Have you ever heard of a team, let alone the Yankees, sign a player for $10 million and that’s about the only detail you know about the deal or the player? I for one am baffled that 37 year old, Hiroki Kuroda, has gotten less coverage than say, Michael Pineda’s spring training “struggles”. Who is Kuroda and why did the Yankees want him so badly they shelled out $10 million?
Honestly, I had to do a little digging myself. Kuroda played in the Japanese leagues from 1997-2007, where he was then signed by the Dodgers. His numbers between 2008 and 2011 were nothing to gawk at but they were good enough to sign a sizable contract in free agency. What really grabbed my attention about Kuroda is that he is like a fine scotch: he’s gotten better with age. The idea makes sense for younger pitchers in the league because over time, these guys get better command and acclimated to the rigors of a 162 game season. You don’t see this often with a 37 year old because this is where the decline in production should be. The Yankees are taking a gamble, but that is why they penned Kuroda for only one year.
I’m sure you want proof to see that Kuroda has improved with age so let’s look at his pitch usage along with some statistics to see what the Yankees could come to expect this season.
There’s good, bad, and luckily, no ugly. The Yankees are getting just what they paid Kuroda for: his consistency. He was brought on to do what A.J. Burnett could not during his tenure in New York. Kuroda’s Earned Run Average has dropped continuously since he came into the league while his K/9, Innings Pitched, Strikeouts (which you can assumed with increased IP), and his Left on Base Percentage have all increased. Kuroda is defying Father Time. We would expect the exact opposite to happen to a 37 year old pitcher with nearly 18 years experience pitching professionally.
So what is causing Hiroki Kuroda’s career arc to mimic the curious case of Benjamin Button? We don’t have to look any further than the chart I’ve provided below.
Throughout his time with the Dodgers, Kuroda utilized 5 pitches although he primarily stuck to 3 (curve, split finger, and fastball). As a pitcher gets older, command and keeping the hitter off balance are paramount due to the declining speed of the fastball. To illustrate this fact, look no further than his two best statistical years where he implemented his curveball more. In 2011, Kuroda gained greater command of his curveball and used it 4.9 percent of the time which resulted in his most impressive numbers to date and why the Yankees paid him such a large contract. In 2012, we can expect a slight decrease in fastballs and the utilization of his full repertoire.
I do wonder how Kuroda will hold up this year because he is rather old in baseball years. However, if his stint with the Dodgers is any indication, we are looking at a guy who will be very consistent and a solid 3rd starter. In recent years, the Yankees have lacked rotation depth so having an innings eater like Kuroda is extremely important to reduce the strain on the bullpen. If Kuroda can keep within his average output, the Yankee rotation should be in good shape.