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Japan heat: Yusei Kikuchi & Shohei Ohtani again?

Kikuchi is en route to MLB this winter. He pitched at the same high school as Ohtani. Let's connect some dots.

Melbourne Aces v Brisbane Bandits
Bringing it.
Photo by Hamish Blair/Getty Images

Billy Eppler’s silence, we’ve learned since 2015, speaks volumes.

Asked earlier this month if his Angels had interest in Japanese lefty Yusei Kikuchi, the GM simply said “No comment,” from behind his sunglasses. But he couldn’t hide his cat-ate-the-canary grin.

“Yusei? You Say ... Who?”

But everyone knows that the Angel GM has a big-time need for a front-line starting pitcher, or two. He’s also big-time clued-up.

Eppler had a similar response last year, when he said he wasn’t interested in a guy named Shohei Ohtani. We all know what happened next.

There are simply too many parallels to ignore. Eppler will be in on Kikuchi, who has been compared favorably to Patrick Corbin, Clayton Kershaw and more.

Kikuchi, 27, racked up 117 starts over seven seasons for the Seibu Lions with a 2.81 ERA in 1,035.1 innings, so he’s durable.

And guess what else? Kikuchi was posted by Seibu on Tuesday, Japanese time.

While America was deciding to do with their mid-term election ballots, Kikuchi and his agent Scott Boras crept onto the MLB market in a stealth attack.

Matt Collins of Halos Heaven’s sister site Over The Monster (which covers the Boston Red Sox), tweeted at 6am that the lefty was available to all MLB teams.

NBC Sports’s Craig Calcaterra followed with a report that Kikuchi may be “too expensive” for the World Series champions.

Calcaterra may be right.

Like Kershaw, Kikuchi rides a 92-94-mph fastball and has a slider that has been compared to to that of the declining Dodger ace.

“He may not be the best pitcher in Japan, but he’s among the best,” Jim Allen of the Kyodo News wrote back in June.

But then Kikuchi announced his intention this week that he would leave Japan via the joint MLB/NPB posting system negotiated under the current collective bargaining system.

Eppler’s winter 2017 sneak attack on Ohtani landed the prize every MLB counterparts wanted last December despite any great show of obvious intent from his office on Gene Autry Way.

But Kikuchi may be too obvious an Angel target for Eppler to say anything, but nothing.

Why would Eppler be interested? ... Well, every MLB GM is, for one.

And he’s coming at you, MLB.

Back in September, Jim Allen of the Kyodo News, Japan`s leading English-language news organization, tweeted that “evaluators” from the Milwaukee Brewers, San Francisco Giants, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres, Philadelphia Phillies and Texas Rangers had attended Kikuchi’s final start in NPB.

Those scouts weren’t there to sample exotic cuisine.

Allen didn’t mention the Angels as being in attendance. But that’s likely because Eppler already knows what he already needs to know. Why be obvious?

Stat geek

There’s too much about Kikuchi to like for Eppler to ignore, so don’t fool yourself into thinking Eppler has missed it. Discipline and awareness are qualities Kikuchi has. Eppler is a fan of those.

Consider this: When Kikuchi got access to TrackMan radar data with the Seibu Lions, he couldn’t get enough of it.

Using TrackMan, the pitcher measured his release points from two different starts this summer — the first against the Yomiuri Giants (the Yankees of Japan) on June 8, and a week later against the Chunichi Dragons.

“In the past, all I had to rely upon was video. This (TrackMan data) is completely different, because just looking at a video didn’t give you an exact figure,” Kikuchi told Allen in June. “It was all about ‘feel’ ... “

Kikuchi determined on his own that he wanted to attack batters in the strike zone from a launch point of exactly 167 centimeters. No higher, no lower.

That’s a release point of 5 feet-5.75 inches over the rubber. That’s precision, Halo fans.

Eppler said he wanted the manager who replaced Mike Scioscia to have a “probability-based mindset.” He hired stat geek Brad Ausmus to manage the team.

But a pitcher who does his own homework? ... Oh, yeah. That’s right up Eppler’s street.

South Korea v Japan - WBSC Premier 12 Semi Final
This guy can deal.
Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images

Kikuchi isn’t Ohtani ... but he’s close?

He doesn’t bat like Ohtani does — but not many hitters in MLB do.

Shohei Mania isn’t going to dwindle in Anaheim any time soon. As soon as Opening Day 2019, Ohtani will be a slugger only — but a damn good one.

But imagine getting the other half of Ohtani in another body? As his torn UCL heals, Ohtani can do the raking with the bat and hit bombs. All Kikuchi needs to do is keep the other guys off the scoreboard.

Even more Japanese fans at the Big A in 2018? Delightful. Arte Moreno would like that.

But unlike Ohtani in 2017, Kikuchi won’t come at a bargain price this off-season. Ohtani signed out of passion and impatience, which drew criticism from superagent Scott Boras.

Boras’ office is in Newport Beach and his frequent presence in his box at the Big A makes sense. He has clients on the field to look after no matter who the Angels are playing.

But Boras was more than a little miffed when Jered Weaver took a “hometown” discount in to re-sign with the Angels and the legendary red-ass agent got a smaller cut.

He’ll do his best to ensure that Kikuchi is shown the money by someone. More on Scott Boras later.

Melbourne Aces v Brisbane Bandits
This could look good in an Angel uniform.
Photo by Hamish Blair/Getty Images

It’s a Small World, Disneyland ...

The odds of two players from the same small countryside high school in the north of Japan becoming teammates later on in MLB are nearly astronomical.

Even if that high school is Hanamaki Higashi High School — a Japanese baseball powerhouse.

It’s miles from nowhere on the main island of Honshu, and covered in snow half the year. Tokyo is a six-hour drive to the south — but baseball scouts flock there anyway.

In middle school, Ohtani loved watching Kikuchi (three years his elder) pitch — a lefty who wore No. 17 while dominating Japanese high school ball.

When Ohtani enrolled at Hanamaki Higashi, he inherited his idol’s uniform number.

In high school, Ohtani was boarded in the same dormitory room where Kikuchi had previously crashed — then he broke all Kikuchi’s records, where as an upperclassman, he got the #1 jersey.

They had other similarities: Both Ohtani and Kikuchi had plans to skip Nippon Professional Baseball entirely and go straight to MLB. Their parents and a sense of duty to their homeland made them stay home — for awhile.

The two power pitchers were subject to same firm discipline applied to every player by coach Hiroshi Sasaki.

Throwing a baseball 100 miles an hour didn’t get Sasaki’s kids off the hook from grunt work in the dorms — Sasaki gave them the worst jobs.

The coach knew that Kikuchi and Ohtani were destined for pro stardom somewhere, but they were going to first clean the damn dorm toilets. First.

Got it? Ego check? Check.

“The mound is the most elevated place on the field,” Sasaki told Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times. “If you’re on that stage you receive the most attention — you get interviewed ...

“ ... And written about the most.”

How good is Kikuchi?

Very good, by all accounts. His two primary pitches are a fastball that sits at 92-94 mph (he hit 98 in his first season in Japan), with a slider with a 10-5 tilt. The slider, as opposed to Ohtani”s splitter, is Kikuchi’s bell-ringer.

He mixes in the occasional change and curve, too.

“He has an arsenal that would easily make him a starter in the majors,” wrote Sung Min Kim of Fangraphs, comparing Kikuchi to Corbin and also “early-career Clayton Kershaw.”

That sounds pretty dandy.

Frank Herrmann of NPB’s Rakuten Golden Eagles — who pitched for the Cleveland Indians and Philadelphia Philies from 2010-16 — saw Kikuchi plenty in Pacific League.

He said batters had “no chance” against Kikuchi in 2017, when the lefty led the Pacific League in ERA (1.97) and wins (16).

In 2018, shoulder problems slowed Kikuchi, but he still put up respectable numbers.

“This is a guy who really has come a long way,” John E. Gibson of Japan Baseball Weekly told me.

Gibson said: “Yusei used too be all about speed — not much control or secondary pitches. He dropped a few notches on the heater, so he focused on making better pitches.”

Gibson said he suspected Kikuchi’s adjustment period to MLB hitters would likely be “longer than just a spring like Shohei Ohtani was able to do.”

Still, Gibson projected Kikuchi as “between Kenta Maeda and Hiroki Kuroda in value and production.” That’s pretty darn good. Gibson added the caveat: “If he lands in the right situation.”

Could that right situation be Anaheim? Could Ohtani be a selling point for the Angels?

As for pitching on the same team as Ohtani?

Said Gibson: “None of that matters in my opinion. That’s just a plus — if the other circumstances work out right.”

What does Eppler know about Kikuchi?

Kikuchi was an 18-year-old amateur when he made the rare step of visiting the United States in October of 2009.

He sat down for informal meetings with a number of teams on that trip — the Giants, Mets, Dodgers, Yankees, Rangers, Seattle Mariners and Indians — on that US tour. Billy Eppler was the Yankees’ director of scouting that year when Kikuchi visited the Bronx.

Assume Eppler knows plenty.

At the time, Kikuchi was fresh off blitzing the 2009 Koshien high school baseball tournament, which in Japan is a bit like the NCAA Final Four, and he was dreaming big.

Like current Angel limbo reliever Junichi Tazawa before him, he was thinking of going straight from high school to the majors.

The Boras factor

Gibson doesn’t think size of market will be a big factor in Kikuchi’s decision.

“It’s not like he’s under the radar, but just hasn’t created a lot of buzz, so I thought medium-market teams — the Texas teams, the Seattles, the San Diegos. Not that San Francisco is a small market ... I thought the Giants would be in there.”

And now that Boras will represent Kikuchi?

“I think teams are gonna have to bring a lot of money,” Gibson said. “So I was thinking that the Angels, who really need pitching, would be a good landing spot for him, especially with Ohtani there.

Thanks to Ohtani, Gibson saw a lot of Angel baseball in 2018 on NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster.

“I thought that would be a good landing spot for him, for both sides actually.

“Get some draw with the Japanese who are already latched onto Shohei Ohtani, and having another guy there ... it’s also a good ballpark for him to pitch in, and it’s an easy transition.”

Allen, who partners with Gibson on the Japan Baseball Weekly podcast, said not so fast.

“He picked Boras as his agent, so he’s gonna go to whoever pays him the most. Where he wants to go is no longer part of the equation,” Allen said.

“Who wants to pay the most money for a lefty, who has had some minor injury issues, who can throw upward of 95mph, and has good command of his secondary pitches?

“Can you think of anybody who would want a left-hander who can do that stuff?”

Uh yeah, Jim. Pretty much everybody.

In previous years, a proven and healthy Japanese pitcher under the age of 30 could have commanded a multi-year deal of $100 million-plus.

Allen figures Kikuchi is more of a $70-80 million total deal guy. “If a team thinks that’s a fit for them, then they’ll do it,”

It could be any MLB team, Gibson said: “All teams like to make a splash — not just get quality players. But Kikuchi isn’t creating the buzz to be a Yankees type or a Dodgers type.”

If Allen is right, the math gets a bit complicated.

According to the the CBA, the team who signs Kikuchi will be liable for not only his salary, but also must pay the Seibu Lions a posting fee of whatever contract Boras and his henchmen negotiatate for the southpaw’s services.

In other words — a $75-million, 3-year deal will cost the winning MLB 25% of the deal, payable to Seibu. That’s about $17.5 million ... less than it cost the Angels to land Ohtani at a flat $20 million in 2017.

Any me expensive, and Boras girds for a fight.

Strap in peeps.

The enemy up north?

For a few years, it has appeared that Kikucki was exactly a Dodgers type.

Hernandez of Times reported that Dodger scout Keiichi Kojima scouted Kikuchi so vigorously in that Dodgers had an obvious inside track ... But after a lot of soul searching, Kikuchi declared for the NBP drafted in a tearful news conference.

The Lions picked in him in the first round. Eight years later, Kikuchi admitted he probably wasn’t ready.

“I had never been to the United States. I didn’t know the environment ... of course, I couldn’t speak English. I was told the hamburger lifestyle could be tough for Japanese people,” he told Hernandez last December.

Things are different now. Kikuchi’s wife, Rumi Fukatsu speaks excellent English. Her job is a newscaster for NHK’s World Sports MLB show. The pitcher himself is already learning English — something Ohtani didn’t have as a newcomer last season.

The Dodgers may still have an inside track. Team with Ohtani — or Kershaw?

Kikuchi has frequently said he admires Kershaw. In 2015, Kikuchi traveled to the States again, this time watching Kershaw oppose Jacob deGrom in Game 1 of the NLDS against the New York Mets in the NLDS at Chavez Ravine.

Kershaw, the reigning Cy Young winner and MVP, lost that postseason game. (Go figure).

There’s more. Kershaw and Kikuchi both take the mound to “We Are Young” by Fun.

Kershaw got an extra year tacked to his Dodger deal despite another epic Dodger fail.

Who knows anything?

Cue Eppler: “No comment.”

(More to come on this story)