Yusei Kikuchi and The M’s Pitching Plan

marc w · January 4, 2019 at 5:46 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t see the M’s as a major player to land Yusei Kikuchi. Something about the way the Shohei Ohtani saga ended combined with general Mariners-specific pessimism made me think the M’s weren’t serious players, even as rumblings through December made it sound like they were. And here we are: the M’s signed the Japanese lefty to an interesting contract for anywhere between 3/$43 million to 7/$109 million. He’s got an opt-out after three years, but the M’s can void it by essentially signing him to a pre-agreed 4-year extension. As M’s fans, we’re all hoping that’s what the M’s do. If Kikuchi hits his ceiling and stays healthy, it’d be awesome to have him stick around for his early 30s. So, the question is: how can the M’s keep him healthy and effective?

The M’s sat down with Kikuchi’s agent, Scott Boras, and appear to have a plan to limit his innings in his first year in MLB. As Greg Johns article describes, the plan would be to use him as an opener every 5 or so starts, or about once a month. So, he starts like normal for 4 starts, and then on his fifth start, he pitches only the first inning or about 30 pitches. That limits pitches, innings, and keeps him fresh for the difficult transition between Japan’s 6-man rotations/one start per week and the US’s 5-man rotations.

That barrier, the additional high-stress pitches that accumulate over a longer season with more starts, has proven a difficult one to navigate for pitchers from Japan. Shohei Ohtani’s merely the latest pitcher to undergo Tommy John after coming over, joining Yu Darvish, Hisashi Iwakuma, Daisuke Matsuzaka and others. Masahiro Tanaka avoided the knife, but missed time with other arm injuries and seems to have some elbow injuries that simply haven’t necessitated surgery. Iwakuma and Kenta Maeda have had shoulder issues before coming over, and that’s factored into their usage in the US (think of Kuma’s initial usage as a reliever, and Maeda’s role as swingman this year for the Dodgers). Kikuchi’s had shoulder problems in the recent past as well, so thinking about how best to keep him healthy makes sense.

On paper, I’ve got no real complaint about the M’s plan. It’d be interesting to see how it would work, and what pitcher would pick up the innings that Kikuchi cedes as an opener – Johns’ article mentions using a youngster like Justus Sheffield the way the Rays used ex-M’s prospect Ryan Yarbrough as a somewhat gentler introduction to an MLB rotation, but they could also use them as true bullpen days once we figure out who’s actually in the M’s bullpen (Jerry Dipoto is, as always, looking for FA relievers at the moment). That said, I keep thinking that they may have missed an opportunity here.

There’s no real way to say for certain that a 6-man rotation results in higher average velocity for pitchers, but it seems clear that essentially every Japanese pitcher loses velocity when they come to the US. I say it’s impossible to pin it on the additional starts because our pool of pitchers is still too small, and then there’s the difference in the physical ball to contend with PLUS the fact that the ball itself has changed a few times *within each country* over the past 5 or so years. So this is all noisy as hell, but it’s pretty consistent. Kikuchi apparently sat 92, touching 95 in Japan, but I feel pretty comfortable taking the under on that even with the M’s innings-limit plan. Moreover, if Kikuchi loses velocity in 2019 due to the new workload or any other factor, he’ll have plenty of company. Mike Leake is coming off a year where his velocity was over a full MPH lower than the previous season. Marco Gonzales got attention for throwing harder post-TJ rehab in 2017, but those gains didn’t follow him into 2018. Felix Hernandez…you know all about Felix Hernandez’s velocity trends. The entire team has seen their velo drop, and sat comfortably at the bottom in average FB velocity last year.

With that context, if you’re trying to accomodate someone who’s used to 6-man rotations, why not – stay with me here – use a 6-man rotation? The Angels sort of tried with Ohtani, and sure, that didn’t save his elbow, but he sat at 97 MPH with his fastball. Literally every member of the M’s rotation, and every *potential* member of the M’s rotation, could stand an extra day of rest, because they could all use an extra tick on their fastball. The M’s have tried everything with Felix, from belittling him to having him do special off-season workouts to working with a peak performance trainer they hired and then got sued by. Surely, trying an extra day of rest every week is in order?

The opener strategy has the value of getting Kikuchi ready to be a “regular” member of a traditional rotation in his second year, and there’s value in trying to get additional innings out of a good pitcher. But while they don’t have a ton of depth at starter, I think they’re actually better positioned to go with a 6-man rotation than a series of bullpen days. Adding an extra pitcher would enable them to control the innings of every pitcher, which would make breaking in a Sheffield or Erik Swanson easier. Going whole hog enables them to assess the impact it has on their veterans, too. Wade LeBlanc, an ex-teammate of Kikuchi’s in Japan, is obviously familiar with the role, and I think it would help Leake, should Leake somehow make it to March on this roster. Moreover, they’re not really expected to contend in 2019, so I’d think there’d be less pressure to ride your top 2-3 pitchers down the stretch. If this year’s really about development, that make it about development, and not just Kikuchi’s adjustment to MLB.

As a FB/SL pitcher, Kikuchi needs to get every MPH he can get. Hisashi Iwakuma’s brilliant splitter reduced his dependence on velo, and Iwakuma struggled with slider consistency in the US after being known for his slider in Japan. Sliders see more of a drop-off in effectiveness as measured by average wOBA-against at lower velocities than do splitters/change-ups. Sliders lose effectiveness as they get slower, with sliders in the upper 80s having wOBA against in the mid .250s, but .300s in the high-70s. Change-ups are great at high velocities *and* very low velocities, though they’re worse in the middle ground than sliders (data from baseballsavant). Thus, in addition to limiting innings, the M’s need to keep an eye on Kikuchi’s velocity, and limiting his rest – even if they give him a short start each month – seems a less-than-idea way to do that.

This isn’t to suggest that the plan’s a dumb idea. They presumably worked it out with Kikuchi himself, and if he prefers it, well then, so do I. But the M’s need to do something pretty dramatically different to fix the hole left by James Paxton. They’ve got youth, and they’ve got depth, albeit not exactly bankable depth. Trying a 6-man rotation – really, actually committing to it – would be great to see, and it would herald a new approach to development at the big league level. I’d think it’d make them an attractive place to pitch for every subsequent pitcher that gets posted from the NPB as well. In any event, Kikuchi makes the M’s better in 2019 and beyond, and even the limited opener-based strategy will be fun to watch. But when you’re trying to catch up with the Astros/Yankees/Red Sox of the world – even if you don’t need to show it at the big league level in 2019 – you need to be open to radically transforming how you align your team. I’m still stunned that no team has given this a shot.


23 Responses to “Yusei Kikuchi and The M’s Pitching Plan”

  1. LongDistance on January 5th, 2019 3:58 am

    The best people in an organization, whether managers, partners, employees, or consultants, are those who can not only identify real problems but always accompany the criticism with a solution. That’s why I like coming here. I wouldn’t have thought of the 6-man… but it makes sense. A lot of sense. But are they sensible?

  2. Stevemotivateir on January 5th, 2019 11:44 am

    Call me crazy, but if someone like Elias or Swanson ends up relieving Kikuchi on those 5th starts, is it really much different than a 6-man rotation?

    If they’re able to go 5+ innings, it wouldn’t seem like a true bullpen day.

  3. drw on January 5th, 2019 12:14 pm

    This is an interesting thought experiment, but not sure if I understand the end game. Would the Ms stay long term with a 6 man rotation or would the idea to do this in 2019 and perhaps 2020 but transition back to 5 man rotation in 2021? In the latter case you are spreading the transition for Kikuchi out over a few years, which may be beneficial, but still expecting him eventually to be an every 5 day starter. In the former, you have 6 starters and . . . what does that do to your roster construction? Teams are already pitcher heavy, does this help, hurt, or neither?

  4. sexymarinersfan on January 5th, 2019 12:55 pm

    It may be that Kikuchi is on a 6-man. The rest are for 5. You just push Kikuchi back an extra day, and keep everyone else as scheduled, or have a bullpen day.

  5. bookbook on January 5th, 2019 4:33 pm

    I think the point is to try it in 2019 and see if the 6-man provides a longterm edge. If Yusei, Leake, Gonzales, and Felix gain velocity/an edge by pitching on a six-man rotation, it’s more than worth giving up the second loogy or the second roogy that every bullpen features these days. With Sheffield, Swanson, Dunn coming along, there’s enough starting, non-star talent to play it out and see if it worked. If the M’s gained an edge and signed an extra 2 or 3 Japanese league star pitchers every decade, that alone would justify the strategy. A team with prime Chris Sale or another top-twenty pitcher would feel they have too much risk to even contemplate such a strategy, short or long term. The M’s have no such qualms.

  6. Longgeorge1 on January 8th, 2019 8:41 pm

    There is no downside to spreading out the starts for any of the M’s pitchers this year as when I check the standings this season and look for Seattle I will start at the bottom. Why burn out any member of your staff in an attempt to reach 70 wins? This is a year to evaluate the moves that have been and will be made and then add to the mix after this season or maybe as the trade deadline approaches in July. On a night to night basis I expect the team to go out and try to win each night. But decisions involving playing time and roster alignment have to be made with an eye to 2020 or ’21 as we have basically already conceded this year and quite possibly may have to face reality in ’20.

  7. mksh21 on January 14th, 2019 7:30 am

    I have no problem with anything the M’s do this year as long as it’s an epic tank job.

    As far as 6 man rotations and one inning starts… I think baseball should go back to a 154 game schedule but keep the actual season length the same with those 8 less games being more off days. Fewer games, more rest, 8 starts on 6 days for all pitchers, or pitching a guy on 5 during those if someone has to miss a turn would hopefully table the need for the middle relievers pitching an entire game strategy.

  8. Stevemotivateir on January 16th, 2019 5:46 pm

    ^Then you should have quite a big problem, because the Mariners aren’t tanking.

    They’ll be worse, but there’s too much talent on the team to tank.

  9. mrakbaseball on January 17th, 2019 4:13 am

    I don’t see baseball ever going back to a 154-game schedule. There’s zero incentive to do it, less gate and less live television content. The owners would never approve.

  10. LongDistance on January 17th, 2019 6:09 am

    Expectations are pretty low, to say the least. But will they be the worst? To say that, is to almost flip things on their head, when the usual consideration is how close to the best is your team. Will they outdo Baltimore class of ’18? No. Although who’s to say how far they will be from the O’s, who come June will be the best college team in the MLB. Zero Pressure. I expect a few surprises, but no consistent, rolling surprises like last year, and inconsistent surprises don’t add up to a season by any measure. What I’m hoping to see is visible development, judicial management, and meaningful decisions in June. As for end July, pickups will be meaningless, and we’ve got nothing to put on the block, IMO, that doesn’t resemble deck chair scrambling in search of … what? … atmosphere? Color that date: colorless. I’m going, but this year I’m not accepting any more tickets situated in the visitors section. Not even freebies. If I’m going to have to commiserate, I prefer it among my own. In peace.

  11. mksh21 on January 17th, 2019 6:35 am

    If dumping/losing Cruz, Cano, Paxton, Segura, Zunino, Diaz etc. leaves this team with too much major league talent then I’ll eat my hat. Could be wrong; Bruce and Encarnacion could be primed for huge breakout years! This is and should be an epic disaster with anything of value over 30 dumped at the trade deadline. Hopefully we dont go 50 and 1 in one run games.

  12. eponymous coward on January 17th, 2019 11:03 am

    If dumping/losing Cruz, Cano, Paxton, Segura, Zunino, Diaz etc. leaves this team with too much major league talent then I’ll eat my hat.

    Mitch Haniger, Mallex Smith, Omar Narvaez, Yusei Kikuchi, Mike Leake, Marco Gonzales and Kyle Seager all say “hi”. This isn’t a Cubs/Astros “we’re razing the franchise and we expect to win 50 games for the next few years while we play a AAA team” teardown. This is a lot closer to what Billy Beane does when he decides the A’s are not going for it in a particular year- not bereft of talent, but enough holes that just getting to .500 would be a challenge. This team is a low to mid 70’s WAR true talent team- somewhat worse than last year’s team, but the reality is that last year’s team was really a HIGH 70’s-low 80’s true talent team, but got an 89-73 record because they hit a hot streak at the right time.

    If they got really unlucky on injuries/development (say Haniger blows a knee in spring training, lots of injuries to regulars, Mallex regresses, nobody in the minors takes a step forward), sure, it could be a disaster. But let’s say Seager and Dee Gordon bounce back, Haniger takes another step, Kikuchi/Gonzales/Leake are all credible starters, Mallex Smith is perfectly fine, maybe Justus Sheffield blazes in midseason from AAA and has a good 3 months with not a ton of adjustment needed, the bullpen is OK for what it is (not great but OK enough, since finding bullpen help is not too hard on the fly), you could squint and see them .500ish, like the A’s do some years when they have a “meh” roster but catch some breaks on development and injuries.

    Fundamentally what DiPoto is trying to do is be in contention in 2020-2021; that’s what he’s saying in the press and it agrees with what he’s done on the roster- this isn’t a completely stripped down roster, because if it was Haniger and Gonzales would be gone for whatever they could fetch, and you wouldn’t bother with Kikuchi. You can’t contend in 2020-2021 by winning 50 games in 2019 because you can’t manufacture 40 wins of true talent in one or two years. Ten to twenty game improvements in a single season are tough, but not impossible (teams bust out from high 70’s to high 80s-low 90’s all the time). Going from 50 to 90 in one to two years is a pipe dream. That’s a multi-year rebuild after a complete roster implosion.

  13. LongDistance on January 17th, 2019 1:03 pm

    E.cow: good remark. And it’s true what you said. Dipoto didn’t go nuke, and has held onto a laudable foundation.

  14. eponymous coward on January 17th, 2019 3:47 pm

    Thanks, but I’m not sure it’s laudable. Haniger/Gonzales/Smith/Sheffield/Crawford/Kikuchi/Santana strikes me more like “it’s plausible they could be part of a good team”, but it’s not sufficient to get over the hump. Meanwhile, tick-tock on his career as M’s GM.

    More like that DiPoto’s put himself in position to make signings or extend arb-eligible players should he want to for 2020/2021 (the M’s could go big on some singings if they wanted), and if the minors actually produce some talent to go with the existing players + FAs or anywhere where we take salary, it could work.

    Given how this offseason has looked, the M’s could be buyers instead of tire-kickers if 2019-2020 has a similar slow offseason.

  15. LongDistance on January 18th, 2019 11:48 pm

    I should have defined laudable. For 2019… I’d put it at the chance in winning somewhere between 1 in 4 and 1 in 3 of their starts. Bleak, I know. Worse even than the crappiest hand in poker, a pair, which sits at 42 percent. But, as I said, their win percentage won’t be what I’ll be watching, and certainly not on the days I actually go to Place Your Ad Here Field.

  16. eponymous coward on January 19th, 2019 7:29 am

    That doesn’t sound right at all: that IS an epic tank job, 40-50 win team. .250-.333 winning percentage.

    They lost some true talent wins but remember, Cano was gone half the year, and it’s not like everyone coming back (or Kikuchi) is a complete stiff who has never had/never will have a MLB career. This is more on the “worse than mediocre but not terrible” side of bad.

  17. kennyb on January 19th, 2019 10:28 am

    I don’t understand the people that think this team is tanking.
    They must believe that last year’s team was truly an 89 win talent team. That is just absurd.
    Did they trade some of their better players? Yes, they did. But if you acknowledge that they were more of an 80 win team last year how well were they positioned for this year? Not well at all.
    Diaz was spectacular, but of no real use on a non-contender. Paxton was spectacular as well, but again, probably not going to be there when/if the team is really ready to contend. Segura? I feel they could have done better on that trade. Cano was fine when playing but getting out from under that contract was huge for future years. Do you think the Angels would have held on to Pulols after 2015 or 2016 if they could have dumped his remaining money? I don’t.
    People need to look at the whole picture, including the minors. They went from one of the 2 or 3 worst systems to middle of the pack. Middle of the pack isn’t going to win you anything but you have to take incremental steps. Maybe if they really wanted to tank they could have gotten up to top 7 or 8 systems if they were to trade Haniger, but they think they can get back to long term viability while he is still under control.

  18. Stevemotivateir on January 19th, 2019 2:45 pm

    mksh21, take a hard look at the rosters and 2018 records for Baltimore, Detroit, Miami, and Kansas city. Those are some examples of “epic disasters”.

    Now, take a look at Seattle’s roster as it currently sits, then try to argue that Seattle’s in the same camp as those clubs.

  19. LongDistance on January 20th, 2019 5:25 am

    Tanking, failure, catastrophic results… are all definitions linked to higher expectations. We’ve all lived through years of M’s pre-season hype. And despite all our seam-head (attrib.: Art Thiel) doubts, through half-hearted belief, or watching-through-fingers suspended belief, we’ve hoped. Result: as noted.
    This year, we’re not getting any of that shellac. For once. At least not yet. We’re in clear rebuilding, or call it what you want. But anything but a pennant chaser. There are goals, but even the .500, butts-in-seats, mode, doesn’t seem part of the winter discussion. IMO, they are being refreshingly honest, saying we’re now in a process rather than a delivery system.
    I can live with that. Honesty: I can live with.
    The college draft will be a major interest.
    Performance, even in terms of rehab or tradeability, will be fascinating.
    Guys getting a major chance to make breakout years as Major Leaguers. What could be better to watch than that?
    But their W-L record, for me, will be secondary. Totally.
    They’ll of course still have to figure out how to do Bobble-head Nights, and the M’s Hall of Fame Night…. But that’s the Connie Mack side of it (which I appreciate, I do). And I’ll show up. Jaded, isn’t baseball.
    I’m perfectly prepared to be surprised. But not disappointed… for the second year in a row.
    I haven’t been able to say that in a long time.
    Go M’s!

  20. mksh21 on January 21st, 2019 9:51 am

    The Mariners will suck this year. The farm system will be fixed. Payroll will be reduced and hopefully all vets making money will be gone for more lottery tickets. This is what is needed and it’s going to be ugly but the right move. Tank.

  21. Stevemotivateir on January 23rd, 2019 7:27 pm

    ^Payroll isn’t much lower than it was last season; projections suggest .500 is in reach as the roster stands.

    Go learn what tanking is.

  22. mksh21 on January 25th, 2019 9:55 am

    Go learn what making people not post here because you are uniformed obnoxious wind bag is. You’ve been wrong about everything you’ve ever posted or predicted with the projections you use and I do my best to ignore you and enjoy others who actually know what they are talking about.

  23. Stevemotivateir on January 28th, 2019 7:05 am

    ^And there you go, continuing to show your ignorance. If you had actually read through the comments, you would have known that eponymous coward and kennyb put you in your place as well.

    But don’t take anyone’s word for anything. Take a good, hard look at the payroll figures yourself, as well as the roster and the projections.

    Then continue to stubbornly assume you know better and resort to more name-calling.

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