Yusei Kikuchi has always been his own harshest critic. By being hard on himself, he’s been able to push his body to its limits and make the difficult journey from Japan to MLB.
That rabid mental struggle is visible on Kikuchi’s face during every one of his outings. The Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher made his return from the injured list Thursday against the Detroit Tigers, and, initially, the ups and downs continued.
A leadoff double in the first inning sparked a threat, but Kikuchi snuffed it out with a perfectly executed high heater for a swinging strike three, popping off the mound with extra enthusiasm.
As the pitch count climbed, the 31-year-old was keen to stay out there, insisting he was “starving” and “wanted to keep going” before skipper John Schneider told his starter to hit the showers after five innings of one-run ball.
“[Kikuchi] made some adjustments, threw a ton of strikes, kind of got better as he went on … he gave us exactly what we needed,” Schneider said. “So it was awesome to see.”
Kikuchi’s season has been one gruelling experiment. First, he dropped the hesitation in his leg kick. Then he tinkered with a slider-cutter mix, eventually ditching the latter pitch. Through all the deconstructions of who he is as a pitcher, Kikuchi’s confidence has always been his X-factor.
“Being a little bit too hard on myself, I feel like, in a game puts me in a difficult spot mentally, at times,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando. “So just maybe pushing back or taking a step back sometimes could be really beneficial.”
The left-hander’s recent time away from the team during a three-week IL stint for a neck injury offered some time for even more mechanical re-tooling. Pete Walker, the Blue Jays’ pitching coach, suggested Kikuchi do various pitcher fielding drills (PFP) to emphasise an athletic delivery.
“Pete came up to me and said, “Hey, look, whenever we would do PFPs or any sort of fielding work, you get it to first base, or whichever base, right on the money almost every time,” said Kikuchi, baseball’s second-best fielding pitcher, per his four defensive runs saved.
The thinking is that these drills will help calm Kikuchi’s mind and emphasize a more natural throwing motion he can carry onto the mound. Fellow Blue Jays starter Kevin Gausman backs that strategy.
“You toss him a ball and say, ‘Hey, throw it,’” Gausman said. “And they don't have time to think. They pick it up and they throw like that. That's their normal arm slot.”
Gausman, who utilizes the high fastball a ton, likes to long-toss as if he’s an outfielder, staying behind the ball and crow-hopping into his warm-up throws. If he sees the ball rise, then he knows his arm action is working.
Gausman, a 10-year major-league veteran, is more invested in Kikuchi’s season than most. He, and other Jays starters, frequently chat about their craft, and Gausman has come to learn a few of his Japanese teammate’s unique qualities.
“He's a very cerebral guy,” Gausman said. “He wants to always get better and he's always asking questions. Sometimes it helps; sometimes it hurts you.”
Before the All-Star break, Kikuchi’s mental struggles were sizable. He had a 7.99 ERA in his last seven starts before the Midsummer Classic, and nothing was coming easily. The progress he made earlier this year felt lost. All the while, Kikuchi’s arsenal looked nasty, even if the command came and went.
“We watch [Kikuchi] throw his ‘pens all the time and we're like, ‘His stuff is unbelievable,’” said Gausman. “He just needs a little bit more confidence, and then once he has that confidence and has success, it's gonna take off.”
As we roar towards the Aug. 2 trade deadline, where the Blue Jays are expected to be big players, Toronto needs Kikuchi to establish better command to secure the fifth and final rotation spot. Otherwise, the club will look elsewhere for pitching help.
“We said it in spring,” Gausman said. “We're gonna go as far as our rotation takes us. I feel like the lineup is always going to be pretty consistent, but how far we go in this thing is determined by us.”
The pitching staff will receive reinforcements soon. But how much Kikuchi believes in himself and how much the Blue Jays trust their erratic left-hander will determine the extent of the trade help the front office brings in.
More from Yahoo Sports