While adjusting to minor differences, including the baseball itself, new Mariners pitcher Yusei Kikuchi is staying true to what made him so successful in Japan.
PEORIA, Ariz. — A flurry of activity surrounded him.
Mike Leake and Shawn Armstrong were throwing their bullpens to his right, while fellow lefty Zac Rosscup was just feet away to his left, firing pitches with high intensity. Not far from the pitchers’ mounds were catchers working on framing pitches with coaches shooting baseballs to them out of pitching machines.
And yet, with all that was going on in that confined area on the back fields of the Mariners’ spring-training complex, the focus was on Yusei Kikuchi and his first official bullpen session of spring training.
Sure, Kikuchi has been in the area for more than week, working out at the Mariners complex and even throwing bullpen sessions on his own. But this was different — this was an official workout and his first time on the mound as a Mariners player.
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General manager Jerry Dipoto and several members of the front-office and baseball-operations staff stood behind the mounds watching. Pitching coach Paul Davis loomed just behind the mound with a series of other coaches. Manager Scott Servais stood among the handful of fans on the fence directly behind catcher David Freitas, who was catching Kikuchi. Servais, a former catcher, likes to watch bullpens from his old playing perspective. Tom Allison, Mariners director of scouting, loomed near Servais.
About 25 members of the Japanese media snapped photos, and several reporters charted every pitch — the type and location. They have documented his every action of each day, starting with his arrival to the complex to the time he exits the building. And it will continue.
For 10 minutes, Kikuchi calmly fired his mixture of fastballs, breaking balls and split change-ups. He was efficient and focused. If he had any nerves, they weren’t noticeable.
“I was really looking forward to throwing to a catcher who is part of the Mariners roster, so I was very happy with the experience today,” he said through interpreter Justin Novak. “I feel amazing. I feel like I was throwing real well today. No problems at all.”
Arriving to Arizona last week and working out on his own with Novak helped Kikuchi’s comfort level. Similar to doing a large portion of his introductory news conference in English, Kikuchi has been very conscientious in the entire process of coming to Major League Baseball from Japan. This has been his lifelong goal, and he’s thought about all of the details, even the most minute, to make the process successful.
“I’ve played in Japan for the last nine years, where the mound is a little different and the ball is a little different,” he said. “I wanted to come early to adjust and feel I’m moving in the right direction.”
“The ball is a little different,” he said. “My breaking ball moves just a little differently. The seam is a little lower and it’s a little easier to slip out of your hands.”
There were a few wayward breaking balls during that session that left Kikuchi shaking his head. The dry air of Arizona also doesn’t help with the grip on the ball or its movement.
“I threw about 50 pitches today, and my No. 1 goal was pitch location, making sure the ball was going where I wanted,” he said. “At this point, nobody is going to blow you away with a high-90s fastball. So I was looking at pitch location, and I think I did a good job with that.”
When the 10 minutes were up, Kikuchi followed the group to another field to practice pickoffs and then conditioning to end the workout.
It was slightly different from his workouts with the Seibu Lions in Nippon Professional Baseball.
“In Japan, the camp at spring training, sometimes the practices are like 10 hours long,” he said. “Coming here and only being an hour, an adjustment I’ll have to make is maybe after practice I’ll do things on my own and make my own routine.”
Ten hours? What can you do for that long?
“It’s a team practice for like 10 hours, so going over signs, doing PFPs (pitchers fielding practice), all the basic fundamentals and conditioning as well,” he said. “So it’s everything put together.”
It’s an adjustment Kikuchi isn’t going to complain about.
He’s going to embrace any adjustment that the Mariners staff thinks he should make. He’s willing to adjust his throwing program from throwing nearly every day to be similar to typical MLB programs.
“I just have to learn how to adjust and talk to the coaches and see what I need to do and get done,” he said. “I want to just be part of the team and make sure I make my adjustments as well and just be a member of the team. I want to come here and be part of the team and do it the way Americans do it and just go out and perform.”
But Servais doesn’t want that from Kikuchi.
“We don’t want him to change,” he said. “I think sometimes players come over and they think they have to do things a little differently. He doesn’t. He’s been a very successful pitcher in Japan. We think he’ll have a lot of success here. We just have to let him be who he is. I’m excited to have him in our clubhouse. He’s very outgoing. He speaks the language. He wants to learn. He wants to be a good teammate. I’m really excited to see how it plays out for him. He’s got great stuff. There’s no doubt about that.”
Needing a little help from Novak at times, but mostly speaking in English on his own, Kikuchi has interacted easily with his new teammates and coaches. He’s very outgoing and cheerful in contrast to former Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, who was more reserved and shy.
“Everyone is really friendly,” Kikuchi said. “My teammates are amazing. The coaching staff is really awesome. I’m really happy about the situation I’m in and very excited to get going.”
Asked about the constant swarm of Japanese media following his every move, Kikuchi looked at the group and smiled as they waited for their chance to interview him.
“I like to take everything positive,” he said. “I’m embracing how everyone is putting the spotlight on me and using that as motivation to perform and make everyone happy.”
He has an understanding of media because his wife, Rumi Fukatsu, works in television for NHK. And he’s used to the coverage, though perhaps not quite so singularly on him.
“This is pretty much the same as Japan,” he said. “I was part of a team, so they’d follow the team a bunch. But I’m used to this.”
The Mariners’ return to Japan next month will be a media crush. Kikuchi will likely be making his debut as a Mariner in the Tokyo Dome. He’s expected to start one of two games against the A’s. And his childhood idol, Ichiro, will likely be in the Mariners’ lineup.
Kikuchi recently met Ichiro for the first time.
“It was the most excited I’ve been since I’ve been to the States,” he said.
In an offseason of trades that saw so many veterans — many of them All-Stars at one time — go away in exchange for club-controlled prospects, Kikuchi’s four-year contract was the one major acquisition made by the Mariners without having to give up a player. Seattle signed him to a contract that guarantees $56 million with the chance to make more than $100 million over seven years.
He’s a major investment in the Mariners’ step-back plan that has moved to otherwise significantly reduce payroll. He’s projected to be the front-line starter for a team in 2020 and 2021 with a younger roster that is supposed to be ready to compete. That journey for him started this week.
“The Seattle Mariners have had a lot of Japanese players go through here, so a lot of games have been televised in Japan,” he said. “So I’ve been watching that since I was small, and now I’m here and with the Mariners. I’m really happy to be here and excited to get going.”