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The Cubs Are a Predicted Landing Spot for High-Velo Lefty Yusei Kikuchi, But Let’s Talk About That

Chicago Cubs

I like all the free agent contract projection stuff because you can add it to your own sense of how much a free agent could command/is worth, and start to get an even better picture of possible price tags. You can’t go too far with it – even where you have multiple projections in the same range – but they do tend to be based on a distillation of age, comps, performance, expectations, etc., and more often than not they get you into a reasonable range.

In contrast, free agent predictions – Player X will sign with Team A – fall a tier below that on the utility scale for me. Unless there is reason to believe that the prediction is based on sourced information (and indeed, sometimes a reporter’s guess is based on behind-the-scenes info that they can’t “report,” so you kinda have to use your sniffer), I like to treat all predictions as more “oh that’s kinda interesting” than “ooh that’s the start of a rumor worth tracking!”

Against that backdrop, I freely encourage you to check out and enjoy MLB Trade Rumors’ top 50 free agent list with contract projections and team predictions. The contract numbers are useful mentally, and the DISCUSSION of plausible teams is also useful (non-Cubs edition, since we can’t otherwise follow those teams as closely as we follow the Cubs). But I’d just caution you against freaking out about the lack of predictions to the Cubs. It can be fun or whatever, but it just doesn’t mean much.

That said, “oh that’s kinda interesting” that the one free agent predicted to the Cubs was predicted by all three members of the MLBTR staff who weighed in, and he was literally the only player on whom even one person picked the Cubs. It’s just kinda weird and notable, and since it provides an opportunity to discuss a pitcher who we haven’t talked about much, I am into it.

Here’s part of what MLBTR had to say about Kikuchi, which gives you great background on how he came to be a free agent:

Kikuchi, a 30-year-old southpaw, averaged 95.2 miles per hour on his fastball this year – second only to Carlos Rodon among free agents.  After an excellent July 1st start at Toronto, things were looking up.  Kikuchi owned a 3.18 ERA, 25.4 K%, and and 8.5 BB% in 15 starts, and he had been selected to his first All-Star Game.

Though it didn’t immediately manifest in his results, Kikuchi lost 197 RPM on his four-seam fastball after June 12th.  He also lost about one mile per hour on his fastball after July 1st, possibly the result of wearing down.  From July 7th forward, Kikuchi posted a 6.22 ERA, 23.3 K%, and 10.3 BB%, with 1.7 home runs allowed per nine innings.  By the end of the season, he’d been booted from the Mariners’ rotation.  The Mariners made the easy choice to decline his four-year, $66MM option, but Kikuchi surprised some by declining his one-year, $13MM option.  But not guaranteed a rotation spot in Seattle and with at least some prospect of a multiyear deal, Kikuchi’s decision makes sense.

Despite his solid start to the season and top-notch velocity from the left side, Kikuchi isn’t quite the appealing upside play you might imagine.  His Statcast numbers show that when batters hit the ball against Kikuchi this year, they absolutely hammered it.  The 91.9 mile per hour average exit velocity against him was the worst in baseball, and 47% of the balls hit against him were 95 and up (second worst in the game).  As such, the fact that Kikuchi allowed more than a fifth of his flyballs to leave the yard can’t be waved away as a fluke.  Some starting pitchers, such as Robbie Ray this year, are able to succeed despite allowing hard contact.  But it’s hardly a positive, and Kikuchi does allow his share of walks as well.  He’s still an interesting project, but a total reboot will be required.

As a 30-year-old upside play with a 95 mph fastball, I’ve gotta agree with MLBTR that, on paper, Kikuchi makes OBVIOUS sense for the Cubs. I can see why, if you’re putting together a list like this and know you have to send at least one pitcher to the Cubs, why not pick Kikuchi? At two years and $20 million, he’s also right there in the short-term, high-AAV sweet spot that we suspect the Cubs are aiming for with a lot of signings this year.

In 2021, Kikuchi posted a 4.41 ERA, which was 7% below league average by ERA-, and a 4.61 FIP, which was 10% worse. That’s not terrible if you’re talking about a back-of-the-rotation arm, but it’s also not as encouraging as you’d like to see for a guy whose 2020 FIP (3.30) suggested maybe he was figuring out state-side ball. Still, you like the 24.5% K rate and the 48.4% groundball rate, so there might the bones there to work with on a guy who was so good in Japan, is not old, and has been stateside for only 2.5 seasons.

HOWEVA, as MLBTR notes, it’s not like age, left-handedness, velocity, and top-level numbers are the only pieces to consider on Kikuchi. Even if you assume he wants to stay in MLB rather than return to NPB, and even if you assume he would want to come to the Cubs, you have to be concerned about the batted ball data. It’s about as bad as it can get.

The chart at Statcast really sums it up in brutal clarity:

So, immediately you can see the profile of a guy who is pretty decent at missing bats, but when he gets hit, he gets OBLITERATED. The good news, such as it is, is that really it was only his cutter that got hammered last year. The four-seamer merely got “hit pretty hard,” and the changeup and curveball were really solid. Of course, when you’re combining to throw the four-seamer and the cutter more than 70% of the time, you immediately wonder whether those two out pitches would be nearly as effective if they weren’t so rarely deployed.

Something I noticed when poking around: some of the pitch classification services have him also throwing a slider quite a bit of the time (and those services have him throwing fewer cutters and fewer curveballs), so I’m immediately wondering whether his cutter, slider, and curveball too frequently bleed together? I wonder if getting more separation on those pitches could help.

I also bet you can guess something I did when considering the pitch mix. You’ve got a lefty pitcher who throws a crapload of cutters, despite the fact that they were wholly ineffective. Why on earth would he do that … unless he sported atrocious splits against righties and was desperate to find a working fastball against them?

Yup. Against lefties last year, Kikuchi OWNED. They hit just .147/.205/.272, whereas righties were teeing off to the tune of .271/.351/.479. That just will not play for a left-handed starting pitcher.

And that’s ultimately the question any team is going to have to ask themselves in a pursuit of Kikuchi: do we have the secret sauce to unlock an ability to face righties? Is it improving the cutter? Scrapping it in favor of a sinker or changes to the four-seamer and more changeups? A mechanical change? A change on the rubber?

Whatever it is, you pretty much HAVE to believe you can deal with the issue before you would even consider signing Kikuchi. It was only a partial season, so the sample is small, but I’d start with trying to figure out how his splits were much more balanced in 2020. It appears that’s when the cutter was introduced for him, and the batted ball data last year was MUCH better for him. Figure that out, and maybe you wind up with a high-velo, solid middle-of-the-rotation arm for the next couple years.

This is where scouting meets video meets data meets transactions in the offseason. It’s not just about picking the right targets, it’s about knowing how and why they’ve performed as they have, and how and why you can do better.

I don’t know if the Cubs will be the team to take the chance on Kikuchi – and after all this, I’m pretty surprised he turned down his one-year, $13 million player option – but since MLBTR unanimously guessed it, I figured it was worth having a baseline for consideration.

Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.