In 2009, Kikuchi was spurring interest in the United States. That is because the amateur lefty was trying to decide whether to bypass the Japanese draft (held on October 29) in favor of signing with a Major League team as a free agent.
That is decision a young Japanese amateur does not take lightly. If Yusei, or any amateur, pulls out of the draft, he would face a three-year suspension from Japanese baseball if he washes out in the United States and returns home. That rule was put in place in the wake of Junichi Tazawa bypassing the draft to sign with the Red Sox in the winter before the 2009 season. One thing to keep in mind: There is no precedent for an 18-year-old Japanese high school kid signing with an MLB team. But late in October, Yusei decided to remain in his native country.
Kikuchi gained stardom and hype because of two excellent appearances at the Koshien high school tournament.
Yusei is very smart. He doesn't watch TV and reads about 10 books per month. He is also very conscientious.
Jan 1, 2019: The 27-year-old Kikuchi was one of the prime free-agent starters available this offseason, and he had to sign with an MLB team by a deadline or he would've had to return to the Seibu Lions, his team in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball League, for the 2019 season. Under the new Japanese posting system, the Mariners will pay his former club a release fee that will be a percentage of his contract.
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has traded away a number of prominent veterans this offseason while reworking his roster with younger prospects in taking aim toward a push in 2020-21, but he's expressed strong interest in signing Kikuchi and making him part of that future wave.
Dipoto sees Kikuchi as being of similar age and remaining team control as All-Star right fielder Mitch Haniger, newly acquired center fielder Mallex Smith and fellow left-handed starter Marco Gonzales, who are part of the new core he's looking to build around after adding a number of young prospects via trades this offseason.
Kikuchi didn't want to come to MLB until he dominated Japan.
As an 18-year-old in 2009, Kikuchi could have skipped out on Japan's amateur draft to come to the United States, but decided to stay in Japan because he wanted to dominate there first. "I'll try to take on the world once I have become the No. 1 pitcher in Japan," he said at the time.
And Kikuchi has dominated Japan, especially recently. He posted his finest season in 2017 as a 26-year-old, pitching 187 2/3 innings with a 1.97 ERA. He struck out over a batter per inning for the first time in his professional career and lowered what had previously been a somewhat troublesome walk rate. He followed that up in 2018 with a 3.08 ERA over 163 2/3 innings, while maintaining the improved walk rate of the previous season.
Jan 3, 2019: Kikuchi introduced himself to Mariners fans for the first time at an introductory press conference at T-Mobile Park. And the Japanese lefthander did so, impressively, while answering questions in English. It speaks volumes about Kikuchi's confidence and long-term planning that he's been studying English since his high school days in Japan, wanting to be able to express himself directly to the media and fans in America once he got his shot to pitch in Major League Baseball.
That opportunity began in earnest once Kikuchi signed off on a unique contract that could keep him in Seattle for anywhere from three to seven seasons, depending on whether the Mariners extend a four-year option after the 2021 season. "I've had the dream to play Major League Baseball since I was 15," Kikuchi said. "I have studied English ever since then."
The 27-year-old later apologized for not being able to give longer answers in English, but he expounded on that in his native language to Japanese reporters. "Being here on the biggest stage of baseball in the world, it's a global stage and I wanted to ingrain myself with that and be available to everyone, and speak directly with everyone," he said through interpreter Shawn Novak. "So I worked hard. That was an important thing for me to do going forward. From high school, when I had the goal and dream of playing in the big leagues, I wanted to be able to communicate directly from the heart to the fans over here in English by myself."
One of Kikuchi's first orders of business was to meet Ichiro Suzuki in person for the first time. Kikuchi said the first professional game he attended as a teenager in Japan, he saw Ichiro playing for the Orix Blue Wave in 2000. The chance to be a teammate of Ichiro this coming spring looms large in Kikuchi's mind. According to general manager Jerry Dipoto, the Mariners remain firm with their plan to let Ichiro compete for a roster spot this spring at age 45. As long as he stays healthy, Ichiro will be one of three extra players the club is allowed to carry for the two-game Opening Series in Tokyo against the A's on March 20-21.
It's unlikely Ichiro will remain on the active roster once the club is required to cut down to 25 players for the remainder of the regular season, though Dipoto didn't rule it out. But however long Ichiro is on the club, Kikuchi plans to enjoy it. "Mr. Ichiro is kind of a person in the sky, a legend. I don't know if he really exists," Kikuchi said. "So the first step is to be able to meet and talk to him. When I do have the opportunity to step on the field with him, it will be a great memory for me that I'll cherish forever."
Kikuchi will step into a long tradition of Japanese players with the Mariners, who have had at least one Japanese player on their roster every year since 1998, including Ichiro, Hisashi Iwakuma, Kenji Johjima, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Norichika Aoki, Munenori Kawasaki, and Mac Suzuki.
In 2017, Kikuchi got advice from Iwakuma on a change he was making in his delivery, and now he could step into his role in the Mariners' rotation going forward, figuring to land a prominent spot as a power lefty in a group that also will initially include Marco Gonzales, Felix Hernandez, Mike Leake and Wade LeBlanc. In addition youngsters Justus Sheffield, Erik Swanson, Justin Dunn and others are waiting in the wings.
A year ago, the Mariners pushed hard to land Shohei Ohtani, who instead signed with the Angels. Now, Seattle has landed Kikuchi, who attended the same high school as Ohtani, though is three years older. Kikuchi will have a chance now to compete against Ohtani regularly in the coming seasons in American League West battles. "I'm looking forward to challenging him many times," Kikuchi said.
But one thing Kikuchi won't attempt to do is follow in Ohtani's footsteps as a two-way player. "I'm going to focus on my pitching," he said with a smile. (G Johns - MLB.com - Jan 3, 2019)
Feb 9, 2019: When Spring Training opens for the Mariners, as pitchers and catchers report for physicals, there'll be plenty of buzz around the numerous newcomers getting their introductions. But the one guy at the center of much of the attention figures to be Yusei Kikuchi, the newest Japanese sensation to sign with Seattle. Kikuchi arrived from Japan and has been working out in preparation for the start of camp, which begins with the first official workout on Feb 12, 2019.
General manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais are eager to get their eyes on the 27-year-old lefty, who signed a contract in January that will keep him in Seattle for anywhere from three to seven seasons. If all goes to plan, Kikuchi will open the season in the Mariners' rotation and figures to be a strong candidate to pitch one of the team's first two regular-season games in Tokyo against the A's on March 20 or 21.
But the Mariners' brass won't be the only ones tracking Kikuchi's progress, as about 20-25 Japanese journalists are expected in camp on a daily basis to chronicle his story, as well as what may be the final Spring Training for 45-year-old outfielder Ichiro Suzuki. Kikuchi had the opportunity to meet his boyhood idol when he was in Seattle for an introductory press conference following his signing and now is eager to take the playing field with Ichiro once full-squad workouts begin.
"It's not an easy feeling to explain, but I'm looking forward to it," Kikuchi said earlier this offseason. "I distinctly remember the first game I went to in Japan was in Ichiro's last season with the Orix BlueWave. I remember that game very well. I'd just started playing baseball and I went only knowing about Ichiro. "I was very anxious to watch him play in person. It was a while back, but I still remember the aura Ichiro had on the field and how exciting it was to watch him play in person. Since then, I've read any book there is about Mr. Ichiro, any articles about his work study and I'm looking forward to playing with him."
The Mariners have had a Japanese player on their Major League roster every season for the past 21 years and Kikuchi now will carry on a tradition that began in 1996 when Mac Suzuki became just the third Japanese player to compete in MLB; he pitched one game in relief in 1996, as a 21-year-old. Suzuki was called up again in 1998-99 for 22 more outings, including nine starts, and he's been followed by closer Kazuhiro Sasaki (2000-03), Ichiro (2001-12 and 2018), reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa (2002-05), reliever Masao Kida (2004-05), catcher Kenji Johjima (2006-09), infielder Munenori Kawasaki (2012), outfielder Norichika Aoki (2016) and starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma (2012-17).
Kikuchi, who will take on the same No. 18 jersey previously worn by Iwakuma, is well aware of those who went before him. "Of course," he said. "I want to continue that success."
The Mariners are interested in more than just having another Japanese player on their roster. They are intrigued by Kikuchi's mid-90s fastball and quality slider combo, as well as his interest in analytics and lifelong goal to make a name for himself in MLB. "I'd like to grow with the team and succeed," Kikuchi said. "Getting here was not the goal. It's to succeed here and play well here. I'm just going to focus on working hard and producing for the team."
While much of the Mariners' offseason was spent looking to the future and unloading long-term contracts in order to gain younger prospects and payroll flexibility, they saw a chance to add Kikuchi now as a free agent who can grow with the young nucleus and help anchor the rotation going forward.
"We feel this is a perfect marriage between a player, the city, the comfort for he and his family here, the stage we are in our development and where he is in his development," Dipoto said. "He's a very talented guy." (G Johns - MLB.com - Feb 9, 2019)
March 30, 2019: The day after he pitched a Major League game in the United States for the first time, Mariners rookie left-hander Yusei Kikuchi learned his father died of cancer back home in Japan The 27-year-old will stay with the Mariners at this point and issued the following statement:
“I learned today that my father, Yuji Kikuchi, passed away following a long and valiant battle with cancer.
"During my recent visit to Japan, my father expressed his desire for me to remain focused on baseball and to help my team win. Although difficult, I will honor his wishes and dedicate the rest of this season to him.
“This statement will be my only comment on this matter, but I will remain available to answer baseball questions beginning tomorrow, Sunday March 31.
“Thank you for respecting the love and honor we shared for my father, and our request for privacy moving forward.” (G Johns - MLB.com - March 30, 2019)
DIALOGUE WITH BAUER
At some point during the upcoming three-game series against Cleveland at Progressive Field, Mariners rookie Yusei Kikuchi hopes to have another conversation with Indians star pitcher Trevor Bauer. Maybe it’s lunch somewhere or another pregame encounter before they both go about their regimented daily routines when they aren’t starting.
The two pitchers from vastly different backgrounds first met at Kikuchi’s request the morning of Tuesday, April 16, near the backstop at T-Mobile Park. Less than 24 hours earlier, they started against each other in the opener of that three-game series. Bauer was credited with the win in Cleveland’s 6-4 victory, looking dominant over 6 2/3 innings, allowing one run on five hits with three walks and eight strikeouts. Kikuchi was solid, pitching six innings while allowing three runs on five hits with three walks and five strikeouts.
Following the game, Kikuchi sent word to the Cleveland clubhouse that he hoped he could meet Bauer and ask him some questions.
“Ever since I was in Japan I wanted to meet him,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Justin Novak. “I’ve wanted to pick his brain. I’ve been told he’s really technical about baseball.”
Kikuchi is fascinated by the modern evolution of pitching with technology like TrackMan and Rapsodo as well as he concept of pitch tunneling. Perhaps no pitcher in Major League Baseball represents the modern and advanced thinking about improvement than Bauer, who has become one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball But when Kikuchi watched Bauer work in person, the desire to talk to him about baseball only grew. It was more than just the technical aspect. It was everything now.
“In that game, I was watching how he really attacks guys and is really aggressive,” Kikuchi said. “And that’s what I wanted to take from him. Once I met him, he has such a baseball mind. He just studies and researches about baseball so much. I gained even more respect for him.”
Bauer was eager to meet Kikuchi for his own reasons. He has a naturally curious mind and has been fascinated by the transition of Japanese pitchers to MLB.
“I’m a big fan of Japanese players that come over,” Bauer said. “It’s got to be really tough, culturally and just life-wise as a human being. Seeing him adjust to that and adjust to playing in the big leagues with all the expectations heaped on him from the get-go, it’s something that interests me. I take an interest in the guys that come over and do that. I was really excited to be able to connect with him. Even if nothing I said makes a difference, it was just nice to make the connection and express to him that I’m rooting for him.”
Oh, it made a difference. The conversation wasn’t brief. The two men, aided by Novak, had a wide-ranging discussion. Both held baseballs so they could show, study and possibly imitate the grips each used on pitches. There were simulations of arm slots and release points. Bauer got particularly detailed in showing the finger pressure he used on his changeup—a pitch that Kikuchi wants to improve upon.
“It was the day after a start so I really appreciate that he took the time out to talk to me,” Kikuchi said. “Even though we are the same age, he’s someone I really respect so I was really happy for the encounter.”
Bauer easily recognized Kikuchi’s same intellectual curiosity and passion about improving as a pitcher.
“I enjoy talking to people who are interested in trying to get better,” Bauer said. “I’m really passionate about player development and finding ways to use technology and data to maximize what I can do physically. So when I get a chance to talk to someone of the same mindset just about development in general, whether it’s athletic or intellectual or personal, I like listening, understanding and connecting with those kinds of people. I definitely get the sense he is that way.”
Any concerns about Bauer not wanting to take part in the conversation were assuaged immediately.
“He was very polite and very nice to me when he was talking to me about baseball,” Kikuchi said. “He’s a superstar so I was kind of nervous about going into the conversation. But he made me feel really welcome. And he was really easy to talk to.”
To be fair, Bauer loves to talk about that subject. Admittedly, those conversations are usually with teammates and not requests from opponents.
“I think it’s just a baseball thing,” Bauer said. “Teammates get a chance to do it because we stand in the outfield and shag BP or we are in the clubhouse. ‘Hey what do you think about this?’ But for guys on the other team to come up to you, you don’t get that opportunity as much.”
Bauer doesn’t buy into the concept of not sharing his secrets to success with people outside of his team. It isn’t proprietary information or thinking. There’s a fraternity among baseball players, specifically pitchers, that is bigger than opponent rivalry.
“I just think that everybody gets to this level wants to play against the best guys and compete against the best,” he said. “There’s a healthy respect for what everybody at this level is able to do. So if I can make the game better and the players around me better, regardless if they are on my team or on the other team, that’s good for the game, fans enjoy it more and I get to compete against better players so I enjoy it more and that person’s career is better, which gives them a chance to live a better life. It’s just good for everyone involved, you know?
“That’s just the way I view it. I know some guys try to have competitive advantage. But I’m just really passionate about trying to make the people around me better in whatever aspect they want to get better at. I’m just sharing information with whoever asks.” (Ryan Divish-Seattle Times-May 2, 2019)
Jan. 1, 2019: A rebuilding Mariners team added a strong piece to its pitching rotation as Japanese standout Yusei Kikuchi agreed to a four-year deal. The unique deal is for $43 million over the first three years, with a $13 million player option for 2022.
But the option can potentially be replaced by an additional four-year, $66 million extension by the club that would convert the deal to seven years total.