On Friday night at Tokyo Dome, the Seibu Lions and Yomiuri Giants each sent their ace to the mound, creating a marquee matchup of the Lions’ Yusei Kikuchi vs. the Kyojin‘s Tomoyuki Sugano.
Unsurprisingly, it drew some “major” attention.
Sitting among the 45,533 fans were scouts from the Diamondbacks, Indians, (San Francisco) Giants, Mariners, Phillies, Pirates, Red Sox, Tigers and other major league teams.
Kikuchi, last season’s Sawamura Award runner-up behind Sugano, got the better of Friday’s matchup, tossing seven two-hit innings with three strikeouts, and three walks, in the win.
“He’s not the biggest guy, but he knows how to pitch,” said one of the MLB scouts. “He can establish the fastball and set up the secondary stuff and he throws all his pitches for strikes. He’s got a good feel for what he’s doing, just like Sugano does.”
Sugano, conversely, had a rough night. The right-hander was taken deep on his third pitch of the game and allowed five runs — four earned — in five innings. Sugano, who struck out three and walked one, is 6-4 with a 2.30 ERA this season.
“I’ve seen him better than he was tonight,” the scout said. “He’s got four pitches for strikes. He’s got a good enough fastball to set-up his other stuff. He’s got a good feel where he can throw any pitch anytime. He wasn’t sharp tonight. He might have been tired. Maybe he’s been throwing a lot of pitches over the last couple months and tonight was one night where he was a little bit tired.
“I think a lot of people like him, that’s why there’s a good amount of scouts in town to see him.”
Kikuchi said he’d expected a big crowd at Tokyo Dome, but neither that nor the matchup against Sugano was enough to throw him off course.
“I wasn’t really concerned with the (pitching) matchup,” Kikuchi said afterward. “I wanted to get stronger and play with tenacity.”
Kikuchi, who improved to 7-0 and lowered his ERA to 2.95, is expected to be the first of the two to reach MLB. Some think it could be as early as this offseason via the posting system.
Kikuchi, a 26-year-old left-hander, is in his eighth season and has a 66-42 career record and 2.72 ERA. His career walks plus hits per innings pitched is 1.17 and averages in the upper 140s kph (low 90s mph) with his fastball.
If he decides to make the jump the 26-year-old, who calls Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw his favorite player, won’t lack for suitors.
“He’s a lefty first of all,” said Lions slugger Ernesto Mejia. “He’s got pretty good stuff. He’s got a good fastball, good slider and a good changeup. He likes to play, he likes to compete. He takes every single pitch seriously. I think his focus, and the really good stuff that he has, is a big key.”
Sugano has had a more consistent career. He’s in his sixth season and is 67-37 with a 2.19 ERA. Sugano has been fairly durable, with 966⅓ career innings pitched (Kikuchi has logged 902), and the 28-year-old has a career 1.02 WHIP.
Friday just wasn’t his night.
“It’s my fault that we lost,” Sugano told reporters afterward.
If Sugano harbors MLB aspirations, he may have to wait until at least 2021, when he could earn international free agency rights, as Yomiuri doesn’t post players.
As Friday’s turnout showed, the pair remain firmly on the MLB radar.
“Kikuchi has got solid stuff and he’s left-handed, that’s always going to be attractive,” the scout said. “The guys who seem to have had success, have something that distinguishes them. Like (Diamondbacks pitcher Yoshihisa) Hirano has the split. Kikuchi, I’m not sure what it is right now. I like the total package, but I’m not sure what stands apart.”
There was a similar sentiment about Sugano.
“He’s an ability guy, throws all his pitches for strikes,” the scout said. “I look for things that make me think he’s a no-brainer for success. There are a lot of things that say he’s going to be successful, but he doesn’t have the (Yu) Darvish or (Shohei) Ohtani presence maybe.”
Even with teams locked in on Kikuchi and Sugano, the early showings by Ohtani, before a UCL sprain sent him to the DL, and Hirano in MLB already has scouts looking to see who could potentially be next.
“It’s not only Ohtani, it’s Hirano going over and pitching well,” the scout said. “That adds creditability. When you look at who has gone over the last few years, and then add (Masahiro) Tanaka to that list, (Hiroki) Kuroda, now there’s a real body of work there.”