If you look closely enough, you'll find right there, nestled in the No. 2 spot in the New York Yankees' rotation, the unassuming and quietly dominant Hiroki Kuroda. In late May, Kuroda's ERA had ballooned to 4.56 following his second straight loss.
At 3-6, it looked like Brian Cashman's one-year free-agent signing was another tragic case of a good National League pitcher gone bad in the American League East. Kuroda appeared a different man, adjusting poorly to facing the smaller parks and more powerful bats of the junior circuit.
Now, in early August, Hiroki Kuroda is a major factor in the Yankees' tremendous 2012 success, and he's become one of the top pitchers in the American League. Kuroda fired another gem—his 12th quality start of the season—in a loss last Saturday against Seattle. Once again, he did not make the headlines. Nothing flashy, nothing overstated. Quiet efficiency.
The veteran from Japan came to the United States in 2008, pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers for the first four years of his big-league career. Kuroda has been a starter his whole career and pitched for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp from 1997-2007.
Kuroda had a brilliant career in Japan, racking up over 1,200 strikeouts and finishing with a 103-89 career record. Toward the end of his tenure in Japan, several big-money teams pursued Kuroda’s services, as the notoriously frugal Carp struggled to hold onto him.
Kuroda’s best season in the Far East was 2006, when he led Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) with a sizzling 1.86 ERA. He did finish his final season in 2007 with a 12-8 record and 3.56 ERA, but he knew greener pastures awaited him in the major leagues.
Kuroda first became eligible as a free agent in 2006, though he did not officially depart the Japanese league until he signed with the Dodgers following the 2007 season, later that winter in December. On to conquer Major League Baseball. On to prove that he would not be the next Hideki Irabu or Kei Igawa.
The Yankees decided to take a one-year flyer of sorts on Kuroda, hoping that the veteran would be an innings eater whose experience could help balance out what promised to be a Yankees rotation with two young pitchers in Pineda and Hughes.
Following the spring training shoulder injury to Pineda, Kuroda's value rose considerably and suddenly, he found himself entering the 2012 season behind Yankees ace CC Sabathia in the rotation.
Kuroda has a very deceptive fastball that he combines with a nasty slider and changeup. Though his main weapon is the shuuto, a filthy pitch predominantly thrown by some Japanese right-handers that breaks hard, down and in to right-handed batters.
Some have described the shuuto pitch as a reverse slider due to the way it breaks in at batters and keeps them off-balance. However, this is an incorrect label since Kuroda’s shuuto pitch is generally thrown in the low-90s. Most big-league sliders are thrown in the low 80s.
When Kuroda is on, his pitches are dipping and diving all throughout the strike zone. He is in the lower half of the statistic for qualified pitchers in the game for pitches per plate appearance (P/PA). The great sinking action to his ball makes it conducive to batters meekly grounding out across the infield.
Kuroda has provided the Yankees with a dynamic boost in a year where they’ve really needed one from their starting pitching staff. Sabathia is having another good season, though he hasn’t been great. The Pineda injury and offseason trade of AJ Burnett thrust Kuroda into the upper echelon of the Bombers’ rotation.
Kuroda has 14 quality starts on the year—three off the AL lead—including four in a row and 10 of his last 13 starts dating back to late May. In that span, Kuroda’s ERA has dropped from 3.96 to 3.19 and he’s gone 6-4.
Wins are hardly the tale of Kuroda’s brilliant first season in pinstripes. He’s given the Yankees the opportunity to win in most of his starts and has only seemed to get stronger as the year has worn on.
Kuroda is eighth in the American League in ERA, fifth in pitching wins above replacement (WAR) and eighth in innings pitched. Kuroda walks very few batters and has been incredibly durable and reliable. Kuroda is also tied for the 11th best WHIP in the American League.
He takes the mound this afternoon in Detroit hoping to give the Yankees a split in their series with the Tigers. Kuroda is also expected to take the mound come playoff time at Yankee Stadium as the Game 2 starter in the American League Division Series if all goes according to plan.
The Yankees will face several questions this offseason about who to re-sign, who to let go and which high-priced free agents to pursue. When it comes to Hiroki Kuroda, the offseason question isn’t whether they will re-sign Hiroki Kuroda.
The question is: for how many years and how much money?