Hiroki Kuroda is still penciled in as the number 2 starter for the Yankees and as such would be in line to pitch the home opener April 7 versus the Baltimore Orioles. He has been a Yankee for a few years now and pitched well for the Bombers. In fact, before Labor Day in each the last two seasons he was in the Cy Young conversation. However, he has had terrible Septembers in each of the last two years.
When discussing the Yankee rotation this spring, talk has focused on the other four rotation spots, and with good reason as those story lines are simply sexier and more interesting than the guy who simply goes out every fifth day and does his job effectively. There is the issue of CC Sabathia’s loss of weight and velocity in the number 1 spot. In the number 3 spot, Tanakapalooza has taken the Yankee Universe by storm in a way not seen since Hideki Matsui was winning the 2009 World Series MVP. Ivan Nova has drawn interest as a fantasy baseball sleeper pick and as a young player ready to take “The Leap” into stardom. Lastly, there has been the four-way race for the number 5 spot between Michael Pineda, David Phelps, Adam Warren and Vidal Nuno. Kuroda offers none of the drama of other rotation story-lines in Yankee camp this spring. All he has done this spring is post a win with 7 strikeouts in 4.2 innings.
Kuroda has spent his entire career overshadowed by bigger stories and other players. Long considered one of the best pitchers during his playing days in Japan, but not the best. In the 2006 World Baseball Classic, he helped pitch Japan to the title but was overshadowed by the likes of Akinori Iwamura and Kosuke Fukudome. Since coming over to the majors, Kuroda has been one of the most underrated and consistent starters in the game. He has never had an ERA over 3.76 in the majors but has a losing career record of 68-70. He has had a winning season just twice in his six seasons.
In many ways, overlooking Kuroda comes naturally. He has not had injury problems; he goes out and makes 30 starts every year and delivers 200 innings. He has an average strikeout rate and does not possess an overpowering fastball or dominant stuff. He just gets batters out. He has always played with a bigger name in the states, be it Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles or CC in New York. He has never signed a giant multi-year deal, opting instead to sign a series of one-year deals. He has never made an All-Star team, although he should have each of the past two years. He doesn’t make outlandish media statements. He hasn’t had the number of wins that are associated with a big time player, having a career high of 16 wins in 2012.
The main reason for his lack of wins has been a chronic lack of run support each and every season going back to his time in Japan. Last year he received the third fewest runs per start in the American League. If the Yankees can support him offensively the way they have shown the ability to score runs with other Yankees on the mound, Kuroda might be able to pile up a few more Ws in 2014 and finally get the recognition he deserves.