PEORIA, AZ. — Yusei Kikuchi started pitching when he was 14. He mimicked the American professional players he liked a lot, including one he was not much like.
“At the time growing up, Randy Johnson was my favorite player,’’ he said of the former Mariners star and Hall of Famer.
Kikuchi, 28, went on to a great career in Japan, pitching eight seasons for the Seibu Lions — 73-46 with a 2.77 ERA. He joined the Mariners last season but did not have a good year — 6-11 with a 5.46 ERA. In 161 innings, he allowed 195 hits, 36 home runs and 109 runs.
That was not much of a return for Seattle on the three-year, $43 million contract he signed to leave Japan.
However, he did pitch a couple of good games, holding the Yankees in May to one run in 7.1 innings, and in August shutting out the Blue Jays in nine innings, striking out eight and allowing two hits.
This spring, when the Mariners need him to be the No. 2 starter behind Marco Gonzales, he’s confident he will pitch as he in did in those games, as well as his days in Japan.
“I worked so hard this off-season, because I hate to lose. That’s just my mentality,’’ Kikuchi said through his translator Kevin Ando. “Obviously, last year wasn’t a very good year for me. I’m really looking forward to this season . . . coming into my second year, I’ve learned, and know the scheduling and how everything works now. I’m a lot more comfortable.
“I was able to work on the things I needed. I’m confident with all my pitches, compared to last year.’’
Kikuchi said he’s better because of pitching coach Pete Woodworth, who really “trusts my work ethic and just how I work.’’
Woodworth said Kikuchi met with coaches after last season and they explained what was needed for him to grow as an MLB pitcher.
“Then he went to Driveline as well,’’ Woodworth said of the well-regarded baseball training facility in Kent. “He cleaned up a lot of things with his arm action and the way he is moving. It was all him.
“Everything (has improved). All four of his pitches, his body, his working, the way he’s attacking hitters. He’s got a couple more miles an hour with the fastball. The curveball is now shorter and tighter and harder. The slider is now at 92. Everything has gotten harder and sharper. The work he did was tremendous.’’
Kikuchi’s fastball has risen from around 92 mph last season to around 95-96 this spring. “The velocity is not just my fastball but all my pitches are up,’’ Kikuchi said. “The way I attack hitters is a little different this year.’’
He has pitched well so far, striking out 10 in his first 6.2 innings.
“Mechanically, this is the most consistent I’ve seen him,’’ catcher Tom Murphy said. “He’s able to make adjustments from pitch to pitch when he knows something is going wrong. Now everything is playing like it should. He has aggressive action on his fastball — he’s getting some serious ride in top of the zone.’’
Manager Scott Servais is thrilled.
“His velocity is certainly up a lot,’’ Servais said. “His curveball is much different — he’s changed the grip on it, and the shape on it. He’s taking the next step and it’s paying off — in spring training.
“We’ll see (how he does) as we get deeper into spring training and into the regular season.’’
Kikuchi also says MLB batters are different than those in Japan, which might have been a reason for his sub-par season.
“Here, one through nine, everyone has power,’’ he said. “Over in Japan, it’s more of a hit-to-contact type of hitters in the lineup.’’
The aspiration is that Kikuchi will approach the contribution of countryman Hisashi Iwakuma, who was 63-39 with a 3.42 ERA in six years with the Mariners.
“Yusei looks like a different guy,’’ Servais said. “I’m excited as he continues to get stretched out here this spring, allowing him to work more of his pitches.
“He’s focused on how his body is moving, and it’s paying off. He continues to build in his pitch count. We’ll see if he continues to hold the velocity. Right now we feel really good about what we’re seeing.’’
Added Woodworth: “Everything is working for him now. It’s just fine tuning here and there. Keeping him and maintaining the strength and the progress he made this offseason.’’
“I’m just looking to be more consistent this year,’’ Kikuchi said. He won’t reach the literal and figurative heights of his one-time Mariners hero, but being as good as he was in Japan would be a noteworthy leap forward for the 2020 Mariners.