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Yusei Kikuchi to the Mariners - Fantasy Outlook

The Mariners rang in the new year with yet another move, as news broke in the final hours of 2018 that Nippon Professional Baseball pitcher Yusei Kikuchi had signed a four-year deal with Seattle.

Kikuchi will be joining the Mariners after a "down" season in which he only went 14-4 with a 3.08 ERA — his highest since 2014 — a 1.033 WHIP and an 8.4 K/9. That performance came on the heels of a career-year in 2017, where he finished with a 16-6 record, 1.97 ERA, a career-low 0.911 WHIP and a career-high 10.4 K/9. As always with players moving from NPB to MLB, the biggest question is how will their numbers and skills translate from one league to the other? Will Kikuchi's first season in America look more like Shohei Ohtani's debut or Kei Igawa's?

There's a lot of information to unpack here with Kikuchi's value in 2019 and beyond, so let's dive in.

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Yusei Goodbye, I Say Hello

First, let's take a look at his career numbers in Japan. Kikuchi has been fairly consistent over the last four seasons now, recording at least 130 innings and a 20 percent strikeout rate each year. On top of that, Kikuchi has finished in the top-30 in the Japan Pacific League in ERA and K/9 in each of the last four years and finished in the top 10 in WHIP in two of the four seasons.

2015 133 9-10 2.84 1.143 10.1 22.5
2016 143 12-7 2.58 1.287 11.3 21.3
2017 187.2 16-6 1.97 0.911 6.7 29.5
2018 163.2 14-4 3.08 1.033 6.9 23.3

It appears 2017 might be somewhat of an outlier for Kikuchi, but even if it is he still has very solid numbers that have helped make him one of better pitchers in Japan. That being said, how well will these numbers translate to MLB?


Japan to the U.S. — Starters making the jump

To get an idea of what to expect from Kikuchi in 2019, let's take a look at some other starters that have made the switch in recent years. Below are the stat lines for the six most recent starters to come from Japan in the year before their MLB debut:

Shohei Ohtani* 140 10-4 1.86 0.957 8.2 31.8
Kenta Maeda 206.1 15-8 2.09 1.013 5.0 21.3
Masahiro Tanaka 212 24-0 1.27 0.943 3.9 22.2
Tsuyoshi Wada 184.2 16-5 1.51 1.002 5.5 23.1
Yu Darvish 232 18-6 1.44 0.828 4.1 31.1
Hisashi Iwakuma 119 6-7 2.42 1.050 4.0 19.1

*Ohtani's numbers are from his last full season in NPB (2016)


And then here are their numbers from their debut seasons:

Name Age in Debut IP W-L ERA WHIP BB% K%
Shohei Ohtani* 23 51.2 4-2 3.31 1.161 10.4 29.9
Kenta Maeda 28 175.2 16-11 3.48 1.139 7.0 25.0
Masahiro Tanaka 25 136.1 13-5 2.77 1.056 3.9 26.0
Tsuyoshi Wada 33 69.1 4-4 3.25 1.240 6.6 19.7
Yu Darvish 25 191.1 16-9 3.90 1.280 10.9 27.1
Hisashi Iwakuma 31 125.1 9-5 3.16 1.277 8.3 19.5

A couple of quick takeaways from these numbers are that each of these six pitchers saw both their ERA and WHIP increase upon their arrival in America, with Tanaka the only one who did not see an increase in his walk rate. The strikeout rates appeared to be more or less the same, and five of the pitchers (Ohtani excluded) saw an average drop of about 52 innings from their last season in Japan to their first season in MLB.


How will Kikuchi compare?

What can we take from this and apply toward Kikuchi? For starters, if he follows the trend of increasing ERA and WHIP, Kikuchi could be in for a rough rookie season. Compared to the other pitchers in the chart above, Kikuchi is the only pitcher to post an ERA over 3.00 in the year before his MLB debut, and only Iwakuma posted a higher WHIP than Kikuchi. On top of that, each pitcher on the list saw an increase of 0.5 to 0.8 to their HR/9 rate, and Kikuchi's 0.9 HR/9 in 2018 is the highest rate out of this group.

So for Kikuchi's value in redraft leagues, it appears the cards may be stacked against him. With an anticipated drop in innings, look for Kikuchi to make about 23 to 25 starts roughly, with an ERA somewhere in the range from 3.80 to 4.10 and about 130 strikeouts. A good comparison for Kikuchi in 2019 would probably have to be Tyler Skaggs' 2018 performance: 24 starts, 4.02 ERA, 129 strikeouts and a 9.3 K/9.

Skaggs currently has an ADP of about 260, while Kikuchi has an ADP of 194. That might be a little too high for Kikuchi — especially given his new home in the AL West — and 260 is probably too long to wait on him. Owners will probably be able to get the best value if they can target him around the 220 ADP range.


What to expect in 2020 and beyond?

With the exceptions of Darvish and Iwakuma, all of these pitchers saw a dip in their stats in their sophomore season. After that, however, they've all managed to pitch closer to their rookie season numbers and have more or less become fairly consistent in their performances from season to season. Kikuchi will almost certainly have some growing pains in his first two years in MLB, but if he can make it through those first couple seasons then he has a good chance at being an above average fantasy starter. Long-term, he may be a liability in ERA but he should be able to make up for it in strikeouts.

In dynasty drafts, Kikuchi has to be an early-round draft pick, if not a first-rounder. He is guaranteed to play at the Major League level, which is more than can be said for some minor leaguers that will be taken in drafts this year. One potential hit to his dynasty value is his age, as he will turn 28 shortly before the All-Star break. He may not be a good pick for a dynasty team looking to retool for a championship run in about five years, but for a team looking to compete within the next three years, Kikuchi has to be near the top of your draft board.

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