In mid-January, Brian Cashman made a pair of moves that made New York Yankees fans cheer in the streets. Young pitching phenom, Michael Pineda moved from the West Coast to the Bronx in a trade of prospects. Meanwhile, old stalwart, Hiroki Kuroda signed a one-year, $10 million contract to try his hand with a championship-caliber team after pitching for a rocky organization in Los Angeles.
Kuroda didn’t exactly endear himself to fans in his first turn in the rotation as the Rays pounded him for four earned runs (six total) on eight hits, four walks, in 5.2 innings. However, fans were treated to what Kuroda can do for a rotation in his next start. He was dazzling in an eight-inning outing against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim where he gave up no runs, on five hits, and two walks, while striking out six batters. It seems Kuroda follows a simple, albeit frustrating, pattern of pitching well in every other start, while sandwiching a poor start in between.
The book on Kuroda tells us he’s a groundball pitcher who features a splitter and curveball on top of his low-90 MPH fastball and mid-80 MPH slider. Over his career, Kuroda’s groundball percentage has been good (48.5%) and this season it’s a tad lower (47.7%). However, that last number represents a 4.5% increase from last season. On top of that he has stranded nearly 79% of runners, which could be viewed in a few ways. He’s either allowing more batters to reach base or he’s barring down and getting hitters out with runners on. In 20 at-bats in high leverage situations (extremely small sample size) he’s held batters to a paltry .200/.320/.200 line.
Right now, Kuroda holds a 3.82 ERA, but his xFIP (4.67) indicates that he’s pitching worse than his ERA represents. If you’ve watched Kuroda pitch at all this season, you can bank on him having a bad start if his pitch count is high after a few innings. Seems obvious, but Kuroda has a difficult time recovering and pitching easy 1-2-3 innings to take back control of his pitch count.
Another alarming trend is Kuroda’s – and the Yankees starting rotation as a whole – propensity to give up the long ball. Kuroda has given up 10 home runs when the count is even or he’s ahead, while giving up one home run on a full count. This can tell us that he’s trying to be too fine with his pitches and missing his spots while he’s ahead.
If there is something Kuroda could hang his hat on is the fact that he’s averaging nearly 6.2 innings per outing. In short, the bullpen is only needed for around 10 outs whenever he takes the hill. That’s exactly what you want out of your #2.
Overall, fans shouldn’t expect much more from Kuroda throughout the season. His fastball velocity is down one full MPH from last year. Batters aren’t swinging at his pitches as often (7.4% in 2012 compared to 9.7% career). He’s also relying less on the fastball and more on his slider and curveball to get guys out, which is something pitchers do when they allow baserunners and are looking for groundball outs, especially in Yankee Stadium.
While he’s not a prototypical #2 pitcher on a championship-caliber team, he’s providing quality innings, which in and of itself is worth a ton. We knew that his peripherals would take a hit when he was traded from the friendly pitching confines of the NL West (sans Colorado) for the ultra-competitive AL East. He’s holding his own right now and will likely not get much better or worse going forward. At 37-years-old we can’t expect him to be the 2010 version of himself. He’ll continue to go deep into games and give the Yankee hitters a chance to win games, which the team really needs right now with an injured and taxed bullpen.