Yusei Kikuchi Continues Dominant Start for the Blue Jays

Coming off of an excellent bounce-back performance last year, Yusei Kikuchi is finding a way to turn his game up to another level in 2024.

Yusei Kikuchi of the Toronto Blue Jays reacts following the first inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field.
ST PETERSBURG, FLORIDA - MARCH 30: Yusei Kikuchi #16 of the Toronto Blue Jays reacts following the first inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on March 30, 2024 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

The Toronto Blue Jays earned the series win earlier this week against the New York Yankees largely in part due to the excellent effort of the starting pitchers. In particular, left-hander Yusei Kikuchi was outstanding in his outing, as he went six innings and limited the Bronx Bombers to just three hits and one run through 94 pitches.

The Japanese product struck out nine batters in the contest, which included Anthony Volpe (x3), Aaron Judge (x2), and Juan Soto amongst others as he gave the Jays a chance to win the game with his outstanding effort on the mound.

This outing follows in the footsteps of what Jays fans have been seeing so far from Kikuchi this season and back into last year as well, as the left-hander has been outright dominant on the mound at times.

Through four outings and 20 2/3 innings this year, the southpaw has allowed just 17 hits and five earned runs to the tune of a 2.08 ERA, a value that should be lower considering a Bo Bichette error was turned into a hit, which gave the Jays starter an additional earned run. Kikuchi has allowed eight walks compared to 28 strikeouts to begin the season, which is tied for third in the American League behind only White Sox hurler Garrett Crochet (31) and Angels left-hander Reid Detmers (30). His 12.0 K/9 rate currently ranks second in the A.L. and fourth in the league, with three of his four starts producing seven or more strikeouts.

Ad – content continues below

Yusei Kikuchi is Off to a Strong Start

Kikuchi has led the Jays to a 2-2 record so far in the campaign, with both of his losses coming when his teammates could only plate just one run in the contest and not giving the pitching staff much to work with.

He currently ranks first on the team in strikeouts, second in ERA and WHIP (1.154), third in innings pitched, and third amongst the starting pitchers in terms of BB/9 (3.3). Given the equally impressive start by José Berríos to begin the year, the Jays’ only left-handed rotation member sits just behind his counterpart in multiple categories besides the strikeout totals, which rank in the upper echelon across the big leagues.

Statcast-wise, Kikuchi boasts a pitching run value of six (98th percentile) while also posting a 98th percentile breaking run value as well (four). The 33-year-old has been mixing his fastball well with his slider, curveball, and changeup, with all four pitches boasting a whiff percentage above the 20% mark with his changeup leading the way (37.5%) through 50 pitches.

His curveball has been one of the most effective pitches against opposing teams, with batters generating a .105 average and a .192 xwOBA while setting up his mid to high 90s fastball to generate strikeouts, which leads the way at 14 batters. The average exit velocity on all four pitches also sits below 90 MPH with Kikuchi slotting between the 70-80th percentile in barrel % and hard-hit% while ranking in the 89th percentile in his average exit velocity (84.9 MPH).

Splits-wise, Kikuchi has handled LHB with more ease compared to RHB (although with a significant sample size difference in terms of at-bats) but against the opposite side, he has held opposing batters to a .226/.314/.290 slash line and a .605 OPS through 62 at-bats.

For Kikuchi, his prior two seasons with the Blue Jays have seen both the highs and lows of a starting pitcher in the big leagues. His contract at the start of the deal appeared to be one of the worst deals in the league in 2022, as Kikuchi was struggling with his command (5.2 BB/9) and the left-hander eventually finished the year in the bullpen, amassing a 5.62 FIP through 100 2/3 innings. He was not finishing his pitches and the Jays decided to trade for Mitch White to help with Kikuchi and Berríos both struggling in the rotation.

Ad – content continues below

Last season, Kikuchi earned the last rotation spot out of spring training and he bounced back well, producing a 3.86 ERA while lowering his walk rate to a 2.6 BB/9 value through 32 starts. His strikeout rates have been high since joining the Blue Jays (11.1 and 9.7 K/9 respectively) and he continues to strike out batters heading into this season while dramatically lowering his H/9 rate by over 1.2 points compared to his 2022 numbers.

Dating back to the 2023 All-Star game, Kikuchi ranks fourth in the league in fWAR (3.2) and FIP (2.68), slotting ahead of known aces such as Tyler Glasnow and Corbin Burnes.

Kikuchi was a big part of the 2023 season and the stellar Blue Jays pitching staff that helped the club reach the postseason for a second consecutive campaign (although that success was limited to just the AL Wild Card).

Looking ahead, Kikuchi is producing out of the gate in a contract year, which could pay off well for the Japanese product later this offseason as well as help the Blue Jays organization in a tough AL East division. For a Jays squad that has been struggling to produce at the plate with consistency, having pitchers like Kikuchi continuing to build upon a strong 2023 season into this campaign will go a long way for the club’s success and postseason aspirations.