PEORIA, Ariz. — Yusei Kikuchi’s journey started in northern Japan, in the prefecture of Iwate, about 300 miles from the Tokyo Dome.
This is where Kikuchi became a star. Where he was a prep phenom. Where his left arm was so good he seriously considered skipping playing professional baseball in his home country to immediately go where he always wanted to be: the major leagues.
“When I was smaller I was watching all the Japanese players play well in the major leagues and that was the time all these Japanese players were coming to the major leagues and I was saying, ‘Even if I’m Japanese I will be able to make it to the majors if I work hard,’” Kikuchi said recently through an interpreter. “I was given that dream by all these former players and that is why I wanted to come to the states.”
Kikuchi was determined from the time he was 15 years old to be the next great Japanese import to dazzle American fans and befuddle major league hitters. That dream is now the reality for the newest starting pitcher for the Seattle Mariners.
In a twist, his debut will come a few hundred miles from where he first made a name for himself at Hanamaki Higashi High School. He will start the second game of the 2019 season against the Oakland Athletics inside the Tokyo Dome next week.
While his MLB debut is coming in Japan, Kikuchi has been preparing to make America his home for more than a decade. He studied English and answered the majority of questions in English at his introductory news conference . He scouted the best left-handed pitchers in the majors to see what made them successful. He visited the U.S. on numerous occasions to begin learning the culture.
“I went to a couple of ballgames and I looked at the atmosphere and said, ‘Hey, this is the place I want to play,’ and I set that goal when I came to the states,” Kikuchi said. “And during the offseason I worked out at the gyms over here to get used to the American workouts, get used to the American food here.”
The Mariners, as much as any team in baseball, are keenly aware of how much Kikuchi wanted to be in the states. They were in the middle of the conversations in 2009 when Kikuchi nearly bypassed playing professionally in Japan to sign with a major league club then.
“Our general feeling on Yusei was we had more information on him than just about any free agent player that we could imagine because it had been such an extended look,” Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “We’ve seen his entire career in (Nippon Professional Baseball). I would say if anybody saw Yusei Kikuchi pitch more than we have over the last 10 years, I’d be surprised.”
His preparations aside, Kikuchi still has to prove he can pitch here. His fastball sits in the mid-90s, but it’s the offspeed pitches — specifically a looping curveball — that will keep hitters guessing. Kikuchi also hides the ball in his windup until it’s nearly out of his hand.
“If you spend any time around Yusei, he’s not here to play in the game,” Dipoto said. “He’s here to make a mark in the big leagues, and we’re pretty excited for who he is as well as what he brings.”
Seattle would like to have Kikuchi throw around 170 innings this season, which is what he’s averaged the past two seasons in Japan. Not only will there be an adjustment to taking the ball every fifth or sixth day, Kikuchi acknowledged his pregame routine must also be different.
For his first spring training start , Kikuchi was on the field nearly an hour before taking the mound, leading to some awkward downtime throwing outside of the dugout while waiting for the game to begin.
Kikuchi and the Mariners hope this is the beginning of a long relationship. He has a guaranteed deal for four years, and if he’s successful, it can be extended to seven seasons worth $109 million if all options are exercised.
Kikuchi believes success in his first year will be dictated by how well he adjusts.
“I think first and foremost getting use to the culture and adjusting to everything,” he said. “Also staying healthy throughout the whole year and making sure I can pitch all year.”