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Yusei Kikuchi Looks Different in Blue Jays Spring Opener

Yusei Kikuchi Looks Different in Blue Jays Spring Opener

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Yusei Kikuchi looks different in Jays spring opener in a good way The pit

Blue Jays starter Yusei Kikuchi stood out in their spring opener against the Pirates in Bradenton, Florida with two scoreless innings pitched.

In 17 pitches, the left-handed pitcher threw 17 sliders and generated seven swinging strikes during that span. Additionally, he only allowed one baserunner on a soft single.

1. He has a new beard

On Saturday, Yusei Kikuchi of the Toronto Jays made a lasting impression in their spring opener against Pittsburgh. Throwing two scoreless innings and striking out five batters, the 23-year-old right-hander left an indelible mark on manager John Schneider who is still trying to decide how best to utilize him in this year's rotation.

Kikuchi, who had a dismal 2022 season, adopted a new approach that involved improving his mechanics and physical changes to get a better feel for what's going on with his pitches. Additionally, he tried out an unconventional delivery that is intended to increase his momentum towards home plate.

At his first Grapefruit League start of the season, Kikuchi threw 14 whiffs in 33 pitches against a Pirates lineup that included several MLB regulars. He also relied heavily on his breaking pitches - one they call a "curveball," and another that looked more like a cutter.

Kikuchi has made significant strides this season with regard to his command, improving upon what we saw from him last season. While not perfect, his fastball has averaged 94.9 mph this year and generated more swinging strikes with it. Additionally, he utilizes a slider at around 33 percent and changeup/splitter at just under 40% frequency.

He still has much to learn, however. This spring he'll be faced with an array of tasks so it will take him some time to adjust to the pressure and hectic schedule ahead.

But if he can keep the momentum going with his fastball and maintain a more consistent arm action, it could be an amazing year for him. His stuff is formidable; if he can use it more effectively than in 2022 when he allowed an average of 10 runs per nine innings, Kikuchi believes he can be at his best this season for the Blue Jays. With the pitch clock and other mechanical tweaks, Kikuchi believes this season will be different this time around.

2. He has a new haircut

Toronto Blue Jays left-handed pitcher Yusei Kikuchi has been getting a lot of attention this spring, and for good reason. He's sporting a new haircut and pitching tempo that should make him even more effective this season.

Kikuchi is in contention for the Jays' fifth starter's job this spring. Last year, his 5.19 ERA put him on the outside looking in, but his pitching coach believes Kikuchi has turned a corner and is eager to return to action.

His first start was successful, though not without its challenges. On Saturday afternoon the Blue Jays opened the exhibition slate with a 9-7 victory against Pittsburgh that marked their first in-game exposure to new MLB rule changes.

The new rules are intended to expedite play, including a pitch clock and ban on infield shifts. They also call for faster pitch intervals and an increased flow of at-bats.

Kikuchi's throwing was noticeably better, which bodes well for his future as a starter. He threw 17 breaking balls and struck out six batters while walking only six.

He threw more strikes than his previous outing, which helped him stay in the strike zone. This is a positive development and indicates that the team is confident with their scouting report on the young left-handed pitcher.

After leaving the clubhouse after victory, Kikuchi looked more like the player drafted by the Jays than the one who had been sidelined for much of last season. While he still has a ways to go, this victory was an encouraging step in the right direction for the former NPB star.

It will be interesting to see how Kikuchi adjusts to the new MLB rules, but it seems likely that he'll remain an important part of the Jays rotation for at least the next couple months. His success in the Grapefruit League should earn him a spot in the starting rotation for 2022 season and his ability to utilize his new curveball could help ensure their rotation remains strong throughout the entire campaign.

3. He has a new hat

Yusei Kikuchi looked entirely different in his Jays spring opener. Not just with his new beard, but with an attitude that suggested he's ready to take baseball by storm again.

Kikuchi has had a difficult time in his first few major league starts, so he needed to adjust. His arm slot is different, and he must focus on using it correctly.

He's also working on a new pitching tempo and mentality as part of his gradual preparation for opening day.

Kikuchi has struggled in recent seasons to get hitters to chase his pitches. His strikeout rate is impressive, yet he struggles to consistently deliver quality pitches.

So he sought ways to enhance his command of his fastball. Ultimately, he discovered an arm slot adjustment that helped him maintain greater control of it more often.

Even with that, he had trouble getting hitters to hit it. On Saturday against the Pirates, he had 14 whiffs in 33 pitches.

That's impressive for a pitcher with his age and inexperience, and it was enough to earn him the victory in his opener against the Pirates. He limited Pittsburgh to one run over 7 2/3 innings while striking out three.

It's possible that the blue substance spotted under Kikuchi's cap was indeed pine tar, though this does not appear to be something which would concern either the Mariners, Yankees or MLB.

Kikuchi has a chance to be an effective fifth starter for the Jays this year, but it won't be an easy race. At some point, they may need to remove Kikuchi from the rotation in order for Ross Stripling or Mitch White to take his place.

If he continues to make progress in the minors, Kikuchi could be back in the majors by the end of this season or early next. With such a strong pipeline to their top prospects, there's an excellent chance we might see Kikuchi playing in the majors this year.

4. He has a new t-shirt

Yusei Kikuchi has taken on a different look in the Jays' spring opener, and it's for the better. The Japanese left-hander looks slightly different on the mound with his new beard and approach to pitching that could prove crucial in his chances of making Toronto's rotation this season.

After an abject 2022 season in which he threw just 14 whiffs and posted a 3.80 ERA, Kikuchi has been working to improve his command of a fastball that can be dominant. To better attack hitters on the outside corner, he has adjusted his arm slot and is making progress.

On his first start after recovering from shoulder surgery, Kikuchi appeared more fluid on the mound and made some tweaks to his slider. His coach Pete Walker suggested that he grip the pitch differently, and it showed; results were impressive.

He threw his slider 17 times, producing seven swinging strikes and a high whiff rate on the pitch. With his new grip, Kikuchi said that it has given his pitch more depth, leading to improved consistency on the mound this spring.

It's essential for the Jays to have their starting rotation set this spring, and it appears Kikuchi may take over that role as fifth starter. That's a huge accomplishment for a squad with so many young players still trying to find their place together.

The downside of the journey is that it will be a long, slow road to get there - and it won't be easy. Therefore, everyone must remain positive and focus on the goal at hand: winning games.

That task is much easier said than done for the Blue Jays, who boast an array of young, internally developed players as well as some veteran veterans.

Veteran pieces are essential in creating depth and a well-rounded team. The Jays have some talented young arms in the bullpen, but they also rely on some experienced veterans still in their prime to keep them healthy and available for every game.

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