On Saturday, the Toronto Blue Jays invested $36 million in a human Rorschach test.
Yusei Kikuchi is undeniably talented, maddeningly inconsistent, and could just as easily be seen as a brilliant addition or foolish gamble for the Blue Jays.
Somehow, all of the following things are true about the the newest member of Toronto’s rotation:
He made the American League All-Star team in 2021.
He was one of the very worst pitchers in baseball in the second half of the season.
With a fastball velocity of 95.1 mph, he’s one of the hardest-throwing left-handed starters in the game.
With a career exit velocity against of 90.3 mph, he allows some of the hardest contact in the majors.
Hitters swung and missed 30 percent of the time or more against three of the four pitches in his arsenal in 2021.
Hitters slugged at least .419 or more (the MLB average is .411) against three of his four pitches in 2021.
If you want to view Kikuchi as a pitcher with excellent stuff, who could be far more than a fifth starter with the right guidance, that's a justifiable position. With success stories like Robbie Ray and Steven Matz, the Blue Jays’ ability to work with pitchers to maximize their talents is well-documented. Kikuchi made massive changes to his repertoire after a rough rookie season, dropping an ineffective curveball and picking up a cutter, so there’s clearly willingness to experiment on his end, too. Pete Walker’s name was trending on Twitter for a reason shortly after news of the Kikuchi deal broke.
Alternatively, it’s fair enough to see the left-hander as a 30-year-old with a career 4.97 ERA who shouldn’t be earning a three-year commitment on the basis of potential he has yet to fulfill. If he crashes and burns it won’t only affect a 2022 team that sees itself as a contender, but will weigh on the team’s payroll through 2024.
The whole situation may sound devilishly difficult to parse, but it really comes down to one thing: command. It’s a given that Kikuchi has the stuff to be an effective starter. He has a fastball that can blow hitters away…
a slider that can get lefties and righties…
… and a changeup that’s improving from a movement and effectiveness standpoint each year.
His problem is that he can’t put them in the right places consistently.
Let’s take his changeup as an example. It has potential to help him erase tough righties, but this is what its heatmap looked like last year:
That’s the right side of the plate to be aiming for, but it’s totally scattershot from a vertical perspective. For comparison, this is Hyun-Jin Ryu’s changeup heatmap:
Ryu has world-class command and Kikuchi’s changeup is his fourth pitch, so it’s a tough comparison to make, but those images give you a sense of where the 30-year-old is at. Even his fastball was all over the middle of the plate when it would be much more effective up in the zone.
For another comparison point, Alek Manoah’s four-seamers looked like this and he was a rookie who saw his command come and go at times:
If Kikuchi is going to reward the Blue Jays’ faith in him, he’ll have to harness his repertoire more successfully. That may sound like a pipe dream considering his age, but he doesn’t even have three full MLB seasons under his belt, and he’s shown a knack for adjustment in the past.
There’s no doubt he’s a high-variance player and this contract doesn’t come without a hefty helping of risk — especially considering its length. It also gives the Blue Jays serious upside at the bottom of the rotation, where most clubs are praying for competence.
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