Column: The next Shohei Ohtani is already waiting in the wings
The process figures to be repeated next winter, if not the next: another hard-throwing pitcher from Japan becoming available and the Dodgers scrambling to sign him.
Only next time, the Dodgers will have to spend less time educating their target about what they’re about. Yusei Kikuchi already knows.
Kikuchi, a left-hander with the Seibu Lions, watches the Dodgers on television every five days — whenever Clayton Kershaw starts.
“He’s the pitcher I like the most,” Kikuchi said in Japanese.
Maybe Kikuchi’s affinity for Kershaw and the Dodgers is significant, maybe it isn’t; but after Shohei Ohtani signed with the Angels for reasons that remain a mystery, Andrew Friedman would be smart to embrace any advantage he has.
The rewards could be significant. In the wake of Ohtani’s departure, the 26-year-old Kikuchi is the best pitcher in Nippon Professional Baseball and was the Pacific League’s leader last season in earned-run average (1.97) and co-leader wins (16). Kikuchi is expected to move to the major leagues within the next two next offseasons and earn a nine-figure contract.
A graduate of the same backcountry high school that produced Ohtani, Kikuchi stands a modest 6 feet, but his fastball has touched 98 mph. He has a slider that multiple major league scouts compared to Kershaw’s.
When that particular detail of their reports was relayed to Kikuchi in September, the boy in him emerged.
“Really?” Kikuchi asked.
Two years ago, when his own season ended, Kikuchi traveled to Los Angeles to watch Kershaw take on the New York Mets in a National League division series game. He now enters his home starts to the same music as Kershaw, “We Are Young,” the pop anthem by Fun.
But as delighted as he was to be compared to Kershaw, his Japanese etiquette wouldn’t permit him to accept such a compliment.
“No, no, no,” he said, smiling and laughing.
There was a time when Kikuchi was that kind of inspiration for Ohtani.
Kikuchi and Ohtani are from Iwate, a prefecture on the northeast coast of Japan’s mainland. Largely agricultural, the area was considered a baseball wasteland, with the best players dreaming of glory in the prestigious national high school tournament often recruited by prep powerhouses in other parts of the country. Kikuchi changed that when he chose to attend Hanamaki Higashi High School.
In the first of three years of high school, Kikuchi was already a star, touching 90 mph. That didn’t spare him from any of the chores assigned to players by manager Hiroshi Sasaki, a former college catcher. Kikuchi had to clean the toilets in the dormitory where he and the other baseball players lived.
Kikuchi elevated Hanamaki Higashi to prominence by leading the school to the national championship game in 2009. As a middle schooler at the time, Ohtani was captivated. And when Kikuchi graduated, Ohtani was there to replace him.
Ohtani first inherited the No. 17 jersey Kikuchi wore in his first year of high school. (Ohtani will wear No. 17 with the Angels.) He later earned the No. 1 jersey Kikuchi wore as an upperclassman, as well as the dormitory room that was once Kikuchi’s.
The school has since sent two other pitchers to professional baseball: left-hander Mikiya Takahashi of the Hiroshima Carp and right-hander Kota Chiba of the Rakuten Golden Eagles.
Kikuchi also ensured Ohtani and the others would have visibility, as he established Hanamaki Higashi as a place for scouts to visit. One frequent visitor was Dodgers scout Keiichi Kojima.
“I probably saw Kojima-san more than I did my wife,” Sasaki said.
The idea of playing in the United States intrigued Kikuchi. Sasaki was more cautious.
If Kikuchi signed with a major league team out of high school, Sasaki said, “I thought I would be punished by Japanese baseball. Honestly, I was scared.”
Among the handful of major league teams that attempted to sign Kikuchi, the Dodgers had the inside track because of Kojima. However, shortly before the 2009 NPB draft, Kikuchi announced he would start his professional career in Japan. He cried at the news conference.
“I never told him not to go, but I wonder if my feelings got across to him somehow,” Sasaki said. “I never asked him what he was feeling. I thought I might have prevented him from pursuing his dream and that made me feel guilty.”
Four days later, Kikuchi was drafted in the first round by the Lions.
The memory bothered Sasaki. So, three years later, when Ohtani had a similar decision to make, the manager encouraged him to go to the United States. As it turned out, Ohtani also started his career in Japan, with the Nippon-Ham Fighters.
But Kikuchi said he doesn’t regret the decision he made.
“I had never been to the United States,” he said. “I didn’t know the environment. And, of course, I couldn’t speak English. I was told the ‘hamburger lifestyle’ could be tough for Japanese people.”
Kikuchi acknowledged that he dreams of playing in the major leagues. The earliest he could move there as a free agent would be in 2020. To be transferred there before that, he would have to be posted by the Lions.
“I’m very pleased with the fact I’m in a position now to be working toward playing in the majors,” he said.
Kikuchi said he is studying English. His wife, who used to host a MLB highlight show on Japanese television, already speaks the language.
Perhaps he will land where he thought he might eight years ago, with the Dodgers. And now, his vision is clearer. If he’s not in the same rotation as Kershaw, he could be replacing him.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez
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