PEORIA, Ariz. (AP) — Aside from the attention he gets because of his talent as a pitcher, Yusei Kikuchi is well aware his first season in the majors will be subject to additional scrutiny.
Kikuchi’s rookie season is something of an experiment, an attempt by the Seattle Mariners to see whether pitchers coming to the major leagues from Asia should be handled differently in their first season. The team will regulate Kikuchi’s innings while making sure he starts on a regular five-day rotation, even if that means some outings are kept very short.
If it works, the strategy could become a blueprint for the future.
“As a player you want to go out there every start and perform and pitch one more inning, one more out,” Kikuchi said through an interpreter. “But the front office guys, the GM the (manager) are taking an importance in me and making an adjustment to the states. I’m really happy about that and thankful for that.”
By using a deliberate approach, the team and Kikuchi’s representatives believe they can help ease his transition from pitching in Japan, where starters typically throw once a week, and in the process hopefully cut down on the arm problems like those that have felled Asian pitchers in the past.
Shohei Ohtani, Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka are among those who suffered significant arm injuries relatively early in their major league careers after arriving from Japan. Ohtani had Tommy John surgery last year that will keep the Angels’ two-way star off the mound for the upcoming season.
“I have no frustrations at all but I am eager to keep moving toward the next step,” Ohtani said recently. “I’m eager, but once the games get going after opening day, it will probably hit me harder and I’ll want to get back more.”
Darvish had Tommy John surgery in late 2014, three seasons after arriving in the majors, and missed the entire 2015 season. He threw more than 400 total innings in the regular season in his first two seasons combined. Matsuzaka suffered a rotator cuff strain in his second year of 2008, had multiple arm issues in 2009 after pitching in the World Baseball Classic, and eventually had elbow surgery.
There are other examples too, whether it was Hideo Nomo’s shoulder surgery in 2003, Takashi Saito’s elbow ligament sprain in 2008 or Junichi Tazawa, who had Tommy John surgery in 2010, his second season in the majors.
Darvish has talked previously of going to either a six-man rotation or having starters pitch once a week to try to save their arms. He’s a fan of the approach Seattle is taking.
“Not only for who came from Japan but for the young players, too,” Darvish said. “That saves the elbow and shoulder stress. I think it’s a very good idea.”
When Kikuchi’s agent, Scott Boras, was presenting his ideas for easing his client into the majors, he found a like-mind in Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto. Perhaps it’s Dipoto’s history as a former pitcher, but whatever the reason, the GM didn’t scoff at Boras’ demand.
In fact, it was Seattle’s willingness to develop a plan — along with a lucrative contract and the club’s history with Japanese players — that ultimately appealed to Kikuchi. The deal is worth $56 million guaranteed over four years, but could be worth up to $109 million over seven seasons if options are exercised. The pitching plan is similar to what the Mariners have done to acclimate some of their young arms in the minors.
“Not only do I think it is a viable argument on behalf of the Japanese pitchers, the pitcher coming over from (Nippon Professional Baseball), it’s very viable with the domestic draft, U.S. players as they enter pro ball,” Dipoto said. “Part of why we were able to create a program that made sense for Yusei, and for us and made sense to Scott, is we’ve been doing this for years with our entry-level classes.”
The target is roughly 170 innings for Kikuchi while keeping his regular start rate. That means there will be times — once a month approximately — when Kikuchi will go through his normal pregame routine, throw the first inning and call it a night.
Seattle was the perfect spot to attempt this experiment. Not only did Seattle provide Kikuchi a contract with flexibility for both sides, but the Mariners have no illusions that they’ll be contenders in 2019.
Time and patience are built in, with the team knowing a payoff could be coming in a couple of years when Kikuchi is fully acclimated to the rigors of the majors and the Mariners are possibly better positioned to be contenders.
“For this club, this situation, where they’re at, they felt they could manage our concern and yet fulfill their expectations at the major league level,” Boras said. “A lot of other teams, no, I don’t think it would have worked because their need was too great and the investment was too great for them to not have to get a certain higher volume of innings out of him.”
Others around baseball are taking notice of Seattle’s plans even before they are fully implemented. Especially those with a pitching background.
“They’re individually based,” Colorado manager Bud Black said. “Based on the pitcher and where his workload has been, what he is capable of doing workload-wise. It’s very practical to have a boundary of innings for a certain pitcher based on where they are coming from, what they’ve done and what they can handle. I think it’s very sound.”
There is no guarantee Seattle’s approach will work. The number of variables involved means Kikuchi could still have an unexpected arm issue despite the precautions.
“We can’t protect against Mother Nature, but we can do the best we can to put him in a position to succeed, and I think we have,” Dipoto said.