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Remembering Hiroki Kuroda: The durable and consistent starter all teams desire

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#HIROK wasn't the flashiest star, but he was amazingly reliable enough to pitch like few other players have in their thirties.

We'll miss ya, #HIROK.
We'll miss ya, #HIROK.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Hundreds of major league players' careers come and go every few years. Occasionally, they are phenomenal and sure-fire Hall of Fame journeys, like Derek Jeter's; others aren't as successful and end up going the way of Andy Phillips. There are some players, however, who are quite good, but unfortunately not well-known enough to be remembered by most fans. The seven-year MLB career of Hiroki Kuroda undoubtedly falls into that category.

On Friday, it was revealed that the soon-to-be 40-year-old decided that seven seasons of baseball away from his native Japan were enough, and he agreed to return to Japan for the 2015 season. Kuroda will be signing with his original NPB team, the Hiroshima Carp, the club with which he first rose to prominence over 11 seasons from 1997-2007. Since coming stateside in 2008 with the Dodgers, Kuroda has been a model of consistency and excellent pitching, yet one who was constantly overlooked, even among his Japanese peers:

In 2008, the Dodgers signed veteran starter Hiroki Kuroda from the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. He wasn't as flashy a signing as Hideo Nomo and he didn't come with the rumor of a gyroball like Daisuke Matsuzaka. He didn't throw the roughly 1,000 pitches that Yu Darvish came bearing and he wasn't as young and full of promise as the 25-year-old Masahiro Tanaka... But at the age of 33 and after posting a 3.69 ERA in 11 seasons in the NPB, the Dodgers could expect a steady contributor.

Kuroda was who he was: a healthy mid-rotation starter who the Dodgers and Yankees could trust to keep them in the game almost every time he took the rubber. He was a manager's dream, not wasting much time on the mound and rarely walking people (2.0 BB/9). He wasn't a big strikeout pitcher, but his splitter could miss bats when it needed to do so.

Perhaps best of all for his skippers, Kuroda was able to just take the ball and pitch several quality innings. After missing about 15 starts over his first two seasons due to a shoulder impingement, an oblique strain, and a concussion following a scary line drive to the head, Kuroda almost never missed any time again. From 2010-14, just ten other pitchers in baseball threw more innings than Kuroda's 1,018 1/3, and only eight made more starts than Kuroda's 161. Even going back to 2008 and including that brief time missed in '08 and '09, he's still in the top 20 for both categories. If only he was more popular, State Farm could really have used him in their lame "Like a good neighbor" commercials.

There was something else admirable about Kuroda's performance during his seven-year career--he was wonderful, and he was doing it all in his mid-to-late thirties, a time when most starters would be winding down their careers. Kuroda pitched in 1,700 1/3 innings in Japan, a total that is higher than the current career innings pitched by over-30 veterans like Adam Wainwright, Jered Weaver, and Jeremy Guthrie. And yet look at how his age 33 through 39 seasons compare to other righthanded starters in the Expansion Era:

Rk Player ERA+ WAR From To Age G GS CG SHO IP H R ER BB SO ERA FIP HR IBB HBP Tm
1 Kevin Brown 145 31.9 1998 2004 33-39 195 186 18 5 1261.2 1094 461 402 307 1124 2.87 3.07 90 11 41 SDP-LAD-NYY
2 Roger Clemens 137 43.5 1996 2002 33-39 225 225 22 9 1533.2 1335 634 580 571 1576 3.40 3.31 122 10 54 BOS-TOR-NYY
3 Curt Schilling 134 42.4 2000 2006 33-39 219 197 25 6 1418.1 1350 562 553 234 1444 3.51 3.14 173 8 19 PHI-ARI-BOS
4 Gaylord Perry 127 46.3 1972 1978 33-39 259 258 150 29 2063.2 1787 744 660 540 1395 2.88 2.99 148 53 34 CLE-TEX-SDP
5 Greg Maddux 126 26.6 1999 2005 33-39 240 240 19 7 1557.0 1579 674 604 253 1028 3.49 3.63 157 52 49 ATL-CHC
6 Dennis Martinez 126 29.6 1987 1993 33-39 220 218 40 12 1511.0 1336 576 497 379 910 2.96 3.47 115 31 49 MON
7 Phil Niekro 125 49.9 1972 1978 33-39 286 264 109 17 2040.2 1861 832 718 669 1317 3.17 3.32 151 37 56 ATL
8 Bob Gibson 122 36.4 1969 1975 33-39 214 206 117 18 1675.2 1469 622 560 570 1267 3.01 2.87 99 64 36 STL
9 Charlie Hough 115 25.6 1981 1987 33-39 232 215 76 9 1594.0 1381 740 636 588 1023 3.59 4.02 164 13 57 TEX
10 Hiroki Kuroda 115 21.7 2008 2014 33-39 212 211 6 5 1319.0 1254 564 505 292 986 3.45 3.61 129 32 38 LAD-NYY
11 Tom Candiotti 114 21.8 1991 1997 33-39 221 193 21 3 1286.0 1207 567 486 402 885 3.40 3.70 103 18 43 TOR-CLE-LAD
12 Luis Tiant 111 27.4 1974 1980 33-39 230 229 85 21 1583.1 1541 690 644 429 875 3.66 3.66 155 16 19 BOS-NYY
13 Mike Mussina 111 28.0 2002 2008 33-39 215 214 8 5 1324.1 1363 636 589 276 1064 4.00 3.61 146 12 34 NYY
14 Fergie Jenkins 111 21.9 1976 1982 33-39 211 203 66 11 1431.1 1404 632 568 361 894 3.57 3.74 166 30 20 BOS-TEX-CHC
15 Bert Blyleven 110 27.8 1984 1990 33-39 232 231 77 18 1659.2 1607 762 697 428 1132 3.78 3.77 188 16 65 CLE-MIN-CAL
16 Jim Bunning 110 25.4 1965 1971 33-39 246 229 60 19 1608.2 1493 632 568 390 1230 3.18 2.88 126 64 73 PHI-PIT-LAD
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 12/27/2014.

That is the entire list of righty starters who managed to record at least a 110 ERA+ and 20 rWAR during their age 33 through 39 seasons, and Kuroda's right up there with both Hall of Fame names and others who are regarded among the best pitchers of their respective eras. That's some excellent work by #HIROK.

Kuroda averaged just under 6 1/3 innings per start, and he pitched at least seven innings 80 times out of his 211 starts. Basically, Joe Torre, Don Mattingly, and Joe Girardi could count on him to pitch at least seven innings at least once out of every three starts; hell, the actual frequency of 37.9% was even somewhat more than one out of three. He could sometimes go even deeper, pitching at least into the eighth 33 times and on five occasions, twirling a shutout. Kuroda was probably never better than in his rookie season, when he took a perfect game into the eighth inning and spun a one-hit shutout with just the one baserunner allowed. (Hopefully, when they became teammates, Mark Teixeira bought him something nice and not-kale related for ruining that.) With the Yankees, his best start came in the AL East-winning 2012 season, when he threw a two-hit shutout against the offensive powerhouse Texas Rangers on August 14th:

How was Kuroda in pressure situations? Generally superb, of course. One bad playoff outing in his comparatively shaky '09 campaign pollutes the rest of his numbers, but in the four other outings in 2008 & 2012, he was reliable as ever. He finished off the Dodgers' three-game NLDS sweep of the Cubs in his playoff debut with 6 1/3 scoreless innings, then shook off growing hostility between the Dodgers and Phillies to win his start in Game 3 of the NLCS.

Back in the postseason picture in 2012 with the Yankees, he was excellent. Raul Ibanez was the star of ALDS Game 3 against the Orioles, but it was Kuroda who was the unsung hero. He threw 8 1/3 innings of two-run ball against a potent lineup to even keep the Yankees in a position to potentially win it. In desperate need of a starter in Game 2 of the ALCS, the Yankees asked him to pitch on three days' rest for the first time in his career, and he responded by pitching perfectly into the sixth and tying a career-high with 11 strikeouts. Unfortunately, the offense did nothing against the Tigers' Anibal Sanchez, and Kuroda defense betrayed him in the seventh, leading to the decisive three runs.

Games like his last playoff start became common over Kuroda's last two years in pinstripes. In both 2013 and 2014, he seemed to be the only healthy and capable starter available most of the time, and the meager offense rarely did much to support him. Such problems likely led to an All-Star snub in 2013, when Kuroda was absolutely deserving for his first-half performance. He pitched to a 2.65 ERA and 1.053 WHIP in 19 starts, but due to horrible run support, he had only an 8-6 record. Thus, AL manager Jim Leyland elected to take the Orioles' Chris Tillman, who had 11 wins but a much higher 3.95 ERA. Whatever, bro. #HIROK deserved to be an All-Star that year and I will hear nothing to the contrary.

Thank you for being the ever-consistent starter the Yankees needed over the past three seasons, Kuroda. Good luck in Japan and come back to an Old Timers' Day someday when you retire. You'll certainly get the ovation you deserved after your excellent final start but respectfully declined. You be you, #HIROK.

HIROK