Blue Jays pitcher Yusei Kikuchi changed his game and turned around his season

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Yusei Kikuchi has embraced change this season, and it's paying off. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Yusei Kikuchi has embraced change this season, and it's paying off. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

A few weeks back, Yusei Kikuchi approached Kevin Gausman with some questions.

At that time, the Toronto Blue Jays coaching staff had just introduced a bizarre concept to Kikuchi. The team wanted him to adjust his pitch mix, up the fastball usage, ditch his old cutter and start throwing a harder slider.

Kikuchi wanted Gausman’s opinion because the right-hander, just a couple years ago, completely reinvented himself by transforming into a mostly two-pitch pitcher and found success with a fastball-splitter combo. Kikuchi, who was initially hesitant to make a change, asked Gausman how he talked himself into such a task.

“I just stopped caring about trying to be in this book of what a pitcher needs to do to be successful,” Gausman said. “[People say] you have to throw three different pitches for you to be successful. That's not true.”

Gausman, who admitted he was skeptical when the San Francisco Giants wanted him as a two-pitch starter in 2020, told Kikuchi it might take some time before he’s comfortable. Once the changes clicked, though, it’d be a real eureka moment, Gausman said.

“It's going to take you doing that maybe two games in a row, maybe just one, and being like a light bulb [went off],” Gausman said he told Kikuchi.

This type of self-reflection wasn’t easy for Kikuchi, who after enjoying a successful career in Japan, was an all-star in 2021. The 30-year-old achieved all his accolades doing things his way, but for a while, the results simply weren’t there. Kikuchi limped to a 5.98 second-half ERA last season with the Seattle Mariners, and his first few starts in Toronto were ugly after signing a three-year, $36-million contract with the Jays this offseason. Change was needed.

So, when Kikuchi took the mound on April 29 at Rogers Centre, he looked completely different. Gone was his traditional pause at the top of his leg kick, and his arsenal was chopped down to three pitches — a four-seam fastball, a hard slider and a split changeup.

The new philosophy didn’t work that night versus the Houston Astros, but it has since. With his new delivery and altered pitches, Kikuchi’s been phenomenal, registering a 1.56 ERA in May while dicing hitters to the tune of a 10.4 K/9. Perhaps more remarkable than the on-field results was Kikuchi’s ultimate willingness to make such sizeable changes at this point in his career. And, as other Blue Jays pitchers know, that isn’t easy.

For Alek Manoah, his big changes came during his days at West Virginia. In college, Manoah initially pitched out of the wind-up before moving to the stretch full-time. Last year with Toronto, the 24-year-old shifted his positioning on the rubber, moving closer to the first base side, to noticeable effect.

“Sometimes when it's meant to be, it feels like it was meant to be,” Manoah said. “Like me moving on the mound, my first few pitches, I was like, ‘Wow, this feels so much freer and easier. I have so much more room to play with.’”

Manoah’s subtle change last season and Kikuchi’s overhaul this year were done under the tutelage of Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker, who’s been with the team since 2011. Walker aids the pitchers through conversation, Manoah explained, it’s never him marching into a room and telling his players how it’s going to be. The homework that Walker does to support his suggestions helps, too.

“He'll come to you and show you video and show you examples and show you reasons why he thinks when you do make the change, you're confident in the change,” Manoah said. “It's not just, ‘Well, let's see if this works.’ It's a structured plan.”

Those conversations were ultimately what sold Kikuchi on his own reconstruction. For example, Kikuchi’s blazing fastball, which averages 95 mph, is the second-best four-seamer in all of baseball at a minus-8 run value, per Baseball Savant, behind only Justin Verlander’s heater.

Interestingly, Kikuchi lacked confidence in that pitch, but his talks with Walker a few weeks ago helped him lean into it.

“That's when [Walker] really pushed the usage of the fastball, really recommended that,” Kikuchi said through an interpreter after a six-inning shutout Monday. “And to be honest with you, at times I didn’t really necessarily have the most confidence in that pitch. But really building off of each start recently, I definitely have more confidence in that pitch now.”

The second biggest change was getting Kikuchi to throw his breaking pitch much harder. That took some getting used to, but the left-hander trusted his pitching coach, who helped Robbie Ray make similar adjustments during his AL Cy Young season in Toronto last year. Now Kikuchi is trying to mimic Ray’s slider.

“I played around with the grips a little bit, but just creating that similar shape as Robbie Ray was the goal going into creating this new slider,” Kikuchi said.

Kikuchi hasn’t nailed down a name for his new slider — he and Walker nicknamed it a “bitter,” for big cutter — but whatever it’s called, that pitch, alongside some other changes, has jumpstarted his season. Now, when Kikuchi takes the ball every five days, the Blue Jays have an excellent chance to win, a stark contrast from his first four starts and an indication of how talented he truly is.

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