MLB trends: Yusei Kikuchi making changes with Blue Jays; Dodgers dominating without home runs

Table of Contents1 Dodgers dominating without homers2 Kikuchi making changes with Blue Jays3 Fastball usage…

The 2022 MLB regular season is a little more than a month old and already we’ve had two no-hitters. Last month five Mets pitchers combined to no-hit the Phillies and last week Angels rookie lefty Reid Detmers no-hit the Rays. A record nine no-hitters were thrown in 2021. Will we approach that record in 2022? We’re off to a good start, if nothing else.  

With that in mind, our weekly series breaking down various trends across the league continues Wednesday with a look at the Dodgers’ lack of home runs, Yusei Kikuchi’s adjustments, and the decline of the fastball. Last week we examined Nelson Cruz’s decline, Ryan Helsley’s emergence, and the new Camden Yards.

Dodgers dominating without homers

It is no surprise the Dodgers are again one of the best teams in baseball. They took a National League-leading 22-12 record into Tuesday night’s game, and they led baseball in runs scored per game (5.26) and ranked second in fewest runs allowed per game (3.18). Once again, the Dodgers are a juggernaut. No reason to think this train is stopping anytime soon.

Incredibly, the Dodgers are leading baseball in runs scored per game despite hitting only 33 home runs in 38 games. That’s 0.87 homers per game at a time when the league is averaging 0.96 homers per game. How is a team with Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, Max Muncy, et al hitting a below average number of home runs? Pretty amazing, really.

“I was actually surprised. I think it barely got out. That’s all I got,” Chris Taylor said about his opposite field homer Monday (video). “The balls are doing weird things this year. I don’t know. It seems like the spin on the ball affects it a lot. You have to backspin it and hope to get some extra carry.”

The lack of home runs obviously has not held Los Angeles back. Going into Tuesday, it had scored a little more than one-quarter of its runs on homers this season, the second lowest rate in baseball. Here’s the leaderboard:

  1. Royals: 24.0 percent
  2. Dodgers: 25.7 percent
  3. Nationals: 25.7 percent
  4. Tigers: 27.2 percent
  5. Red Sox: 28.0 percent

Four of the worst teams in baseball this season (including one that just fired its hitting coach) and arguably the most dominant in the sport. Not often you see a leaderboard like that. 

Betts leads the Dodgers with seven homers, Cody Bellinger has five, and no other Dodger has more than three. This is a team that slugged 237 homers last year, fourth most in baseball, then added Freeman. To be fair, the Dodgers also lost Corey Seager to free agency and traded away 21-homer man AJ Pollock. But still, it’s surprising this roster has had such a power outage.

And that should worry other NL West clubs and other MLB teams in general because at some point the Dodgers will begin hitting homers, even with the deadened baseball. Will Smith won’t slug under .400 all year, Max Muncy won’t slugging under .300 all year, Trea Turner’s true talent level isn’t a five homers per 162 games pace, etc. There are a lot more homers to come from this roster.

Home runs will get you to heaven. It’s really hard to consistently string together three or four hits (and walks) in an inning to score runs at a time when everyone seems to throw 95-plus with a breaking ball that was almost literally designed in a lab, and that’s especially true in the postseason, when teams hyper-focus on their opponent’s weaknesses. Homers are crucial to October success.

That the Dodgers have built such a good record and scored as many runs as they have with middling home run production is a testament to their depth. Their roster is so good it’s almost obnoxious. Eventually they’ll have to start hitting more balls out of the park and I’m sure they will. The roster is built to bang. It hasn’t through the first six weeks of the season, but it will soon enough.

Kikuchi making changes with Blue Jays

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The Blue Jays had a difficult task this past offseason. They were charged with replacing not only reigning AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray, but also veteran lefty Steven Matz, who threw 150 2/3 innings with a 3.82 ERA last season. To replace Ray, the Blue Jays signed Kevin Gausman, who’s been great. To replace Matz, they signed lefty Yusei Kikuchi to a three-year contract.

“The talent speaks for itself. The weapons are elite,” Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said during Kikuchi’s introductory press conference in spring training. “We’re very excited about what he’s already accomplished in his career and feel like the future is very, very bright for Yusei.”

Kikuchi, 31 next month, pitched so well with the Mariners in the first half last year that he was a deserving All-Star. He then pitched so poorly down the stretch that he was yanked from the rotation in September, when Seattle was fighting for its first postseason berth in a generation. Kikuchi then made the surprising decision to decline his $13 million player option and test free agency.

Seven starts into the new season, Kikuchi owns a 3.38 ERA in 32 innings, and Monday night he held his former club to one hit in six shutout innings. Kikuchi struck out six and only five of the 22 batters he faced hit the ball out of the infield.

The Blue Jays have a recent history of improving pitchers, with Ray the biggest success story. They also helped Matz, JA Happ, and Marco Estrada level up in recent years, among others. It’s too early to say Kikuchi is Toronto’s next pitching breakthrough, though there are some indications the Blue Jays and pitching coach Pete Walker are beginning to work their magic.

First and foremost, Kikuchi has changed his delivery. He’s dropped the hesitation at the top of his leg kick (many Japanese pitchers have a similar hesitation in their deliveries) and now has a more fluid motion toward the plate. Here’s the before and after (GIFs synced at release):

Yusei Kikuchi has eliminated the hesitation at the top of his leg kick.
MLB.com/CBS Sports

“The way Pete came to me with getting rid of that hesitation at the top of my leg kick and a couple of other things, the way he said it was, ‘Hey, we’re not looking for immediate results.’ He really seemed to understand that it wasn’t going to be like a night-and-day change,” Kikuchi recently told The Athletic’s Kaitlyn McGrath. “That really meant a lot to me and that’s, I feel, a big reason why I was able to buy in immediately and be on the same page as Pete.”

Kikuchi has also increased his fastball usage (he’s throwing close to 60 percent fastballs now, up from 30-40 percent last year) and scrapped his cutter. Instead, he’s throwing a harder version of his slider, and the shape of the pitch (movement, spin, etc.) is now very similar to Ray’s. It would be overly simplistic to say the Blue Jays taught Kikuchi the slider they taught Ray because every pitcher is unique, but it’s not too far off either.

“Pete mentioned that after my very first outing,” Kikuchi told MLB.com’s Keegan Matheson. “Really early in the year, he recommended [that I] get that pitch up to the upper-80s. It was a little tough to do at first, but he mentioned trying to throw it more like a heavier cutter, almost. That really felt great. I feel more comfortable each outing with that pitch.”  

The results are starting to show: Kikuchi has allowed three runs total in his past three starts, and two of the three starts were against a Yankees team that ranks at or near the top of the league in most offensive categories. Ray didn’t really hit his stride until June last year. That isn’t to say Kikuchi will be the next Ray. It’s just a reminder it can take time for adjustments to fully kick in. Kikuchi has always had obvious arm talent. It seems he’s inching closer to unlocking it now thanks to the Toronto pitching machine.

Fastball usage still in decline

Never before in the history of baseball have pitchers collectively thrown as hard as they do right now. There have already been 486 pitches thrown at 100-plus mph this season, more than double the 214 such pitches in 2008, the first year of pitch tracking. The average fastball is 92.9 mph this year. That’s up from 91.1 mph in 2008. The average fastball has jumped nearly 2 mph in 15 years.

And yet, pitchers are throwing fewer fastballs with each passing season despite the constant uptick in velocity. Fastball usage has steadily declined in every full 162-game season since 2014:

  • 2014: 62.4 percent
  • 2015: 62.3 percent
  • 2016: 61.2 percent
  • 2017: 60.7 percent
  • 2018: 60.1 percent
  • 2019: 58.2 percent
  • 2020: 57.2 percent (60-game season)
  • 2021: 57.5 percent
  • 2022: 55.3 percent to date

A lot of things in this game are cyclical and it’s likely fastball usage will increase at some point. That doesn’t mean the up cycle is imminent though, and it’s possible we’ll see a season with less than 50 percent fastballs in the near future. So why are pitchers throwing fewer fastballs despite record high velocity? Easy. Because non-fastballs are harder to hit. It really is that simple.

Here are the numbers since Opening Day 2021:

Fastballs

.263

.440

20.7%

Breaking balls

.211

.354

34.3%

Offspeed pitches

.227

.396

31.1%

Hitters have no choice but to gear up for the fastball because there’s so much velocity, and teams are exploiting that by feeding them softer breaking stuff and offspeed pitches. Oh, and the hitter might see four different pitchers in his four at-bats on any given night, ratcheting up the difficulty level. The cards are heavily stacked against hitters these days.

Is there a point where pitchers will throw too few fastballs and things will begin to favor hitters? Possibly, sure. We haven’t reached that point yet though and I’m not sure we’re close. Baseball history suggests the pendulum will swing the other way eventually, and we’ll see more fastballs. Right now though, velocity is at an all-time high and pitchers are using it less. It seems counterintuitive, but it is working. It’s harder to get a base hit now than at any point since the mound was lower in 1969.