Seattle Mariners

Mariners expecting a ‘big step forward’ from Yusei Kikuchi next season

What Yusei Kikuchi did Wednesday night, in the final start of his up-and-down rookie season with the Seattle Mariners, got overshadowed when Astros pitcher Zack Greinke carried a no-hitter bid into the ninth inning.

But, none of what Seattle’s rookie left-hander did — he completed six quality innings, allowed just a pair of runs in the first, six hits, didn’t walk a batter and struck out four on 103 pitches — was lost on his manager.

“He really settled in,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “He had really good rhythm, competed very well. Really a positive way to end the season for him, and take that into the offseason.

“Like I’ve said all along, this is about learning, and he learned a ton this year. Really happy for him to see it end the way it did.”

Kikuchi, a 28-year-old who played professionally for eight years in his native Japan before signing a four-year deal with the Mariners in January for $56 million, had his share of growing pains his first season in the majors.

He compiled a 6-11 record and 5.46 ERA — one of the highest in the majors among qualified starters — across a career-high 32 starts. He struck out 116 but walked 50, nearly 43 percent of the hits he allowed were for extra bases, and the 36 home runs he served up again rank near the highest for all qualified starters. Opponents slashed at .295/.348/.539 against Kikuchi in his first season.

But, the Mariners are less interested in the numbers than they are in the experiences gained.

“I think the numbers — on paper statistically — he would have liked to have a better season,” Servais said. “There are certain games that got away from him, when he felt really good about it, and all of the sudden they get a few hits, a couple homers, and wham, he’s out of the game.

“I think overall he’s learned a lot. The whole goal when this whole thing started — from his opening press conference — was this is going to be a transition year.”

The idea was to keep Kikuchi healthy as he adapted to the rotation cycle in the majors, during which starters pitch on fewer days rest than they do in Japan, and limit his workload enough with abbreviated starts or skips to help him acclimate. And, by and large, the Mariners held steady with that plan.

“I’ll say it right now, I think next year he takes a big step forward in the consistency of what he’s doing, now that he’s found a routine,” Servais said. “He’s still got things to work on, but he’s also running on fumes at this time of year. He’s pitched more than he’s ever pitched before, as far as number of starts go. He’s never pitched against this kind of competition before either, so the goal was to get him through the year healthy, and (give him) a chance to reflect on the season.”

Kikuchi said through interpreter Justin Novak on Wednesday he was pleased to end his season with a high-quality performance — that included rarely seen consistency with five scoreless frames to complete the outing, and a fastball that touched as high as 95 mph despite being at the end of a taxing season — but acknowledged there’s plenty of room to make improvements this winter.

“The coaching staff is trusting me to make that big leap, and I’m trusting myself to make that big leap as well,” Kikuchi said. “I’ve learned a lot this year, and I want to translate that into next year.”

He said learning how to pitch consistently on four days’ rest — “that’s grueling on the body physically, and mentally as well,” he said — and learning how to manage games when he doesn’t have his best stuff will be his most significant takeaways from this season.

“He’s very inquisitive,” Servais said. “He wants to be really good. He wants to be great.”

Kikuchi also had to cope with the loss of his father early on in the season, and welcomed his first child this summer, in addition to making his MLB debut in Tokyo in March on the same night Japanese baseball icon Ichiro Suzuki retired, learning a new language to better communicate in the clubhouse, and pitching nearly every five days in an entirely different atmosphere than what he was used to in Japan. All of this in his rookie season. There’s been a lot to process.

“There’s a lot that goes into this, that’s why I think you’ll see a big jump next year,” Servais said. “I really like him. He’s wired the right way.”

Because of Kikuchi’s background in professional baseball, Servais believes the jump from his first season to his second will be more significant than simply a prospect coming up through the farm system.

“He went through some of the same growing pains, just like young players do for the first time at the highest professional level,” Servais said. “I do expect a bigger jump than maybe normally you would see, just because he’s pitched a lot of pro ball. … He knows what he needs to do. It’s just a matter of going out and doing it consistently.”

Kikuchi said he would spend some time back in Japan this offseason, but will continue to work tirelessly — “no rest for me,” he said — to become more comfortable in his routine and approach against major league hitters.

“I’ve got to get after it and use what I learned from this season, and translate it to next year,” he said.

“He works as hard as anybody we have here in preparing for each start,” Servais said. “I don’t see that going away. That’s not going to change.”

Lauren Smith covers the Seattle Mariners for The News Tribune. She previously covered high school sports at TNT and The Olympian, beginning in 2015. She is a graduate of the University of Washington and Emerald Ridge High School.