PEORIA, Ariz. — The multiple fastballs from left-hander Yusei Kikuchi that hit 95 mph per the stadium radar gun at Peoria Stadium and also verified by the Trackman software used by the Mariners’ baseball operations staff in Sunday’s Cactus League opener do have some level of significance.
The velocity itself isn’t the highlight. Per Baseball Savant, Kikuchi registered 44 pitches of 95 mph or higher out of the 2,721 fastballs thrown in 2019. His average fastball velocity was 92.5 mph.
But it’s how Kikuchi generated those 95-mph pitches that has the real significance to him and the Mariners.
Now starting his second full season in Major League Baseball since coming from Japan, Kikuchi wants this year to be more about progression of improvement and less about the transition to a new life.
He made his first outing of the spring against the Rangers, offering him his first chance to test out his new, simplified mechanics in a game situation. Kikuchi worked all offseason with Driveline Baseball and the Mariners’ coaching staff to develop a shorter, more compact arm swing, which is supposed to allow him to pitch at a consistent higher velocity while having a more direct path to the plate and more command.
“I thought Kikuchi threw the ball really, really well,” manager Scott Servais said. “He got ahead in the count for the most part. I think it was 8 out of 10 first-pitch strikes. The stuff was good. The velocity was really good.”
The box-score results were less than ideal. Kikuchi pitched 1 1/3 innings, allowing three runs (two earned) on four hits with a walk and two strikeouts. After strikeouts of Shin-Soo Choo and Nick Solak to start the game, Kikuchi allowed a shift-beating double to third to Joey Gallo and an infield single to Todd Frazier that also included a throwing error by Kyle Seager, allowing a run to score.
Kikuchi never got out of the second inning, surrendering a bloop single to right from Matt Duffy. That was followed by a walk and a double to left from catcher Tim Federowicz. Kikuchi was pulled one batter later after hitting Choo with a pitch.
“It wasn’t bad at all for the first outing of the year,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando. “My fastball felt great today. But I need to work on the command of my slider. That’s what I felt was an issue today. Getting ahead of hitters, putting away hitters, just the overall command of my slider could be better.”
Regardless of the results, Kikuchi never deviated from the mechanical changes he spent so long working on. And he felt better about them as he faced hitters in a live game.
“My mechanics were solid today,” he said. “They were exactly how I wanted them, exactly how I practiced this offseason. I was able to just go after hitters instead of worrying about my mechanics on the mound in the game.”
Kikuchi’s fastball ranged from 93 to 95 mph. But the times it was hitting 95 mph, it came out easy.
“There were times he was trying to grunt it up there last year,” Servais said.
A year ago, Kikuchi developed the bad habit of letting a longer arm lag behind his delivery. It took effort to throw hard. And that effort to do that affected the command of the pitches. After showing an easy 94-95 mph in the opening series in Japan, his fastball velocity varied from start to start and dipped in June down to around a 90-91 mph average.
“It’s a relief to see the velocity up and back to where it was so early in the spring,” he said. “Velocity-wise it was good today. It’s absolutely mechanics. That’s what I worked this offseason.”
Updated pitching plan
The cancellation of Saturday’s game has forced the Mariners to readjust their pitching plan for the few weeks of Cactus League games.
Notably, right-hander Logan Gilbert, who was scheduled to pitch Monday after Marco Gonzales’ two innings of work, has had his first spring outing pushed back to Thursday. With MLB spring training ending March 24 and the minor-league season not starting until April 9, the Mariners are being cautious because of that lag time in between.
The Mariners have split-squad games Thursday. Gilbert will start with the team headed to Camelback to face the White Sox. Meanwhile, right-hander Taijuan Walker will also make his first outing of the spring, pitching for the half of the squad at Peoria Stadium against the Giants.
The updated starting pitching projections are:
* Today at Brewers: Kendall Graveman, RHP/Justus Sheffield, LHP
* Wednesday at Reds: Justin Dunn, RHP/Wei-Yin Chen, LHP
* Thursday at White Sox: Logan Gilbert, RHP
* Thursday vs. Giants: Taijuan Walker, RHP
The Mariners added their 71st player to MLB spring training, signing outfielder Rymer Liriano to a minor-league contract with an invite to spring training. Liriano was at the complex Sunday, taking his physical.
Liriano, 28, was once a touted prospect with the Padres. But he never reached that potential at the MLB level. He played in parts of two major-league seasons, with San Diego (2014) and the White Sox (2017), posting a .220/ .293/.287 slash line with two doubles, a homer and six RBI in 59 MLB games.
Last season, he played 82 games for Class AAA Syracuse, posting a .209/.346/.403 slash line with nine doubles, 10 homers and 29 RBI.
Obviously, Liriano isn’t competing for a big-league spot. He an expendable depth signing to fill out the roster at Tacoma.
Right-handed reliever Phillips Valdez, who was designated for assignment Friday, was claimed off waivers by the Red Sox. Valdez, 28, was acquired by the Mariners in November as a waivers claim. He was likely ticketed for Tacoma, but was designated to make room for right-hander Taylor Williams, who was claimed off waivers from the Brewers.