CLEVELAND — At some point during the upcoming three-game series versus Cleveland at Progressive Field, Mariners rookie Yusei Kikuchi hopes to have another conversation with Indians star pitcher Trevor Bauer.
It would most likely happen Saturday afternoon, because Kikuchi is scheduled to pitch in Friday’s opener and Bauer is slated to throw Sunday in the series finale. Maybe it’s lunch somewhere or another pregame encounter before they go about their daily routines when they aren’t starting.
The two pitchers from vastly different backgrounds met at Kikuchi’s request the morning of April 16 near the backstop at T-Mobile Park. Less than 24 hours earlier, they started against each other in the opener of that three-game series. Bauer was credited with the win in Cleveland’s 6-4 victory, looking dominant over 62/3 innings, allowing one run on five hits with three walks and eight strikeouts. Kikuchi was solid, pitching six innings while allowing three runs on five hits with three walks and five strikeouts.
Kikuchi sent word to the Cleveland clubhouse that he hoped he could meet Bauer and ask him some questions.
“Ever since I was in Japan I wanted to meet him,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Justin Novak. “I’ve wanted to pick his brain. I’ve been told he’s really technical about baseball.”
Kikuchi is fascinated by the evolution of pitching with technology such as TrackMan and Rapsodo as well as the concept of pitch tunneling. Perhaps no pitcher in Major League Baseball represents the advanced thinking about improvement than Bauer, who has become one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball.
When Kikuchi watched Bauer work in person, the desire to talk to him about baseball only grew. It was more than just the technical aspect. It was everything now.
“In that game, I was watching how he really attacks guys and is really aggressive,” Kikuchi said. “And that’s what I wanted to take from him. Once I met him, he has such a baseball mind. He just studies and researches about baseball so much. I gained even more respect for him.”
Bauer was eager to meet Kikuchi for his own reasons. He has a naturally curious mind and has been fascinated by the transition of Japanese pitchers to MLB.
“I’m a big fan of Japanese players that come over,” Bauer said. “It’s got to be really tough, culturally and just life-wise as a human being. Seeing him adjust to that and adjust to playing in the big leagues with all the expectations heaped on him from the get-go, it’s something that interests me. … Even if nothing I said makes a difference, it was just nice to make the connection and express to him that I’m rooting for him.”
Oh, it made a difference.
The conversation wasn’t brief. The two men, aided by Novak, had a wide-ranging discussion. They held baseballs so they could show, study and imitate the grips each used on pitches. There were simulations of arm slots and release points. Bauer got particularly detailed in showing the finger pressure he used on his changeup — a pitch that Kikuchi wants to improve.
Bauer easily recognized Kikuchi’s intellectual curiosity and passion about improving.
“I enjoy talking to people who are interested in trying to get better,” Bauer said. “I’m really passionate about player development and finding ways to use technology and data to maximize what I can do physically.”
Bauer doesn’t buy into the concept of not sharing his secrets to success with people outside of his team. It isn’t proprietary information or thinking. There’s a fraternity among baseball players, specifically pitchers, that is bigger than rivalry.
Kikuchi absorbed that information. He asked questions and listened, asked more questions and mentally cataloged everything Bauer said about how approaches the game.
“I learned a lot about pitch grips, pitch types and how he trains,” Kikuchi said. “The most important thing that I took from him is he thinks about baseball 24/7, and he’s such a professional about it.”
So does Kikuchi think about it 24 hours a day and seven days a week like Bauer?
“I honestly thought I analyzed things a lot and was a deep thinker about baseball, but once I met him — he thinks about nutrition, sleep, how he’s recovering and everything. I thought it was really amazing,” Kikuchi said. “It motivates me to up my game and do some research about it as well.”
Bauer lives in Maple Valley on a part-time basis in the offseason, so he can train daily at Driveline Baseball in Kent. With other Mariners pitchers also training there, Kikuchi hopes to visit the facility and perhaps see a session with Bauer working out.
Perhaps, they’ll get a chance to talk again Saturday. And if not, there will be plenty of conversations about baseball in the future, because that’s what you do when you think about baseball 24/7.