It’s been said time and time again that the Yankees could use some starting pitching. Luckily for them, some very attractive options exist on the free agent market, like Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel.
Of course, other teams will certainly be in the bidding for such top-tier options, so there’s no guarantee that the Yankees would be able to land any of them. This means that the Yankees would be wise to explore some B-tier options on the market to avoid completely standing pat in case they whiff on the top arms. Plus, even if they do manage to sign Corbin or Keuchel, you can never have enough starting pitching, as the Yankees found out when they had to rely on Domingo German, Jonathan Loaisiga, and Lance Lynn for extended periods of time this year. Signing a B-tier starting pitcher in addition to a top of the rotation arm would go a long way towards preventing such scenarios from happening in 2019.
One such option is set to come over from across the Pacific (or the Atlantic, if you have air fare to burn and want to make stops at non-North American continents). Yusei Kikuchi, a 28-year-old southpaw NPB ace, is being posted by the Seibu Lions this offseason.
In Japan, Kikuchi is a man who needs no introduction - well, at least among baseball fans, that is. Since making his NPB debut at age 20 in 2011, Kikuchi has logged 1035.1 innings and owns a career ERA of 2.81. However, Kikuchi’s time in the public eye began even before his professional debut, as he was a highly-touted high school pitcher due to his fastball, which reached speeds up to 154km/h (95 mph).
After a rocky start to his career, Kikuchi improved in each successive season, culminating in a spectacular year in 2017 in which he set career-best marks in ERA (1.97), FIP (2.87), innings pitched (187.2), K/9 (10.4), BB/9 (2.3), and WHIP (0.911). His 2018 was not at that level, but it was another solid year for the left-hander, as he posted a 3.08 ERA (3.50 FIP) across 163.2 innings.
But enough about his baseball card numbers — just what kind of pitcher is Kikuchi? Pitch-type wise, Kikuchi is primarily a fastball-slider pitcher, although he has increased his curveball usage as of late. His fastball touches 96-97 mph, but its average velocity was 147.3 km/h (91.5 mph) in 2018, well below average by MLB standards. Kikuchi’s mid-80s slider, however, could be a legitimate swing-and-miss pitch in the majors, featuring sweeping horizontal movement and a slight but sharp drop as it reaches the plate.
Mechanically, Kikuchi’s best feature is an extremely flexible left shoulder which allows him to hide the ball as long as possible before release, which allows both his fastball and his offspeed stuff to play up. Kikuchi’s shoulder, however, acted up on him in 2018, causing him to endure a DL stint in May. One hopes that Kikuchi will not have to alter his mechanics in order to compensate for shoulder pain, as he will need every bit of deception that his delivery creates in order to succeed in the majors with his fastball velocity.
As with any other NPB export, it’s hard to tell how well Kikuchi will transition to the majors, but we can make educated guesses by comparing his numbers to other recent arms who have made the jump. In terms of NPB track record, Kikuchi lacks the long stretches of dominance in Japanese baseball that predecessors such as Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, or Kenta Maeda had demonstrated. Nor does he have the shorter but eye-popping peaks that the likes of Shohei Ohtani and Miles Mikolas had prior to their departures.
Kikuchi’s performance level is comparable to that of Hiroki Kuroda’s before he was posted, but Kuroda had a long track record of durability that Kikuchi does not have. Plus, Kuroda is rare in that his numbers didn’t really change after transitioning to MLB — expecting such consistency from Kikuchi would be unrealistic. In short, Kikuchi’s NPB career, while impressive on its own, pales in comparison to what his MLB predecessors have done. Therefore, expecting him to perform like recent NPB graduates might be a bit harsh. Kikuchi has the talent to be a credible MLB starting pitcher, but in all likelihood he’ll look more like a number three or four, not a number two.
If my assessment of Kikuchi is correct, then the Yankees would be foolish to make him the sole target of their offseason. In a top-heavy market for starting pitchers, however, Kikuchi is a relatively young and talented option in tier B. If Kikuchi’s price tag is reasonable enough - which I suspect it will be, given his durability concerns and lesser resume compared to his predecessors - the Yankees should pounce.