When earning a spot on the American League All-Star team was first mentioned as a possibility and that his manager was advocating for him, Yusei Kikuchi’s face turned red with humility.
Though grateful for the sentiment and proud of his performance, the idea of playing in the mid-summer classic as one of the best players in Major League Baseball is something he simply couldn’t talk about or even think about.
And even Sunday afternoon, shortly after Scott Servais held a team meeting to inform Kikuchi he was the Mariners’ lone All-Star Game selection, the sheepishness returned and tears welled up in his eyes.
“First off, I’m extremely happy, just very happy to hear this news,” he said through interpreter Kevin Ando. “And more importantly, I just feel really thankful for my teammates, coaches and just everyone being there for me, and my family just always supporting me through the ups and downs, especially my first two years here. I’m just really, really thankful for everyone supporting me.”
He showed similar emotion in the team meeting.
“He kind of put his head down,” Servais said. “He did get up and talk to the whole group, which I thought was fantastic. Thanking everybody, he got very emotional. As he said to the group, ‘I’ve had my struggles here for a couple years, but you guys have helped me along the way.'”
This is Kikuchi’s first All-Star selection in Major League Baseball. He was a three-time All-Star selection in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball while playing for the Saitama Seibu Lions in 2013, 2017 and 2018.
Kikuchi, 30, has been the Mariners’ best pitcher this season and one of the top left-handed pitchers in baseball.
In 15 starts, he is 6-3 with a 3.18 ERA, 93 strikeouts and 31 walks in 93 1/3 innings. Of those 15 starts, 11 have been quality starts of six-plus innings pitched and three or fewer runs allowed, which is tied for the most of any left-handed starter in the AL and tied for the most in MLB with Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw.
In his past 11 starts, Kikuchi is 6-2 with a 2.33 ERA (18 ER) with 22 walks and 73 strikeouts in 69 2/3 innings. Over that span, he’s held opponents to a .173 batting average, which is the lowest in the AL.
His performance and ability to pitch deep into games has been vital for a Mariners six-man starting rotation that has been decimated by injuries this season and a bullpen that has been used heavily to fill in those open rotation days.
The All-Star selection also is a nod to Kikuchi’s work ethic and commitment to his craft. Signed to a four-year, $58 million contract before the 2019 season as the top free-agent pitcher coming out of Japan, Kikuchi struggled in his rookie season, finding it difficult to adapt to the higher level of baseball that featured lineups filled with power-laden opposing batters and the shift from pitching every sixth day to every fifth day.
He struggled to find consistent velocity with his pitches and a quality grip on the MLB baseball, which had smaller seams and a more slippy cover. He tinkered constantly with his mechanics to find velocity and listened to all advice, sometimes to negative results. He feared contact, nibbled on the edges for strikeouts and lacked pitch efficiency. For every solid game, which included a complete-game shutout in Toronto and 10-strikeout game in Cleveland, he would have at least two poor outings. It resulted in a 6-11 record and 5.46 ERA in 32 starts with 116 strikeouts, 50 walks and 36 homers allowed in 161 1/3 innings.
After the frustration of that season, Kikuchi committed himself to finding cleaner mechanics and more consistent velocity. After consultation with the Mariners’ pitching coaches, he went to Driveline Inc. in Kent to work with its staff. It produced a set of simplified mechanics and a shorter arm stroke that reestablished a fastball velocity in the mid- to high-90s and his cutter velocity up to the low-90s.
The increased velocity didn’t produce immediate results in the COVID-shortened 2020 season. He couldn’t harness the new power of his pitches, showing minimal command or execution in nine starts. He had a 2-4 record with a 5.17 ERA with 47 strikeouts and 20 walks in just 47 innings. He threw first-pitch strikes to just 50% of the batters he faced and never pitched more than six innings in a game.
“He really wasn’t executing to the level that we thought he could,” Servais said.
But Kikuchi remained dedicated to the mechanics and spent the entire offseason trying to find consistency that would lead to command. It included throwing off the mound by November and up to four bullpen sessions a week. He made them more than just muscle memory.
He arrived at spring training this year comfortable with the mechanics and confident in his command. But following back-to-back poor outings in April, he added a changeup held with a split-finger grip, taught to him by Hisashi Iwakuma. The former Mariners All-Star pitcher and current special assignment coach urged Kikuchi to use it to offset the high-velocity fastball and cutter and complement his slider.
“Yusei is always trying to get better,” Servais said. “And that’s kind of been our theme around here the last couple years — ‘doesn’t matter, get better.’ He’s got a ton of confidence. He knows he’s a part of our ballclub going forward. Now he really is the leader of our staff and every time he goes out there, he’s expected to go deep in the game and win the ballgame.”
Kikuchi is the 14th Japanese-born player to be selected to participate in a Major League Baseball All-Star Game. He joins Ichiro (10 times), Yu Darvish (five), Hideki Matsui (two), Kazuhiro Sasaki (two), Masahiro Tanaka (two), Hideo Nomo, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Hideki Okajima, Takashi Saito, Kosuke Fukudome, Iwakuma, Koji Uehara and Shohei Ohtani.
Of the 14 Japanese-born players to make an MLB All-Star roster, five have been in a Seattle uniform: Ichiro, Sasaki, Kikuchi, Hasegawa and Iwakuma.
Servais was irritated with J.P. Crawford not being selected. The Mariners shortstop has been Seattle’s best player over the past two months. But the fans voted in Xander Bogaerts of the Red Sox while Carlos Correa of the Astros was selected by the players’ vote and Bo Bichette of the Blue Jays was chosen by manager Kevin Cash.
“Obviously disappointed that J.P. Crawford did not make the team,” Servais said. “I think he’s very deserving of it. He’s really been driving the bus here for us. He’s done heck of a job all year long. So for me, personally, and I know organizationally, we’re disappointed he did not make the team, but things like that happen. It’s not going to slow J.P. down. I had chance to talk with him about it today. He’s going to keep driving the bus and hopefully get us to where we need to go.”
In terms of Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement metric, Crawford’s ranks behind all three with a 1.9 WAR. Correa has the highest WAR at 3.9 with Bogaerts just behind at 2.7 and Bichette at 2.5.
Crawford’s teammates were not pleased.
“Honestly, words don’t even explain it,” said Shed Long Jr. “Disgusted, man. The way he’s playing, the way he’s been carrying us, leading us as a team, it’s amazing. I feel like people don’t talk about it enough. It definitely disgusts me that he’s not in there. But I told him, ‘You’ve just got to keep pushing and keep doing what he’s doing. They’ll notice.'”
Long said he expects this to only motivate the ultra-competitive Crawford into playing even harder.
“Oh man, even more,” Long said. “I’m excited to see what we’re going to get.”