Ace pitcher Yusei Kikuchi of the Nippon Professional Baseball League’s Seibu Lions has been preparing for a move to Major League Baseball for years, according to sources close to the Japanese southpaw.
The Lions announced at the beginning of the offseason that they would be willing to post Kikuchi and sell him to the highest bidder. While Kikuchi has remained noncommittal about his desire to play in the major leagues, he has apparently been preparing for the opportunity for quite some time.
“He has been building up to this for several years now, with English lessons once a week,” a source told Kyodo News recently on condition of anonymity, saying that Kikuchi even had plans for his opening press conference. “He would like to be the first Japanese player to make a speech in English.”
The Japanese ace has spent the last season making substantial changes to his skill set with an eye toward competing in American baseball. He began by consulting with Japan’s Next Base Corporation to improve his mechanics. Using TrackMan pitch tracking software that allowed Kikuchi to see how his pitches appeared to opposing batters, Kikuchi has been working to make his delivery and pitch tunnels more deceptive.
“He wanted to use the data to check his pitching form, for one thing, and to sharpen his pitches so that they would be more effective in the majors,” said Dr. Tsutomu Jinji of Next Base. “Mr. Kikuchi throws three quarters, so he is often worried about whether his release point is too far toward first base or toward third base. He also wanted to make sure his hand position was correct so that he got more hop on his fastball.”
“I go back after every start and see the numbers,” Kikuchi said. “I have a sense of how well I did, but it’s good to have the numbers to back that up. Since I was in high school, I’ve tinkered with my mechanics. It’s been a constant worry for me. Now with the data, I can tell if my release point is too far back or too far forward. I don’t have to guess. In the past, I would try every possible position and fret over it. But if it’s something I can understand, it’s one less thing I need to worry about.”
Kikuchi experimented with a two-seam fastball this season to prepare for a role in the major leagues. In Japan, most pitchers throw a four-seam fastball, which offers superior elevation and speed. However, the two-seam fastball, which sinks and fades to the arm side at the expense of velocity, has become an important pitch in major league baseball, which has encouraged Kikuchi to add it to his arsenal. The experiment, however, has largely been a failure.
“He tried that out, but it was not a good pitch for him,” the source said.
Kikuchi’s hard work may be about to pay off handsomely, as the New York Post recently reported that the New York Yankees have scouted the left-hander extensively and spoken to his agent, Scott Boras.
“I saw film on him during the pro scouting meetings,” Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner told ESPN. “We talked about that individual. We’ve always been paying attention to that area of the world — some unbelievably great players came out of there. So it won’t be any different this year.”
Kikuchi hopes to enjoy the same success as his former high school teammate Shohei Otani of the Los Angeles Angels, who is the reigning American League Rookie of the Year.