2019 Pod Projections: Yusei Kikuchi

Alas, it’s Pod Projections time, as the 2019 forecasts are now available! As usual, I’ll dive into my projection methodology (detailed in Projecting X 2.0) by sharing my process on several hitters and pitchers.

I’ll begin with the newest starting pitcher coming over from Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball. The Mariners signed 27-year-old southpaw Yusei Kikuchi to a four-year deal, so we’ll have to first translate his Japanese stats to MLB equivalents and then make a projection on those. It’s not an easy task.

My process for Kikuchi, and all foreign players if the data is available, is to collect his underlying metrics, index them to his league’s average, then translate those indexed metrics to MLB to yield an equivalent mark. From there, perhaps make some minor adjustments to account for uncertainty of a perfect conversion.

The DELTA website (check the English box on the right side above the stat table) is the go-to for Japanese league stats, as it displays FanGraphs stats for Japanese players. Rather than have to somehow convert an ERA, I can now project the underlying skills and use the same process for current Major Leaguers. The stat categories should look familiar, and they even include batted ball type distribution (LD%, GB%, FB%), as well as BABIP (labeled as DER, it’s 1 minus DER for BABIP) and HR/FB rate all under the Batted Ball tab. There are also pitch type and outcome tabs so we could learn about a pitcher’s repertoire.

Even with all this data, there is still much more that should be accounted for, but I don’t have the data for. This includes park factors and the quality of the defense.

So let’s get to it. As a reminder, I do not forecast ERA or WHIP manually, but rather the underlying skills that drive the results like K%, BB%, GB%. Excel then throws those inputs into my various formulas and an ERA, WHIP, HR/9, W-L record, etc, are calculated.

Games Started | IP: 28 | 160

Yusei Kikuchi Season GS & IP Totals
2013 17 108 6.4
2014 23 139.2 6.1
2015 21 133 *
2016 22 143 6.5
2017 26 187.2 7.2
2018 23 163.2 7.1
Total 158 1035.1 6.6
*Season included two relief appearances, so without the IP in only GS, I excluded the season

If you do the math, this projection results in about 5.7 innings per start. When the Mariners signed Kikuchi, they also shared a plan to give him 30 starts, but limit his innings every couple of times out. That should keep his games started total near 30, but reduce his IP/GS well below what he had typically posted in Japan. Though the team planned to give him 30-plus starts, I couldn’t actually bring myself to project that high a tally.

K%: 24.1%

Yusei Kikuchi 2018 Pitch Type
Metric FA SL CB CH
% Thrown 48.6% 34.7% 11.0% 5.3%
Velocity 91.5 85.7 74.1 79.3

Kikuchi isn’t a hard thrower, but daaaaamn, he throws his slider frequently. Based solely on pitch selection, his closest comps appear to be Patrick Corbin and Jakob Junis, with Jon Gray also matching Kikuchi’s repertoire closely, albeit at a higher velocity. The strikeout rates of all three pitchers finished above 21%, getting all the way above 30% for Corbin. Similarly, the SwStk% marks ran the gamut from a low of 9.5% (Junis) to 15.6% from Corbin. Gray serves as the middle, and coincidentally, his 2018 strikeout rate stood pretty close to my Kikuchi projection.

Yusei Kikuchi Season K% & Translation
Year Kikuchi K% Japan Lg Avg K% K%+ K% Indexed to 21.3% AL SP Lg Avg
2013 20.9% * * *
2014 18.0% 18.2% 99 21.1%
2015 22.5% 18.1% 124 26.5%
2016 21.3% 18.1% 118 25.1%
2017 29.5% 19.3% 153 32.6%
2018 23.4% 18.6% 126 26.8%
Average 22.9% 18.5% 124 26.5%
*Statistics unavailable

Although Japanese league strikeout rates have risen over the last two seasons, they still pale in comparison to Major League Baseball. That’s why outside of 2017, Kikuchi’s strikeout rates look rather mediocre. However, a look over to the K%+ column confirms that he has performed significantly above the league average, striking out batters 24% more often since 2014. That K% index translates to a mid-20% strikeout rate in MLB.

Of course, the talent in MLB is the greatest in the world and one cannot simply perform a conversion like this and call it a day. So to account for the unknown in how Kikuchi’s stuff will play in the U.S., I played it safe and took down his strikeout rate projection marginally.

BB%: 8.3%

Yusei Kikuchi Season BB%
Year Kikuchi BB% Japan Lg Avg BB% BB%+ BB% Indexed to 7.8% AL SP Lg Avg
2013 10.0% * * *
2014 12.7% 8.5% 149 11.6%
2015 10.1% 8.4% 121 9.4%
2016 11.3% 8.5% 132 10.3%
2017 6.7% 8.1% 82 6.4%
2018 6.9% 8.5% 81 6.3%
Average 9.4% 8.4% 112 8.8%
*Statistics unavailable

Earlier in Kikuchi’s career, he struggled a bit with his control. But it has improved significantly since, as he has thrown more first pitch strikes and pitches inside the zone. My projection gives him credit for the reduced walk rate over the past two seasons, but also acknowledges his previous three years at elevated marks. Overall, my forecast is for a bit lower than his average over the past five seasons.

GB%/LD%/FB%: 45% / 20.5% / 34.5%

Yusei Kikuchi Season GB%
Year Kikuchi GB% Japan Lg Avg GB% GB%+ GB% Indexed to 42.1% AL SP Lg Avg
2016 48.7% 47.6% 102 43.1%
2017 50.3% 46.8% 107 45.2%
2018 53.2% 46.9% 113 47.8%
Average 50.7% 47.1% 108 45.3%

We typically pay far less attention to a pitcher’s ability to induce grounders. However, it’s important to factor in batted ball type distribution, as home runs and BABIP are greatly impacted by the type of batted ball a pitcher allows.

Kikuchi has posted a ground ball rate slightly higher than the Japan league average in the past three seasons, with his mark rising each season. There are more ground balls in the Pacific League of NPB, so Kikuchi’s MLB translated GB% is chopped. My 45% ground ball rate forecast essentially matches his average in the past three seasons.

HR/FB%: 13.5%

Yusei Kikuchi Season HR/FB
Year Kikuchi HR/FB Japan Lg Avg HR/FB HR/FB+ HR/FB Indexed to 13.2% AL SP Lg Avg
2016 4.8% 7.3% 66 8.7%
2017 10.1% 9.3% 109 14.3%
2018 10.5% 9.4% 112 14.7%
Average 8.5% 8.0% 105 13.9%

As we are all well aware, there are significantly fewer homers in NPB. In the last three seasons, the Pacific League average HR/FB rate failed to get into the double digits. That has only happened four times in MLB since 2002, as far back as our FanGraphs data goes.

But perhaps surprisingly for one of the betters pitchers in the league, Kikuchi has allowed homers on his flies at an above average clip the last two seasons. That translates to a nearly 14% HR/FB rate average during that time period. Safeco Field is about neutral for homers, and I figure a somewhat improved ability to suppress homers, so my forecast calls for a 13.5% rate, which is still above the 2018 AL average.

BABIP: .290

Yusei Kikuchi Season BABIP
Year Kikuchi BABIP Japan Lg Avg BABIP BABIP+ BABIP Indexed to 0.293 AL SP Lg Avg
2016 0.288 0.307 94 0.275
2017 0.266 0.297 90 0.262
2018 0.264 0.297 89 0.260
Average 0.273 0.302 90 0.265

BABIP is a function of a pitcher’s pitch selection and repertoire, the batted ball types he allows, and his defensive support, among other lesser factors. Luck plays a bigger role than most would like to admit. It’s hard enough projecting a veteran pitcher’s BABIP, so trying to predict a rookie pitcher, and one coming over from across the world, is extremely difficult.

Kikuchi has done a fabulous job at suppressing hits on balls in play. He has consistently done so better than the league average, which translates to marks usually reserved for extreme fly ball pitchers or those blessed with the best of fortune. Kikuchi doesn’t project to have any sort of extreme batted ball tendency, plus the Mariners defense is projected to be pretty terrible.

That said, hitters are likely going to have to adjust to Kikuchi’s delivery and pitching style, and we shouldn’t completely ignore his skills at limiting hits in Japan. So my .290 BABIP forecast is a conservative way to acknowledge the possibility of above average hit prevention skills, while reflecting the possibly the Mariners provide some poor defensive support.

Below is my final projected pitching line. Typically, I would compare it with the other systems for comparison, but those don’t seem to be published yet.

Yusei Kikuchi 2019 Pod Projection
160 10 3.76 1.25 161 9.1 3.1 1.17 24.1% 8.3% 45.0% 0.290 74.4%

Overall, this is a respectable, albeit unremarkable, projection. In a 12-team mixed league, it represents between the high tier of the low end and the low end of the mid tier. He might need to be managed for those games he only goes a couple of innings, since he won’t qualify for a win and would essentially just contribute reliever stats for the week without the possibility of a save.

Since the day after he signed, his NFBC ADP stands at 174 as the 65th pitcher off the board. His pick range, though, is all over the place, with a minimum of 96 and maximum of 300. At his current ADP and rank among pitchers, he’s very reasonably priced. It’ll be interesting to see how he performs during spring training, as you know his results have the potential to dramatically affect his cost. Don’t overreact the way fantasy owners did for Shohei Ohtani!

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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3 years ago

Thank you for this. I have been wondering how Kikuchi’s projections were going to stack up to other recent NPB pitchers like Mikolas, Ohtani, Tanaka, etc.