2019 Pod Projections: Yusei Kikuchi — A Review

Let’s review the first Pod Projection I posted for the 2019 season, Yusei Kikuchi, who was to make his MLB debut from Japan. It’s difficult enough to project players with no Major League experience, such as rookies coming up from the minor leagues. It’s even more challenging to try the forecast game when that player with no MLB experience is actually coming from a foreign league. Translating their foreign league performance is more art than science. Luckily, the DELTA website helped by supplying some of the season metrics, which I did my best to translate to a Major League equivalent to use as a guide. Let’s see how he performed versus my projections and the rest of the systems.

Games Started | IP: 28 Projected, 32 Actual | 160 Projected, 161.2 Actual

Though Kikuchi never started more than 26 games in his baseball career, he actually managed to start 32 times during his debut campaign. However, he pitched fewer innings per start, so he ended up almost perfectly matching my innings pitched projection.

K%: 24.1% Projected, 16.1% Actual

Well this was a surprise. Kikuchi posted a career strikeout rate in Japan of 22.9%, but since strikeout rates are lower in the league, that’s actually equivalent to a mid-20% strikeout rate in MLB. Unfortunately, the translation didn’t carry over. Despite showcasing a four-pitch mix, he simply didn’t induce enough whiffs. His slider was solid enough, generating a 14.8% SwStk%, but his four-seamer was below average at getting swings and misses, and his curve ball, which he threw 15.4% of the time, was downright awful. Why he would throw the pitch 404 times when it generated a lowly 4% SwStk% is baffling. In fact, just a quick look at all the outcomes of the pitch confirms that he could have been much more effective if he just dropped the pitch completely.

BB%: 8.3% Projected, 6.9% Actual

Because of the below average strikeout rate, you had to hope he would outperform his walk rate projection! He actually posted a mark right in line with his marks over the last two seasons in Japan, but before 2017, he was in double digits. Now having posted a sub-7% walk rate for three straight seasons, it seems clear that he is over his earlier control struggles and his improvement should be sustained.

GB%/LD%/FB%: 45% / 20.5% / 34.5% Projected, 44% / 20.6% / 35.4% Actual

Wow, his Japan league translation, which fed my projection, basically nailed it!

HR/FB%: 13.5% Projected, 18.8% Actual

With homers flying out at record rates, it’s no surprise that Kikuchi was blasted by the long ball. Amazingly, he allowed four homers in a game, three homers twice, and two homers a whopping nine times. With so many baserunners due to the low strikeout rate, that meant the potential for lots of two-run and three-run shots. This is not what Kikuchi speculators hoped for when they drafted him.

BABIP: .290 Projected, .310 Actual

Kikuchi owned about a league average batted ball distribution, which all else being equal, should result in a BABIP around the league average (.296 all pitchers, .297 all starters, .300 AL starters). Was it the Mariners defense? If they did let him down, they certainly didn’t do so for the rest of the pitching staff! The team’s BABIP allowed was just .291. However, they ranked fourth to last in UZR/150 at a -5.2 mark. That’s hard to reconcile with the strong BABIP.

There could be one possible conclusion — Kikuchi is simply not an MLB caliber pitcher. Remember the rules governing BABIP and HR/FB rate assume you have MLB talent. Obviously you and I would allow far worse rates in those metrics. Given that Kikuchi is coming from a foreign league, it’s very possible he’s just not good enough and better belongs in the minors.

Now let’s compare all the pre-season projections with the actuals:

Projection vs Actual Comparison
System IP W ERA WHIP K K/9 BB/9 HR/9 K% BB% GB% BABIP LOB%
2019 Actual 161.2 6 5.46 1.52 116 6.5 2.8 2.00 16.1% 6.9% 44.0% 0.310 70.8%
Pod 160 10 3.76 1.25 161 9.1 3.1 1.17 24.1% 8.3% 45.0% 0.290 74.4%
THE BAT 140 8 3.83 1.24 136 8.8 3.1 1.21 0.292 74.1%
ATC 138 8 4.00 1.28 128 8.3 3.2 1.22 0.294 73.1%
Steamer 142 8 4.52 1.36 136 8.6 3.3 1.48 22.2% 8.5% 44.3% 0.297 72.6%
Fans (5) 139 12 3.50 1.22 127 8.2 2.7 0.84 0.301 74.3%
ZiPS 142 9 4.05 1.35 131 8.3 3.5 1.07 0.306 73.7%

Quite simply, we were all wayyyyy off. Only Steamer had any inkling that Kikuchi wouldn’t be a fantasy asset. Interestingly, I was the only one to project more than 142 innings. We all overshot his strikeout potential, but I was off the most. Everyone was too high on the walk rate, except the ever-optimistic Fans, who actually just missed nailing it. And of course, the Fun Happy Ball caused us all to be totally wrong about his home run rate. Oddly, the Fans were most pessimistic on BABIP, projecting a .306 mark, one of just two systems to forecast a mark of at least .300.

Kikuchi will turn just 29 next summer and is signed through 2021, but will he even be guaranteed a rotation spot next season? Even if he does lock one down out of Spring Training, is there a chance he gets moved to the bullpen? While you gotta figure he improves, his first MLB season doesn’t provide us with much optimism of a major enough improvement to be worth gambling on. The upside appears limited given his paltry strikeout rate backed by a weak SwStk%.

We hoped you liked reading 2019 Pod Projections: Yusei Kikuchi — A Review by Mike Podhorzer!

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Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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More splitter and slider usage and less curves and fastballs might be the key. Also, he had some family issues before this season.