Know Your 40: Hiroki Kuroda

Elsa

Mecha-Godzilla returns to wreak havoc on the American League East.

Name: Hiroki Kuroda
Position: Starter (RHP)
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 38 (born 2/10/1973)
Height: 6’3" Weight: 205 lbs.
Remaining Contract: One year, $15 million (Free Agent after 2013)
2012 statistics: (MLB) 33 starts, 16-11, 219.2 IP, 3.32 ERA, 3.86 FIP, 8.4 H/9, 2.1 BB/9, 6.8 K/9, 79 ERA-, 91 FIP-

Fun fact: Once upon a time, Kuroda dominated Japan’s Central League so much with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp that he had a 1.86 ERA in a full season (2006). Such success made him an alluring target for Major League Baseball, and after maintaining a 3.23 ERA over seven seasons, Kuroda signed a three-year, $35.3 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was quite consistent, helping the Dodgers to consecutive division titles and NLCS appearances in his first two seasons before becoming an even better pitcher despite the Dodgers’ decline. In a turn that seems utterly bizarre to consider in wake of the rampant spending of Magic Johnson’s ownership group, the then-McCourt-owned Dodgers decided they could no longer afford Kuroda. He wanted to stay a Dodger, but instead, he became a Yankee in 2012.

Although Kuroda had a good reputation, there was some skepticism about how Kuroda would pitch with the New York Yankees. Sure, he had a 3.45 ERA and 3.55 FIP in 699 innings as a Dodger, but that was in the National League West and pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium. This was the extremely competitive American League East, where 89-win teams have been left on the outside looking in on the playoff picture for four of the past five years. No pitchers batting, no large stadiums, and no fear from lefthanded hitters at Yankee Stadium. Kuroda turned these doubters into believers with a fantastic season wherein he was arguably even more consistent and reliable than rotation stalwart CC Sabathia, who missed a little time due to injury. Hell, Yankee Stadium wasn't even much of a problem--he had a 2.72 ERA at home.

Kuroda notched career-highs in innings and starts, and his splitter led to more career-highs in ground-ball rate (52.3%) and double plays against (23). He frequently mixed up pitches, as he threw a fastball only half the time and otherwise used that splitter, a slider, or a curveball. Opposing hitters simply were not making good contact against Kuroda. His skills were on display in the playoffs, as his brilliant outing in ALDS Game 3 in over eight innings of work helped keep the Yankees close enough for Raul Ibanez’s eventual heroics. HIROK followed this up with his first ever start on three days’ rest, a superb 7.2 inning, 11-strikeout performance that he did not deserve to lose. If only they could have a few runs off Anibal Sanchez... alas. Something to watch next season will be how Kuroda reacts pitching to a new batterymate--he's thrown to Russell Martin in four of his five stateside seasons. That said, his numbers did not vary too much when pitching to the trio of Rod Barajas, A.J. Ellis, and Dioner Navarro, other than a jump in FIP. He seems to be a fairly low-key guy to catch.

It might be a bit much to expect Kuroda to be as good in 2013 as he was last season, but it’s certainly reasonable to feel at ease with at least one spot in the rotation behind CC. Kuroda’s control is precise, and he’s the rare pitcher that does not need too may strikeouts to succeed.

I leave you with Kuroda dominating the hard-hitting Texas Rangers on a two-hit shutout:

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