Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Seibu ace Yusei Kikuchi refuses to rest on laurels

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Yusei Kikuchi has put last year behind him. All the wins, the career numbers and accolades, firmly in the rearview mirror. His brush with the Sawamura Award, now just a fond memory.

“Last year was last year, and this year is this year,” Kikuchi told The Japan Times in a suite high above the field at Seibu’s MetLife Dome on Saturday afternoon. “I think it’s important to make that distinction because winning is not guaranteed. So I’ve been practicing over the offseason in order to have better numbers.”

The Lions ace is entering his eighth NPB season. He’ll make his third straight opening day start when the Lions face the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters on Friday at Sapporo Dome. The left-hander’s career had an up-and-down start before his first double-digit win season in 2016. That turned out to be merely the warm-up for a 2017 that was off the charts.

Kikuchi, who went 16-6 last season, made 26 starts and led the league with a 1.97 ERA and 0.91 WHIP over 187⅔ innings. He tied the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks’ Nao Higashihama for the league lead in wins and was second to the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ Takahiro Norimoto with 217 strikeouts and a 2.51 fielding independent pitching average. He was fourth among all NPB pitchers with a 5.9 WAR (per Data Stadium).

This year he wants to go even further. Reaching 200 innings is among his goals and he also wants to attack hitters with a better mix of pitches. Per Data Stadium’s numbers, Kikuchi threw his fastball 56.4 percent of the time and his slider 28.5 percent. His curveball, change-up and forkball all came in under 10 percent.

“I almost always threw fastballs and sliders last season,” Kikuchi said. “I’ve been practicing my curve and with a two-seamer this year. I’ve been able to have better control the more I’ve thrown and I think I’m gradually getting better as the season gets closer.”

Improved command has been one of the keys to Kikuchi’s rise over the past few seasons.

“My first year, I felt like when I faced him, he always had a good arm and good stuff, I feel like he struggled with command that year,” said Fighters infielder Brandon Laird, who made his NPB debut in 2015. “In the last two years, he’s turned it around big time. He’s throwing strikes, throwing hard and his breaking balls are good.”

Kikuchi said he’s focused his training on finding a balance between gaining more power but being able to still pitch with control. Most batters he faced in 2017 would probably say he’s achieved his goal.

“I faced him last year. He has a very good fastball, he throws very hard,” said Swallows slugger Wladimir Balentien. “He had nice control. He had good stuff. He’s a good pitcher.”

Despite his success, Kikuchi remains on the lookout for ways to evolve.

Raw power was his calling card at Iwate’s Hanamaki Higashi High School, where he preceded Shohei Ohtani and caught the attention of scouts, from both MLB and NPB, with a blistering fastball. His fastball has remained a constant — he had an average velocity of 148.6 kph last season, third-highest in the PL and fastest among all NPB lefties — but even that has required fine-tuning.

“When I hurt my shoulder a few years back, I reviewed my form,” Kikuchi said. “Since then, I’ve been trying to get more vertical rotation with my shoulder. I used to move laterally, and threw hard, but the injury changed my mind set.”

He hasn’t just relied on the fastball, having worked to also refine his other pitches.

“It’s electric stuff,” said Lions pitcher Brian Wolfe. “And he’s only getting better as he goes because he’s refining his pitches, he’s adapting and changing a couple of grips. It’s definitely special.”

Kikuchi studied other pitchers in his youth, paying particular attention to their deliveries and offspeed pitches. As a left-hander, he was drawn to Kazuhisa Ishii, who began his career with the Yakult Swallows before pitching in the majors, for the Dodgers and Mets, and later alongside Kikuchi at Seibu.

“I really liked him when I was a child,” Kikuchi said.

Currently he counts Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw as his favorite pitcher.

“That’s who I watch the most,” Kikuchi said. “He has a great slider, a great curveball and fastball and I like the way he can overwhelm hitters with the three pitches.”

Kikuchi actually spent part of this past offseason in Los Angeles, where he trained with Wolfe — though he eschewed American cuisine for Japanese food while Stateside.

“The talent is there,” Wolfe said. “He’s blessed with that arm. But he works hard, the same as Darvish and Ohtani, they’re hard workers and it looks like it translates pretty well for them.”

Kikuchi is also mindful of ways to improve his training regimen, which has mostly remained the same with minor tweaks.

“I mainly do the same things like full squats, dumbbell presses, and chin-ups,” he said. “I haven’t changed those things, but I am doing other small things now. I trained in the United States this offseason and I’ve studied some of the theories there, looking at how they’d be beneficial to me.”

There are many who believe Kikuchi is on his way toward joining Darvish and Ohtani, and also Kershaw, in MLB sooner rather than later. While he’s expressed a desire to make the move, it’s not a subject he wants to broach now that the season is here.

“He’s a real dominant pitcher,” Laird said. “That’s who I’m trying to get ready for, for opening day. I feel like he’s going to have a good chance to be successful in the major leagues too.”

There will be suitors whenever he decides to make the move, which some think could happen either after this season or the next.

“Many teams feel he could be a fit around the back end of a rotation,” said one MLB scout. “He has the velocity and secondary pitches to compete in that role.”

For now, Kikuchi is focused on his role as the Lions ace. The player who, perhaps more than any other, carries the hopes of the Seibu faithful on his shoulders.

“Historically, the ace has been able to lead the team to the pennant, but I haven’t been able do it yet,” Kikuchi said. “As for this year, I believe doing that is the biggest thing I can do for the fans. I really want to do my best.”