TOKOROZAWA, SAITAMA PREF. - Yusei Kikuchi might be in the major leagues right now if he’d chosen differently.
He drew a lot of interest from MLB clubs while at Iwate Prefecture’s Hanamaki Higashi High School in 2009, but decided to begin his career in Japan. Now just a few years later, the Seibu Lions left-hander is blossoming into one of NPB’s best young arms.
“As I’ve experienced things as a professional, I’ve gradually realized various things, such as, ‘Oh, I can’t throw this pitch to this particular batter’ or ‘I shouldn’t think this way in this situation,’ ” Kikuchi told the Japan Times on Saturday at Seibu Dome. “These are mental things. I have more composure and confidence now.”
Kikuchi has been lights out for Seibu this year with an 8-2 record and Japan-best 1.30 ERA in 83⅓ innings over 12 starts. Opponents are hitting .182 against the 22-year-old, who has struck out 72 and thrown three shutouts — the most recent coming against the Chunichi Dragons on June 12, when he was within two outs of a no-hitter.
“He’s going to keep getting better,” said the Orix Buffaloes’ Aarom Baldiris, the current Pacific League RBI leader. “Last year, he missed a lot. This year, he’s throwing more strikes and he has more control. He’s a better pitcher this year.”
Kikuchi is pitching at this level despite recent revelations that NPB secretly made the official ball more lively, which has led to an increase in offense.
“If you throw good pitches, you don’t get hit,” Kikuchi said. “If you throw bad pitches, you get hit. It’s no different no matter what kind of ball you use.”
Kikuchi has been an integral piece for the Lions, who are 33-30-1 and fourth in the PL, four games behind the first-place Chiba Lotte Marines.
Kikuchi has enjoyed his early success, but says his personal goal is to reach at least 10 wins, which hopefully helps Seibu capture a championship.
Beyond this year, Kikuchi says, “My ambition is to become the Lions’ ace and be one of the best left-handed pitchers in Japan. Of course, If there is a chance to play in America I would like to, but I don’t have that ability yet. I would like to keep working to reach that.”
Kikuchi almost didn’t make it to NPB.
Many thought he’d bypass Japan after MLB scouts took notice during the 2009 National High School Baseball Tournament, where his fastball sat in the upper 140s and hit 154, a record for left-handers.
Kikuchi met with eight MLB clubs and all 12 NPB teams that fall, amid outcry from some in Japanese baseball circles who feared he’d head straight to the U.S.
Ultimately, he entered the NPB draft, where the Lions won a six-team lottery for the right to negotiate with him.
“I have no regrets whatsoever that I chose Japanese baseball,” Kikuchi said. “I think it was the right thing to do. I have such great veterans around me and this is a good environment.”
History repeated last fall, when another highly-touted Hanamaki player, Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters rookie Shohei Otani, went through virtually the same experience.
“I told him, ‘If you play with others’ expectations in mind, you’ll have regrets, so you should go the way you believe is right,’ ” Kikuchi said.
Kikuchi debuted in 2011 and had a pedestrian start to his career — he was 4-1 with a 4.14 ERA as a rookie and 4-3, 3.10, last year — as he dealt with health issues and tweaked his mechanics.
Because of a light workload (81⅓ innings) in 2012, he only took three days off after the season before beginning his preparations for 2013.
He focused on weight training initially, then began to fine tune his arsenal, which includes a fastball, slider, curveball, and, with increasing frequency, a change-up. He pegged the heater as his best pitch.
“I feel I need to improve my breaking balls,” he said. “I would also like to work on my command and throw breaking balls, such as change-ups or curves, when I’m behind in the count, even 3-0.”
Mentally, Kikuchi doesn’t allow himself to look beyond his next pitch during starts, which has aided his performance.
“I try not to think too much about pitching well and winning,” Kikuchi said. “I’m just focusing on every single pitch rather than overall performance.
“Sometimes I struggle early in games, but I try to make adjustments by pitching between innings.”
Whatever he’s doing is working, because he’s pitching like an ace.
Among his teammates, Kazuhisa Makita has been much better than his 4-4 record, Hideaki Wakui and Takayuki Kishi have been mostly ineffective, while Ryoma Nogami and Ken Togame have been solid to good.
Kikuchi, meanwhile, has separated himself from the pack.
“You can’t perform well all the time,” Kikuchi said, “but even when you’re having a bad time, you still have to give your team a chance to win. When your team can’t afford to lose, you need to give it a better chance to win. That’s what I think an ace does, and that’s the level I’d like to reach.”