There's little case to be made against the fact that Hiroki Kuroda has been flat-out awesome this year. The man they call Mechagodzilla (using a very narrow definition of the word ‘they'), is in the midst of a career campaign that's helped keep an injury-embattled Yankee squad in contention through over three quarters of a season that could easily have been given up for lost in mid-May.
Kuroda's last two starts have been a different thing entirely. A 5.2-inning, eleven-hit, five-run tour-de-force of mediocrity in Boston last Saturday was followed this Friday by a six-inning, nine-hit, seven-run jaunt in St. Petersburg, during which four different Rays managed to take Hiro deep.
Kuroda's consistency in 2013, which has far excelled even his first fantastic season as a Yankee should earn him the right to put up a couple of lousy starts without being hyper-analyzed or booed or pelted with produce. Before Friday's abomination, the righty was sitting on the outskirts of Cy Young contention. His 2.41 ERA led the American League and his 5.1 rWAR ranked fourth amongst American League pitchers. For perspective, the last Yankee pitcher to lead the league in ERA was Rudy May in 1980.
Absolutely, Kuroda deserves a pass, but this being the internet, are we not obligated to exercise our Al Gore-given right to overreact? Maybe it's too soon to criticize or dread or pray to mighty Jobu for relief, but it's not crazy to at least wonder what's changed.
When a 38-year-old pitcher pitches exceedingly well, it's easy to forget that he is, in fact, 38, and not exactly a fresh 38 at that. Between Japanese baseball and the American majors, Kuroda's tallied 2,588.1 professional innings, and as he's gotten older, he's pitched more, not less. Hiroki's 219.2 frames in 2012 were a career high in either hemisphere, and he's on pace to add around 208 more in 2013. Prior to becoming a Yankee, Kuroda had hit the 200 inning plateau just three times, once for the Dodgers and twice for Hiroshima. There's a lot of mileage on that right arm and much of it's been run up the past two seasons. Late August is a time when even younger pitchers typically start to feel the burn of a long baseball year.
If fatigue is a factor in Kuroda's recent struggles, it may be due more to pitch selection than to workload. In 2013, Kuroda's thrown 50.1 percent fastballs, a career low, while he's relied on sliders and splitters, pitches that are much more taxing to a pitcher's arm at a rate of 46.7 percent. Despite his success, Kuroda's had to work harder to get hitters out. He's thrown more pitches per hitter this year (3.89) than he did in either 2011 or 2012.
If it's not overwork, a shift in Kuroda's previous good fortune could be to blame. Kuroda's dominant first four-plus months were built, at least to a degree, on some phenomenal luck figures. His .268 BABIP headed into Friday's start was a career-best, as was his 81.2 left-on-base percentage. His 8.1 percent home run to fly ball ratio seemed equally unsustainable, since that number sat at 13.0 in 2012.
In all likelihood, the recent malaise we've seen from our laser-eyed metallic destroyer is nothing more than a blip on the radar of an otherwise outstanding year. Still, it's easier to brush off bad starts when dealing with a pitcher of a less geriatric ilk, or with one who'd achieved an elite level before. With great starting pitching needed to carry an offense that's still somewhat unreliable down the home stretch (and hopefully into the playoffs), any chink in the staff's armor is just cause for concern.