PEORIA, Ariz. — In the days after the 2019 season mercifully came to an end, and before the offseason truly began for the Mariners, Scott Servais wanted to talk with Yusei Kikuchi.
The manager and the pitcher, along with Kikuchi’s translator, met for breakfast in Seattle to discuss what went right and all that went wrong in his recent rookie season, and what was expected to be gained in the four months of freedom before this spring training.
It was there that the seeds of a change both knew was needed were planted.
“We were just going to talk through the year and get a good idea for what he thought he needed to improve upon and where he wanted to go with it,” Servais said. “I listened as much as anything.”
The Mariners’ main goals for Kikuchi’s first season in Major League Baseball were to keep him healthy and help him adjust to the increased intensity and competition compared to the Nippon Professional League in his native Japan, and ups and downs were expected. Still, it became obvious that what transpired in 2019 just wasn’t going to work moving forward.
His performances were inconsistent and erratic. For every strong outing in which he looked every bit like the pitcher the Mariners deemed worthy of investing a minimum of $58 million over four years, there were aggravating, inefficient starts that left coaches and Servais wondering if he was even the same pitcher.
The overall numbers were indicative of the variance — a 6-11 record with a 5.46 ERA in 32 starts, including 116 strikeouts, 50 walks and a whopping 36 homers allowed in 161 2/3 innings.
“The first thing I felt is that the season is very long,” Kikuchi said through new interpreter Kevin Ando. “I needed to put up good numbers for the season and that was hard for me. Pitching every five days was different. It took a toll on my body and I felt tired. Obviously, my velocity wasn’t as good as it was when I was in Japan.”
Indeed, Kikuchi’s fastball velocity would range from 89 to 90 mph in one start and 92 to 94 mph in other starts. And the command of the pitch was just as unstable.
But even more unpredictable than his outings were Kikuchi’s reactions to them. He tinkered with his mechanics, arm slot and release point incessantly. He often would overreact to a bad outing or even a bad warm-up session while obsessing for velocity that was always there. He’d listen to any and every suggestion, trying to implement them all. By the end, he was an overloaded amalgamation of other people’s input with minimal memory of what made him successful enough to come to MLB.
“All players are going to be looking for the edge,” Servais said. “You’re looking to get just a little incrementally better. You don’t ever want to stop that. But changing full blown mechanics and arm actions and things like that, I certainly hope he doesn’t go down that path again. He’s not going to stop making adjustments. You just don’t want the overhaul. That’s what we want to stay away from.”
When Kikuchi told Servais over breakfast what he felt was needed to be done in the offseason, it was basically all the things the team was prepared to ask from him.
“I would say 90% of it matched up,” Servais said.
Kikuchi planned to develop one consistent set of mechanics that cleaned up some prior issues and removed some unnecessary moving parts in hopes of refinding consistent velocity in the 92-93 mph range.
After taking 10 days off, he started the process.
He wanted to consult with Driveline Baseball in Kent. Several players, including a few teammates, had extolled the virtues of the data-driven baseball performance company. But Kikcuhi also was cognizant of the pitching minds in the Mariners organization. He wanted to listen to what both had to say.
“What I was told from Driveline and what I was told from the Mariners organization was the same thing — it was my hand placement when my front leg hit the ground,” he said. “It was just too low, too late. That was probably the reason behind the velo going down.”
Instead of competing interests, the two entities were brought together to develop a singular plan.
“Sometimes you have an idea of what you want to feel like or look like and you don’t quite know how to get there,” Servais said. “I think between our people and some of the people he was talking to on the outside, we put a lot of really smart baseball people together to come up with a good plan. Everybody was in agreement.”
While the description of all the changes could get beyond granular and get into biomechanics and pitch-speak, Kikuchi simplified the biggest change to the mechanics.
“I was told to throw the ball like a catcher — nice and short, straight to the ear,” he said. “That’s what I really worked on as soon as the offseason started. Those mechanics felt comfortable as I got into December.”
Baseball players loathe drastic change. And for a pitcher, this wasn’t simple. But Kikuchi never wavered. He decided to continue the work at the team’s complex in Arizona for the two months leading up to spring training.
“I was comfortable on completely changing my mechanics,” he said. “I really believed it would be the right thing for me.”
A video of Kikuchi throwing a bullpen session with his new mechanics even prompted a quoted retweet from Yu Darvish, complimenting his fellow countryman: “It’s really amazing to be able to change takeback in this short period of time since the end of last season. If you think about how much you practice, it will be like this.”
Kikuchi grinned when Darvish’s name was mentioned.
“Yeah, I heard that,” he said. “I was told from everyone, honestly. The guys from Driveline, the guys from our coaching staff, they would always say the same thing.”
But there will be one voice delivering the message this season, keeping Kikuchi to the plan — new pitching coach Pete Woodworth. The Mariners want it streamlined that way.
“It’s the pitching coach,” Servais said. “If he wants to go watch video, he should go watch video … with Pete. That’s key.”
The change doesn’t guarantee immediate success. But Kikuchi is adamant he won’t react impulsively if it doesn’t yield optimal results right away.
“The goal is to have those same mechanics throughout the season,” he said. “Last year, things didn’t go the way I expected. But this year, I’m confident in those mechanics. I made a promise to the manager. He wanted me to be a completely new guy and I took that to heart. I’m looking forward to fulfilling that promise.”
Kikuchi’s comfort level to his surroundings is noticeable. A year ago, everything was new and unfamiliar — his team, his teammates, the language being spoken, the culture of MLB and the United States. He also lost his father to a long battle with cancer and became a father for the first time. It was a full rookie season when he learned as much about himself as the game.
“I’m comfortable now knowing all that,” he said. “I’m just ready to compete this year.”