Two years into his tenure with the Seattle Mariners, Yusei Kikuchi remains an unknown quantity as a viable pitcher at the major-league level.

An inconsistent first season was attributed to trying to adjust to the differences of playing baseball in the U.S. vs. Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball and some family issues, including the death of his father and the birth of his first child.

But after a 2020 season that was no more consistent than his rookie season, it’s impossible for the Mariners to say that they truly know what to expect from the 29-year-old left-hander.

They’ve invested more than $50 million in Kikuchi to be stalwart in the rotation along with Marco Gonzales. But right now, he’s probably the Mariners third- or fourth-best starter in terms of performances. And his inconsistency is a reason why general manager Jerry Dipoto is looking at adding a free agent starting pitcher to provide some depth to the rotation.

Looking back at 2020:  The season began with much promise for Kikuchi. He had two goals in the offseason after 2019 – figure out his mechanics and re-find the velocity that appeared and disappeared due to mechanical inefficiencies and inconsistencies.

With the encouragement of the Mariners, Kikuchi went to Driveline Baseball in Kent to fix those issues.

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Finding one set of pitching mechanics were vital. Searching for success from start to start, Kikuchi would make changes with infuriating impulsiveness in 2019.

He tinkered with his delivery, arm slot and release point. He often would overreact to a bad outing or even a bad warm-up session while obsessing for velocity that would show up about every other game. He would listen to any and every suggestion, trying to implement them all and forgetting his identity as a pitcher.

With input from the Mariners’ coaching staff and Driveline, Kikuchi shortened his arm path in an effort to get his front on line to the plate and in sync with everything else.

“What I was told from Driveline and what I was told from the Mariners organization was the same thing — it was my hand placement when my front leg hit the ground,” he said during spring training through his interpreter. “It was just too low, too late. That was probably the reason behind the velo going down.”

The change was simple.

“I was told to throw the ball like a catcher — nice and short, straight to the ear,” he said. “That’s what I really worked on as soon as the offseason started. Those mechanics felt comfortable as I got into December.”

The mechanical changes made an immediate impact. Kikuchi showed up to spring training, pumping fastballs up to 98 mph with regularity.

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The Mariners were optimistic that good things would follow.

It didn’t happen the way they expected. And that’s with the Mariners using a six-man rotation, which gave Kikuchi an extra day of rest similar to his days in NPB.

In the search for positives, Kikuchi’s velocity remained at a high level all season, which was big.

His fastball averaged 95 mph, up from 92.5 mph in 2019 while his cutter/slider averaged 92.1 mph compared to 86 mph in 2019.

But it didn’t translate into success.

He posted a 2-4 record with a 5.17 ERA in nine starts. In 47 innings, he struck out 47 batters with 20 walks and three homers allowed.

What didn’t work?

It was a lack of consistent strike-throwing. Just 51 percent of Kikuchi’s pitches were strikes. That just doesn’t work. Even worse, he threw first-pitch strikes just 50.5 percent of the time. By comparison, Marco Gonzales threw first-pitch strikes 64.3 percent of the time.

That inefficiency is why he never pitched more than six innings in the season.

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At the end of the season, the Mariners lauded Kikuchi’s velocity which remained constant, but they admitted his lack of command was an issue.

Offseason focus: The belief within the organization is that Kikuchi can find or re-find some command now that he’s found mechanics and velocity. It’s a gradual process – Year 1: get used to life in MLB, Year 2: find consistent mechanics and velocity, Year 3: find command and success.

To be fair, the baseball’s shutdown due to COVID-19 was brutal for a pitcher like Kikuchi, who prefers to throw almost every day. In a season with 30 starts, there was a chance that the missing command and feel, particularly with his breaking pitches would’ve emerged.

Kikuchi needed reps and innings to get used to the mechanics and the increased velocity. He never got that.  

But instead of learning mechanics this offseason, he can refine them to be find comfort and consistency in repeating them. Instead of feeling new, they will be normal.

A look ahead to 2021: The upcoming season for Kikuchi and the Mariners will be definitive. There are no more excuses for Kikuchi. This is his third season in MLB and he must perform, particularly for a team that has expectations of trying to compete for a postseason spot.

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The Mariners plan to use a six-man rotation, which will benefit him. But the starts of five innings or less, can’t be the norm.

There are also financial ramifications.

As part of his Kikuchi’s four-year, $56 million contract, the Mariners have to make a decision about his future when the World Series ends after the 2021 season.

The Mariners will have three days to decide if it wants to exercise its club option on Kikuchi. The club option isn’t for one year but four, yes, four. The option encompasses the 2022 through 2025 seasons for a total of $66 million at an annual average salary of $16.5 million, which would then put the contract at $109 million.

If the Mariners choose not to exercise the club option, Kikuchi would be given a player option year of $13 million for 2022. He could either exercise that option, spending 2022 with the Mariners or opt out of that final year and head to free agency.

At this point, it seems unrealistic that the Mariners would exercise that option, but perhaps Kikuchi will force them to exercise the option.