Through the first few months of the 2013 season, Hiroki Kuroda was among the best pitchers in the American League. An All-Star snub, he had 15 quality starts in his first 22 games started last season. Then the bottom fell out from under him. In his last eight starts in August and September his ERA approached seven. He faded down the stretch in 2012 as well, posting an ERA of 4.77 in August and September that year. The Yankees know that they will need their number two starter to pitch like a number two starter down the stretch this season in the tumultuous AL East.
In an effort to keep Kuroda fresh, manager Joe Girardi will be keeping him on a pitch count of fewer than 100 pitches. A similar regime was used on Andy Pettitte last season in an effort to maximize the effectiveness of the Core Four member. Pettitte responded with an 11-11 record and a 3.74 ERA in 185 1/3 innings. Kuroda has been remarkably durable in his career so the issue is not one of injury prevention but of maximizing effectiveness. Kuroda has fallen victim to exhaustion each of the past two seasons. This is not shocking considering he is one of the oldest starters in the major leagues at 39-years-old and is approaching 3,000 combined innings in Japan and the U.S.
In his first start of the season against Houston, Kuroda went six innings giving up two runs while throwing 91 pitches. While it was the first start of the season and conventional wisdom states that you don’t want to overdo it so early in the season, and rarely will you see a pitcher go much over 100 pitches in the first week, it may serve as a blueprint going forward. This may lead to more outings of only 5 or 6 innings for Kuroda than in the past, which will necessitate more innings from the bullpen.
The Yankees have also stated that they will give Kuroda an extra day off when there are off days in the schedule and may spread his starts out in the second half of the season. Of course, the Yankees have also said they plan to give extra rest to Masahiro Tanaka due to him pitching only once a week in Japan, and have put Michael Pineda on an innings limit as he comes back from shoulder surgery. So someone is going to have to make extra starts and pitch extra innings if three-fifths of the rotation will be on modified schedules. This would also lend itself to the decision to carry three long men in the bullpen (David Phelps, Adam Warren, and Vidal Nuno) capable of making spot starts across the length of a 162-game season.