TORONTO — A handful of starts, perhaps four or five, remain for Yusei Kikuchi in a season that has been a more of a disappointment than expected. And that might still be a positive-leaning outlook considering the amount of money that was given to the 28-year-old left-hander and the presumption of his prosperity in this Mariners reset and rebuild that now appears to be years to fruition.
There was and should have been an anticipation of struggles in his first season of Major League Baseball. The transition featured a dramatically increased level of competition while adjusting to a dissimilar baseball culture and adapting to life in a new country.
The ups have been something more than momentary, but nothing close to sustained. They offered extended glimpses of why the Mariners invested a minimum of $56 million into signing him when they didn’t want to fork out even a small portion of that for the bullpen this season.
Meanwhile the downs of this season, and the complicated reasons behind them, have lingered to a point beyond puzzling and nearing frightening given Seattle’s monetary investment. He’s struggled with inconsistent command and velocity, given up a whopping 31 homers — the most in MLB — in 126 1/3 innings pitched and hasn’t had back-to-back strong outings since mid-May. He has a 7.50 ERA in his last 14 starts while allowing 23 of those homers in 66 innings pitched.
And during this constant ebb-and-flow of execution and emotion, Mariners manager Scott Servais has been steadfast in shielding Kikuchi from aggressive criticism. From the constant praise of Kikuchi’s work ethic and attitude in the spring, the complimentary comments after starts that were good or even just decent and the optimism of a better things to come after clunkers, Servais had his young pitcher’s back. He was empathetic to the difficulty of what Kikuchi was experiencing in this transition.
But there is a limit to where the protective patience of Servais is exhausted and frustration can no longer be covered up in comments. That tipping point appears to have been reached following Kikuchi’s lackluster start in Detroit, where he lasted just 3 1/3 innings, giving up five runs on nine hits with a walk and three strikeouts.
But it wasn’t the results. It was how Kikuchi struggled. After adjusting and shortening his arm path before his previous start vs. the Padres, Kikuchi delivered a strong outing. He wasn’t efficient, but he was effective. He pitched five innings, allowing one run on four hits with three walks and eight strikeouts with 14 swings and misses. His pitches had velocity and life.
Against the Tigers, the arm path seemed to revert to its previous lengthened path. The ball came out of his hand lifeless until it was crushed by Tigers hitters. He had just four swings and misses.
From the dugout, Servais felt like the mechanical changes Kikuchi had made vs. the Padres were forgotten. And he found it irritating. It was noticeable in his tone postgame, and he admitted as much the next day.
“I thought it was different,” Servais said. “I thought his pitches were different and reacted differently. They didn’t have the finish to them. He certainly didn’t get the swing and miss we’d seen in the previous outing.”
Video later verified his observation.
“I talked with the coaches and watched videos,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Justin Novak. “It was subconscious. I didn’t try to change anything. But I think it just happened. The way I used my arm was somehow different.”
But Servais felt there should be some level of recognition given Kikuchi’s years of pitching experience in Japan and his understanding of his mechanics.
“I think he was cognizant,” Servais said. “Whether he couldn’t make the adjustment or whatever I’m not quite sure. We clearly saw a difference in how the hitters reacted to the pitches he was throwing. Sometimes if you can’t feel it, you just need to watch what’s happening: ‘Wait a second, something’s not right here.’ He needs to make a quicker adjustment.”
A day after the forgettable start at Comerica Park, Servais met with Kikuchi and pitching coach Paul Davis to analyze what happened. They’ve met with Kikuchi often this season to gauge his assimilation into MLB baseball and how he’s felt about it. But this conversation was a little more one-sided.
“I’ve addressed it with Yusei,” Servais said. “I’ve said all along that he’s going to go through some growing pains and it’s a big learning curve. As we go through these steps and he’s learning, I just don’t want to have these conversations again. If we keep making the same mistakes over and over again, we aren’t getting any better. And that can’t happen.”
Given the unfamiliarity of everything to Kikuchi, Servais felt like he needed to speak to the young pitcher to address his displeasure.
“Sometimes you can’t assume that players know, so you bring it to their attention to make sure they understand that this can’t continue to happen,” he said. “You can learn from a bad outing and it does happen. But in my opinion, he should have got us deeper into that ballgame and I know he feels the same.”
Kikuchi is an awkward position as a player. He wants to have success, but so much of what he’s done in the past isn’t allowing it. But changes, particularly drastic ones, can also be counterproductive. He has plenty of coaches and information being pushed upon him. Will it all help? How much is too much?
“A little change in the upper body can cause a big difference,” he said. “I have to play it safe and look at every little detail. There isn’t a timetable. It has to click at some point whether it’s in a game or while you are practicing. From there, you have to go in the right direction.”
He thought he’d had that click moment.
“My last inning of the Padres start, ‘I was like, oh, this feels really good, maybe this is it,’” he said. “I’m trying to move forward with that (feeling) and I tried to keep it the same.”
In the end, it’s his career and he must determine what should be applied and what should be pushed aside in the interim. It’s not a matter of work or ambition for Kikuchi. He’s tireless in that pursuit. But it comes to repetition and consistent execution. This is a level of failure and difficulty he had yet to experience in his career.
“When things are going well, everything is simple,” he said. “In the first half, everything was simple. When things aren’t going well, there’s a bunch I look at and that gets thrown at me. It’s something I have to deal with and use.”
And how will he do that?
“I’ve been playing in Japan for nine years,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of studying. I know myself very well. I’m taking in all this information from guys that have had success in this league. I have to try it, first and foremost, and see if it’s right for me. And then just keep moving forward.”
What will the Mariners see in Sunday’s scheduled start vs. the Blue Jays? It’s clear they aren’t certain. Kikuchi worked on the adjusted arm path from the mound on Thursday and Friday. If he struggles again, the Mariners could opt to skip his next start, scheduled for Friday at T-Mobile Park, and slide lefty Justus Sheffield into his spot for one turn. They’re flirting with the possibility of a six-man rotation in the final month of the season, and that would allow them to adjust it. Kikuchi hasn’t missed or made a one-inning start since the All-Star break. His overall workload isn’t as high as anticipated due to the number of starts where he struggled to go five innings.
A strong finish in his final starts won’t overshadow the inconsistency of this season, but it might assuage some of the doubts that figure to linger throughout the offseason.