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Remembering Hiroki Kuroda’s remarkable professional career

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He was one of the best Yankees pitchers of the past few years, but he left a much larger impact on the game worldwide.

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

While fans in the United States are enjoying a World Series of historic proportions, another playoff series just took place across the Pacific in the Nippon Professional Baseball league. The Japan Series, the baseball championship of NPB, featured the Hiroshima Toyo Carp and the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. My rooting interest, as a neutral American observer, was with the Carp, who featured none other than Hiroki Kuroda for his final professional start.

The Carp won the first two games of the series, and it seemed like Kuroda had a chance at getting a title before his retirement, but the Carp then lost four straight games, a couple in brutal fashion.

Game three, Kuroda’s final start, went exactly many games in his career went. The 41-year-old tossed five and two-thirds innings of one-run ball, only to get the no decision, and the Carp got the loss, after the relief coughed up the game on a Shohei Otani game-winning single in the tenth.

After the loss, Kuroda—as he was always wont to do—put the emphasis on the team, and how his preparation was always the same, playoffs or not. He said the following to Jason Coskrey of the Japan Times:

Otani, who could very well become a MLB pitcher in the future, was heavily inspired by Kuroda and the way he promoted Japanese baseball; and, Hideki Kuriyama, the manager of the Fighters, echoed the sentiment:

It can’t be stated enough how important Kuroda is to the country of Japan and the city of Hiroshima, and to the sport of baseball in general. In that final start, Coskrey reported that TV ratings in Hiroshima averaged 59.6 percent, or nearly 10 points higher than a normal Japan Series game. He is a legend, and the Carp will honor him by retiring his number.

If you look at Kuroda’s career, you wonder if he could have made the MLB Hall of Fame if we saw his numbers from 1997 to 2016 in the same setting. But that’s obviously selfish and Americentrist, because the truly remarkable thing about his career is that he succeeded in two different leagues, essentially in three distinct eras/environments.

From 1997 to 2007, Kuroda was an above-average starter for the Carp, and he was somewhat underappreciated in comparison to the pitching juggernauts of the era like Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish, and Masahiro Tanaka.

When you look at his numbers on the aggregate, though, you see a really phenomenal career. He tossed over 2000 innings in Japan, with an ERA at 3.55 and a BB/9 at a measly 2.2. He also had a whopping 76 complete games and 15 shutouts.

What really distinguishes Kuroda is not only that he was successful in that span of time—1997 to 2008—but that he was even more successful from 2008 to 2016. Here are his numbers in both leagues in that time, courtesy of FanGraphs and DeltaGraphs:

If you’re also curious how this fits in WAR-wise, this amounts to 31 WAR across the two leagues. He was a 3.5 win pitcher just this year, meaning that he could still be a three-win NPB player, or two-win MLB player, if he continued.

Kuroda’s impact will likely reverberate much further into the future. The latter part of his career shows the baseball world a few things: firstly, pitching across different leagues is really complicated, and it requires a ton of in-depth scouting. While the past would yield the conventional wisdom that only the very best players in Japan can play in MLB, it shows an above-average pitcher could get even better in the United States, and the very best might not be successful at all. It’s also a lesson that player development is not at all linear, which we should all know by now.

Kuroda had an unbelievable professional career, not even considering his tenure with the Yankees. If there’s one thing that fans of the Carp, Yankees, Dodgers, and baseball in general know, it’s that his departure leaves a hole in the game. Cheers, #HIROK, and enjoy your retirement.