Pittsburgh Pirates Potential Offseason Target: Yusei Kikuchi
By Noah Wright
recently decided to test the open market, so should the Pittsburgh Pirates look to add him to the starting rotation?
The first day into the offseason was active. The Detroit Tigers traded for Tucker Barnhart, San Francisco Giant all-time great Buster Posey retired, and teams and players finalized their team and player options/opt-outs. One of the more notable players who elected to test the free-agent waters was lefty Yusei Kikuchi, but is he a pitcher the Pittsburgh Pirates should consider pursuing?
Kikuchi turned down $16.5 million for 2022, instead opting to become a free agent for $13 million. It was quite a surprising move for the left-hander as while he looked solid for the Seattle Mariners, he also likely won’t get anything close to $16.5 million per year on the market. This could put him in the Pirates’ price range.
Kikuchi was formerly one of the best pitchers in Japan. He headed over to the states after the 2018 season. His 2019 rookie campaign didn’t go all that well. He was quite durable, pitching 161.2 innings in 32 starts, but had a poor 5.46 ERA, 5.71 FIP, and 1.51 WHIP.
During the shortened 2020 season, he continued to have a poor ERA with a 5.17 mark, but a very promising 3.30 FIP, 3.78 xFIP, and 52% ground ball rate. His strikeout rate rose to 24.2% (compared to just 16.1% the year prior). Plus he had a very strong .57 HR/9. He did run into some walks, having a 10.3% BB%, but overall, a promising 47 innings. It also helped his fastball velo went from just 92.6 MPH to 95.1 MPH.
Kikuchi looked like he was going to continue to pitch well in 2021. In the first half of the year, he had a 3.48 ERA, 25% strikeout rate, 1.09 WHIP, 8.7% walk rate, and opponent average of just .204. Now, he did have a poor 4.36 FIP, but his xFIP sat at 3.54. His biggest struggle was with the long ball, which he surrendered at a 1.5-per-9 rate. Outside of that, he had a very good start to the 2021 season and even earned a nod to the All-Star game. But the wheels fell off in the second half of the season. His ERA rose all the way to 5.98 while having a 5.05 FIP. His strikeout rate dipped to 23.7% and his walk rate rose to 10.2%. He continued to struggle with the long ball as his HR/9 rose to 1.7.
Now there was some good luck and bad luck involved in both halves. In the first half, Kikuchi had an opponent batting average on balls in play of just .235. Though he did have a phenomenal 52.3% ground ball rate and solid 19.8% line drive rate. In the second half, that went all the way to .367, but he also saw his opponents hit much more line drives off of him (23.6%) while seeing his ground ball rate drop by nearly 10% to 42.5%.
Now Kikuchi needs to keep up a good ground ball rate to be successful. Opponents hit him hard. His 91.9 MPH exit velocity was in the bottom 1st percentile of pitchers. The southpaw’s 47% hard-hit rate was in the bottom 3rd percentile. A below-average line drive rate with those kinds of hard-hit numbers is a recipe for disaster.
Though there is still some hope for Kikuchi to make it as a pitcher in the United States. He still had a solid 3.85 xFIP and 4.16 SIERA. DRA pinned him at 4.55, which is slightly above average. His biggest weakness this year was home runs, which was a strength in 2020.
Kikuchi probably wouldn’t cost more than $8-$10 million. The market is flooded with a ton of starting pitchers, which will drive down his price, potentially even lower than that. At worst, he’s a back-of-the-rotation starter who can eat up 160 innings and 30+ starts. At the very best, he’s a solid #3 type starter who can eat up his fair share of outings and provide quality results.