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Out of Right Field: Yusei Kikuchi’s inconsistency starts to wear thin

UPDATED: Sat., Aug. 17, 2019, 10:11 p.m.

Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Yusei Kikuchi was headed to the showers after just 3 1/3 innings in his last start. (Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)
Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Yusei Kikuchi was headed to the showers after just 3 1/3 innings in his last start. (Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)
By Gene Warnick The Spokesman-Review

Lou Piniella hated pitchers.

Perhaps because during his playing days, he viewed them as the enemy. The guys trying to keep food off his family’s table.

“Sweet Lou” never quite reconciled that during his managerial career. He once engaged reliever Rob Dibble in a wrestling match – after a victory, no less – during his time with the Cincinnati Reds, with whom he won his lone World Series title as a manager in 1990.

Piniella went on to win 840 games with the Mariners, a franchise record.

But it’s safe to say the likes of Bobby Ayala, Heathcliff Slocumb and Jose Mesa were never on his holiday shopping list.

Current Mariners manager Scott Servais has a different perspective – and a much different temperament.

Servais was a catcher, spending 792 of his 796 games over an 11-year career behind the plate.

He had to work with pitchers, going over scouting reports and deciding which pitches would get opposing batters out.

So when Servais was less than positive discussing rookie left-hander Yusei Kikuchi’s last outing on Tuesday in Detroit, one could tell the manager was frustrated.

Kikuchi, who is 4-8 with a 5.56 earned-run average, allowed five runs on nine hits in 3 1/3 innings against the Tigers, the team with the worst record in the majors. Kikuchi didn’t get a decision that day as Seattle rallied for an 11-6 victory.

Servais and pitching coach Paul Davis have reportedly met with Kikuchi on several occasions this season, including the day after his abbreviated start in Detroit.

“I’ve said all along that he’s going to go through some growing pains and it’s a big learning curve,” Servais told reporters. “As we go through these steps and he’s learning, I just don’t want to have these conversations again. If we keep making the same mistakes over and over again, we aren’t getting any better. And that can’t happen.”

It’s been a season of ups and mostly downs for Kikuchi, a 28-year-old from Japan who signed in the offseason as one of the first new building blocks in the Mariners’ rebuilding plan.

He was 3-1 after a May 19 victory against Minnesota but has lost seven of his past eight decisions, lasting seven innings just once in that span.

According to research by Lookout Landing’s Matthew Roberson, Kikuchi’s slider, which was one of his top pitches in Japan, is -5.8 runs below average, ranking him 53rd among 56 qualifying major-league pitchers this season. And he’s 67th out of 69 pitchers in “O-Swing%,” which means opponents aren’t swinging at his pitches out of the strike zone.

They’re waiting for him to throw a fastball and hammering it.

Kikuchi actually had one of his better appearances of the season two starts ago. On Aug. 7 against San Diego, he allowed one run on four hits in five innings and struck out eight, two shy of his season high.

“My last inning of the Padres start, I was like, ‘Oh, this feels really good, maybe this is it,’” Kikuchi told the Seattle Times through an interpreter. “I’m trying to move forward with that (feeling) and I tried to keep it the same.”

But his mechanics apparently weren’t the same, which is what irked Servais. The coaching staff worked with Kikuchi to shorten his arm path before the start against the Padres. In Detroit, he was back to his old habits.

“I thought it was different,” Servais said. “I thought his pitches were different and reacted differently. They didn’t have the finish to them. He certainly didn’t get the swing-and-miss we’d seen in the previous outing. …

“Whether he couldn’t make the adjustment or whatever, I’m not quite sure. We clearly saw a difference in how the hitters reacted to the pitches he was throwing. Sometimes if you can’t feel it, you just need to watch what’s happening: ‘Wait a second, something’s not right here.’ He needs to make a quicker adjustment.”

Kikuchi will get another chance today, when he’s scheduled to start at Toronto.

What can the M’s expect?

Nobody knows.

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