Valuing Yusei Kikuchi in a Fantasy Context

After seemingly little to no news on Yusei Kikuchi’s major league landing spot, the Seattle Mariners swooped in late on Dec.31 while everyone but Jerry DiPoto was drunk on champagne to sign the lefty 27-year-old to at least a three-year, $44 million deal. There are some clauses that can see this turn into a four-year deal or even a seven year pact. Boiling it down, Kikuchi will make his home in the AL West for the forseeable future in the not-as-friendly-as-you-remember confines of SafeC— er, T-Mobile Field.

To determine how to value and draft Kikuchi, first we must evaluate what type of pitcher he’s going to be and for that we look to the past.

NPB History

A three-time All-Star, Kikuchi’s logged just over 1,000 innings in the Japan Pacific League, the next highest competitive baseball league outside of the U.S. For reference, the NPB has been measured to have stronger competition than either Triple-A league but weaker than major league baseball. Here are Kikuchi’s numbers:

Register Pitching
Year Age Tm Lg ERA GS IP
WHIP HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
201423SeibuJPPL3.5423139.21.5110.65.07.21.42
201524SeibuJPPL2.8421133.01.1430.63.78.32.22
2011202 Teams2 Lgs4.221479.01.3800.92.15.22.56
201221SeibuJPPL3.101281.11.2300.62.86.32.28
201322SeibuJPPL1.9217108.01.1390.43.77.72.09
201625SeibuJPPL2.5822143.01.2870.44.28.01.90
201726SeibuJPPL1.9726187.20.9110.82.310.44.43
201827SeibuJPPL3.0823163.21.0330.92.58.43.40
All All All 2.811581035.11.1770.73.38.02.43
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/1/2019.

His one outlier year, and the one that might excite you the most, was 2017 where he had a league leading 1.97 ERA, a 0.91 WHIP and a 10.4 K/9 (30 K%). Outside of that, he boils down as a 8 K/9 guy with good walk rates with some durability issues.

The Arsenal

Kikuchi features a 90-94 mph fastball, a wipeout slider that averages 85 mph and a loopy curveball that would be the eighth slowest of 2018 at 73 mph. He seldom sprinkles in a changeup. It’s fair to call him a three-pitch pitcher, as his FB/SL/CU usage splits coming out to 48%/34%/11%.

Here is the slider, his best weapon and part of why he was just one of three qualified pitchers last season to post a 12 SwStr%. Note: All footage from 2017

Here is his fastball:

And finally, here’s his slow curveball.

It’s somewhat of a high effort, athletic delivery that seems to rely a fair amount on arm strength. I notice that his arm speed on the curveball is a little slower than his slider and fastball, which he seems to have locked down. I wonder about some reports that say he is “consistently in the mid-90s” with his fastball as that isn’t supported by the data.

It’s worth noting that he lost almost a tick on his fastball between 2017 and 2018, going from 92.3 mph to 91.5 mph. In 2016, he was at 91.4 mph, so again, 2017 seems to be the outlier. I could not find data on pre-2016 years. He’s also a good groundball generator, averaging 50 percent in the last three years, which would place him roughly in the top 16th percentile in the majors during the same span. I am, of course, aware of the haphazard comparisons to MLB given the lesser NPB competition, but I think context is important.

Injury History

Could it be that the velocity is tied to his smattering of injuries? You may have noticed Kikuchi’s pitched more than 150 innings just once in the last four seasons. Here’s what my colleague Matt Thompson wrote in his brief piece when the Lions posted Kikuchi in early December.

[His decreased fastball velocity] could be linked with a bout of “shoulder tightness” that cost the lefty most of May. The shoulder also cost Kikuchi some time in 2013. On top of that, he’s had a history of blisters and a “right side” injury that cost him some time over the years.

We know that we must be weary of his durability and given that Japanese pitchers are on a six-day rotation schedule, his workload will be closely monitored in 2019 and anything past 150 innings should be considered a bonus.

Projections systems haven’t spit out their numbers for the lefty yet. I’d imagine that given the move to a tougher league and his overall profile, he’ll post a line around 10 W/3.72/1.15/138 K in 148 IP.

I do think there’s upside for more, however, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he had a very strong first half as teams still work to gather scouting data on him. Pitches that generate groundballs and swinging strikes have a larger margin for error. I’m comfortable depressing his numbers a bit and assuming he can manage a 45 GB% with a 22 K%, both marks that are either league average or slightly above. Of pitchers who pitched more than 100 innings in 2018, only 27 met both those bench marks. Of those 27, 22 had a FIP under 4.00 (with Tyler Glasnow and Masahiro Tanaka at 4.01). Kikuchi has the tools to join those ranks with upside for more. If we want to push the envelope and assume he can generate a 48 percent groundball rate and a 24 percent strikeout rate, then he’d join a club that only six pitchers entered last year.

Fantasy Valuation

Redrafts: According to 38 completed NFBC drafts, Kikuchi’s ADP is 194. He is the 73rd pitcher overall, sandwiched between Sean Newcomb and Jon Gray. We’ll have to wait a couple of more weeks to see how his ADP changes as that number was pre-signing, but expect it to rise now that he has a team and creep into the 150s where the likes of Nick Pivetta, Yu Darvish and Eduardo Rodriguez reside.

I think I can still handle him in the 150s, but any higher than that and I’m passing. While he is a proven commodity of sorts, it’s a tad bit too risky, primarily because of the presumed light workload.

FYPD: To those waiting to complete their First Year Player Drafts, Kikuchi is now an interesting wrinkle in the top of the board. I went on record in a Razzball Prospect Podcast saying I’d make him my top pick in a FYPD. After digging deeper and analyzing my current iteration of Top 100, I’d slot him fourth behind the trio of Trevor Larnach, Jonathan India and Xavier Edwards. However if you somehow have the first pick in the draft and are in a contention window, I wouldn’t hesitate to take him first. He’s shaping up to be an SP4 with upside of an SP3 for your fantasy staff.

Our Top 100s start rolling out later this month and in my fantasy list, he’s slotted 40th overall and the 10th pitching prospect.