Although a pitcher LIKE Yusei Kikuchi makes a ton of sense for the Chicago Cubs – hard-throwing lefty who gets a lot of strikeouts – he is not necessarily at the top of my list of guys for the Cubs in that particular tier of free agency. But, since he keeps getting guessed to the Cubs, I will keep mentioning him.
After all three MLBTR writers speculated that Kikuchi would wind up with the Cubs, you’ve now also got Mark Feinsand picking Kikuchi as his one free agent for the Cubs (he picked one distinct free agent for every team, the Cubs got Kikuchi). Clearly, the writers of the national baseball sphere have a type in mind for the Cubs, and Kikuchi is clearly that type. Broadly speaking, I don’t disagree with them, and you’ll note that the Cubs were in on lefty Andrew Heaney. There are definite similarities.
Keep in mind, none of these are sourced reports about the Cubs’ interest in Kikuchi, who turned down a one-year, $13 million player option with the Mariners in favor of another crack at free agency. These are merely speculations about the fit.
We discussed Kikuchi at length the last time he came up in connection with the Cubs, and I don’t have a great deal to add now except for one thing I failed to note last time: Kikuchi was a big spin-rate-dropper last June. That is when the sticky stuff enforcement came into play, and while I have no interest in calling out specific guys for shaming purposes – more than half the league saw huge drops in spin rate in June! – you do have to take note when talking about a possible free agent pursuit. What concerns you is not the spin rate drop in isolation, it’s the fact that his peripherals all sank in the second half (strikeout rate down, walk rate up, hard contact up, soft contact down, groundball rate down, etc.). It’s an additional concern.
Overall, though, the comments from before stand: The velocity, the strikeout rate, and the performance against lefties are great. The batted ball data and the performance against righties are terrifying. Unless the Cubs knew they could specifically, for example, remake his cutter into an effective weapon against righties, I don’t see this as a great pursuit for the rotation. You’d really have to have confidence that you can unlock him a bit.
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.