Friday, August 2, 2013

Kuroda the Unappreciated Ace

When people talk about the best pitchers in baseball Hiroki Kuroda's name does not come up often and it probably should.

Somehow,  Kuroda did not make the All-Star team this season, yet he could end up winning the Cy Young Award as a consolation. Obviously, with two months remaining in the season, it is to early to determine Kuroda’s Cy Young chances. However, what we do know is that Kuroda just pitched one of the best months of baseball in Yankees history and he has kept the Yankees in playoff contention.

Kuroda ended his stellar month of July by going head to head with the best pitcher in baseball in Clayton Kershaw. He matched Kershaw by putting up zeroes for seven straight innings before the Yankees scored three runs in the ninth to secure the victory. It was the eighth time Kuroda held the opposition scoreless this season, which is the most of any pitcher in baseball. He had similar type performances in July against top pitchers John Lackey and Derek Holland when the Yankees had trouble scoring as usual.

Kuroda was 3-0 in July with a minuscule .55 ERA, and the Yankees needed every ounce of that to stay in contention. The Yankees were 4-1 in games started by Kuroda in July and were only 10-11 in all other games in the month. Six of those wins came on the first six days of the month. Kuroda pitched huge games in Boston, Texas and Los Angeles towards the end of the month when the Yankees were really struggling. All three teams have very powerful lineups, and Kuroda allowed only two runs over 21 innings against them with 15 strikeouts and only three walks.

Not only is Kuroda easily the best starter on the Yankees now, he might be the best starter in the AL this season. Kuroda is 2nd in the AL in ERA (2.38) behind Felix Hernandez and leads the AL in ERA + (169). His low win total (10) might hold him back in the eyes of some old-school  Cy Young voters who still believe that starting pitcher wins are a meaningful stat. What Kuroda has done with this pathetic offense has been even more impressive than if he was racking up a ton of wins. He has had to be almost perfect every time out to win games and he has almost lived up to that. He has not let the Yankees’ awful offense discourage him at all. Pitching under that kind of pressure makes it so much harder with so much riding on every pitch. One mistake could mean the ballgame. This makes Kuroda’s numbers seem even more insane.

Besides not having a ton of wins, another reason that Kuroda has flown under the radar is that he does not have the power stuff or the strikeout numbers (6.38 K/9) that some other top pitchers have. With Kuroda’s 2.55 BABIP you might say that he is getting a little bit lucky, but if you watch Kuroda pitch batters have a very tough time of squaring the ball up against him, and he does not allow a lot of hard contact (8.9% HR/FB%).

Keeping the ball on the ground has always been a key for Kuroda throughout his career and this year is no different (46.6% GB%). Batters have a tough time differentiating Kuroda’s sinker, splitter and slider. They have been unable to tell what pitch is coming out of Kuroda’s hand, thus all the weak contact. Combine that with Kuroda’s excellent control and you get the kind of season that he is having. Batters have only hit .171 this season against Kuroda’s slider and .153 against his splitter with a 9.51% Whiff %.He is not blowing his fastball by everybody like some pitchers can, but he is just as effective with his style of trying to generate weak contact on the ground with the majority of his pitches moving downward.

Kuroda has been one of the few positives for the Yankees this season. If the Yankees do make the playoffs, it would most likely be as a wild card and Kuroda would be the pitcher that they would turn to in the one game playoff. The Yankees would have to feel pretty good about their chances in that game. For a pitcher who was not supposed to be able to handle the AL East, Kuroda has become one of the best free agent signings in Yankees history. That is a pretty select group.

The Yankees had better hope that they can convince Kuroda to come back for another season next year, as he has always talked about going back to Japan for his last season. Losing Kuroda would be a void that they would be unlikely able to fill. Maybe, he will be appreciated more if he leaves.

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Sorry for the Capatcha... Blame the Russians :)