a miserable 5.25 ERA across 20 starts with the Blue Jays, making him a liability to their playoff chances. He’s already lost seven of his 20 outings and has consistently forced his team to play catch-up early on.

While some believed Kikuchi could make a few mechanical adjustments during his brief stint on the injured list in July, that’s proven to be false hope once again, as he owns a 5.71 ERA in four starts since returning from the IL.

Amid a tight wild-card race, Toronto reached its breaking point with Kikuchi on Wednesday, deciding to send the struggling lefty to the bullpen. That way, interim manager John Schneider can better control who he faces moving forward.

Informing Kikuchi of this decision probably wasn’t easy, especially considering how much Toronto had already invested in him. It’s also important to remember the Japanese hurler is under contract through 2024, so the team couldn’t afford to burn bridges.

In the end, however, removing Kikuchi from the starting rotation was the only sensible decision available. Every game will be meaningful the rest of the way, and the Blue Jays need to secure as many wins as possible down the stretch. That can’t happen with the 6-foot lefty in a starting role.

Kikuchi, who carries a 7.30 ERA in August, has been one of the worst pitchers in the majors this season. He’s posted the lowest fWAR (-0.8), the third-highest xERA (5.99) and the fifth-highest HR/9 (2.08) among big-league starters who’ve thrown at least 50 innings, according to FanGraphs.

The veteran lefty has also struggled to limit hard contact, as his average exit velocity (91.6 mph) and barrel rate against (15.6 percent) both rank in the bottom first percentile. His hard-hit rate against (47.8 percent) sits in the bottom third percentile.

Yusei Kikuchi made his first appearance out of the Blue Jays' bullpen on Thursday. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Yusei Kikuchi made his first appearance out of the Blue Jays' bullpen on Thursday. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Without question, though, Kikuchi’s command has been his most significant issue to date. He's walked 49 of the 371 batters he’s faced — good for a career-worst 13.2 percent walk rate, placing it in the bottom fifth percentile.

At times, the former Seattle Mariner can attack the strike zone with his entire arsenal: a four-seamer, slider and changeup. Those are the rare instances where he’s displayed promise.

More often than not, however, Kikuchi has made non-competitive pitches that have resulted in extended innings, inflating his walk totals. It’s been problematic with his entire repertoire, although most of his woes have revolved around his mid-90s fastball.

This season, the 2021 All-Star’s four-seamer has produced a career-worst 13.1 percent walk rate, up 3.6 percent from last season. He is throwing more heaters outside the zone than ever before, and this situation has progressively worsened over time.

Yusei Kikuchi Out Zone % by Month
Yusei Kikuchi Out Zone % by Month (Source: Baseball Savant)

Kikuchi looked his best in May, performing to a 2.36 ERA and 2.63 FIP through 26.2 innings in five starts. That was when his four-seamer’s in-zone percentage reached a season-high 55.8 percent.

This month, however, the hard-throwing left-hander has located his fastball outside the zone over half the time, at 57.4 percent. Granted, he’s only made three starts in August, but you can’t ignore that his fastball command has taken a step back each month since June.

The odd times when Kikuchi’s four-seamer has been on the plate, opponents have demolished it with a .368 AVG and .842 SLG with three home runs against it. It’s also registered career-worsts in hard-hit rate against (52.1 percent), barrel rate against (20.2 percent) and average exit velocity (92.9 m.p.h.).

You simply can’t enjoy prolonged success in the majors without commanding a fastball. And unless Toronto’s lefty stops missing arm side, he likely won’t fare much better as a reliever. He made his bullpen debut Thursday with a scoreless inning against the New York Yankees, but he allowed the first two batters he faced to reach base.

Yusei Kikuchi pitch heatmap
Yusei Kikuchi Pitch Heatmap (Source: Baseball Savant)

When Kikuchi’s fastball has missed outside the strike zone this season, it’s primarily finished away from righties and inside to lefties. That’s made it fairly easy to lay off.

Until he can record more strikes, particularly on the inside half versus right-handers, plenty of walks and hard contact will likely continue to pile up against his heater. And if that’s the case, it’s tough to see him earning many opportunities down the stretch.

With Kikuchi off to the bullpen, right-hander Mitch White can further showcase his skills as a starter. The 27-year-old, who was acquired by the Blue Jays at the trade deadline, owns a 3.86 ERA and 3.33 FIP in two starts since being traded from the Los Angeles Dodgers.

White profiles similar to Ross Stripling, who he was also teammates with in Los Angeles. The two often connected during spring training and are now part of the same starting rotation in Toronto.

For two pitchers who operate very similarly, baseball can be a small world at times.

Stripling spent most of his career bouncing back and forth between the Dodgers’ starting rotation and bullpen, proving effective in both roles. White followed a similar path before being dealt to the Blue Jays, making 10 starts and five relief appearances.

The biggest test of the 6-foot-3 hurler’s big-league career will come during his next start against the Yankees on Saturday. He’ll face a dangerous offence and be opposed by five-time All-Star Gerrit Cole.

Based on White’s five-pitch arsenal, which includes a four-seamer, slider, curveball, changeup and a sinker, the Blue Jays feel he’s ready for this challenge. But they don’t exactly feature any alternative options, either.

If White performs well, the No. 5 job is likely his through the rest of the regular season. It is the right-hander’s time to shine, and Toronto may soon learn whether he can be relied on as a member of next season’s rotation.

For Kikuchi, well, it’s back to the drawing board. He is now the club’s lone left-handed reliever - a position that was previously held by Tim Mayza before he dislocated his non-throwing arm. There is still a chance he could refine his command while appearing in low-leverage situations, but time is running out to accomplish that feat.

The 2022 campaign has been frustrating. But with Kikuchi signed for two more seasons, he likely isn’t going anywhere following this season. So now, the challenge is putting him in a position where he can attempt to rebound from his struggles as a starter in 2023.

That’ll probably be easier said than done.

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