With a new changeup, a confident Yusei Kikuchi aims to be ‘even better’ for Blue Jays

DUNEDIN, Fla. — Toronto Blue Jays manager Yusei Kikuchi spun around on the mound and strutted to the dugout after getting Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Alika Williams to look at a strike-three fastball.

The called strike completed an efficient and effective first spring outing for Kikuchi, who pitched two scoreless innings on Monday. The 32-year-old left-hander allowed just one hit and had three strikeouts while throwing 30 pitches — 19 of them for strikes.

“His delivery was awesome, stuff was really good, too,” Blue Jays manager John Schneider said. “Changeup’s going to be a big pitch for him — especially against those righties. I thought everything that he set out to do today, he did. Fastball command was there, slider was sharp — really, really good first outing for him.”

A year ago, Kikuchi came into camp on a mission to put his first miserable season with the Blue Jays behind him and earn his spot in the rotation. After a spectacular spring, where he allowed just two earned runs in 20 2/3 innings, he did just that and then went on to have his best season. Kikuchi pitched a career-high 167 2/3 innings with a 3.86 ERA while helping the Blue Jays finish with the third-best rotation in baseball.

Now comfortable with his place in Toronto’s rotation and confident after his turnaround season, Kikuchi is focussing less on results during this spring and more so on making sure he’s prepared for the upcoming season by finetuning his pitches and mastering a new changeup, which he added ahead of the 2024 season.

“Last year, I wanted to leave a really good impression after the season I had the year before,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Yusuke Oshima. “I was giving it my all every pitch, not wanting to give up a run every time I was out there. But this year, I have some things that we can work on. Talking to (pitching coach) Pete (Walker), using a changeup effectively in certain counts … I was able to do that today, so I think that went well.”

After he successfully incorporated a curveball into his repertoire last year, which complemented his fastball and slider, Kikuchi is refining his off-speed pitch this year. The left-hander ditched his old split-finger changeup and is instead throwing a circle changeup, which allows him to take more speed off of the pitch.

Kikuchi called the changeup a “work in progress,” but the Blue Jays envision it being a weapon that he can use to generate weak contact, especially against right-handed hitters. The slower speed is intentional, too.

Last year, his split-changeup averaged 88.7 mph, which in the Blue Jays’ view didn’t create enough separation from his 95 mph fastball. On Monday, his new changeup was averaging 84.6 mph, according to Baseball Savant. The Blue Jays envision the slower changeup pairing well with his fastball in a similar way to how Kikuchi’s 83 mph curveball complements his 89 mph slider.

“It’s a lot like his curveball paired with his slider to where it’s just that good speed difference between the two and it keeps hitters in between,” Schneider said of the changeup. “The slider and fastball are hard and the changeup and curve are a little bit slower. Whenever you can keep hitters in between a little bit, it’s a good thing.”

Nailing down the changeup will be a project throughout spring, but big picture, the Blue Jays like where Kikuchi is at compared to a year ago. Walker said recently that Kikuchi is in a “different place” than last spring when they were working through a delivery change and trying to rebuild the confidence of a pitcher in which they’d invested $36 million.

“I think mentally, confidence is extremely high and I think he’s looking to even be better this year, which we feel he can be,” Walker said.

With each strong outing last year, Kikuchi grew more confident and at ease. Schneider described the difference as “before, (he’s) hoping for results, where this year, where he is right now, he’s expecting them.”

Off the field, Kikuchi is also more at home after two years playing for the Blue Jays. He even spent most of his offseason in Toronto, braving the cold while exploring the city’s many restaurants and tourist attractions — he especially liked the amusement park, Canada’s Wonderland — before coming down to Florida to intensify his training ahead of the 2024 season.

After watching Kikuchi for a year now, fellow starter Chris Bassitt, who also began his own Grapefruit League campaign on Monday with two clean innings, said he’s been impressed with the way the left-hander has accepted and embraced the changes that the Blue Jays and Walker have put in front of him.

“Pete’s obviously the head of us all … so him listening to Pete and truly embracing that,” Bassitt said. “We’re all making some adjustments to certain pitches and (it’s) just hey, ‘What’s basically going to take you to the next level? What’s going to make you even harder to get hit?’”

After the many strides that Kikuchi made last season, the left-hander enters the season with a healthy dose of belief in himself. But Kikuchi said he’s not just resting on that. To get better, he said he wants to continue to refine his fastball command, especially throwing it inside to batters. He believes if he does that effectively, he can keep hitters guessing with his other pitches. The aim, he said, is to top last season.

“It’s not just me, but I think I could speak for all the other players as well, but just because the year before I was good, doesn’t mean that this year, I’m going to do well — that’s not a guarantee,” Kikuchi said. “I think I’ve got a higher ceiling and things to work on still, and I think I could be even better this year.”

(Top photo from Monday’s outing: Nathan Ray Seebeck / USA Today)

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