The New York Yankees have been to the postseason each of the last three years since signing ace lefty CC Sabathia. As they were hoping he would, Sabathia has started the first game of the playoffs each year he's been in town.
That should change this season. When the Yankees make it to October, the first pitcher out of the gates should be Hiroki Kuroda.
In fact, after watching what he did to the Texas Rangers on Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, it's pretty obvious at this point that it should be Kuroda. Salaries be damned.
It's a simple matter of the Yankees putting their best foot forward. Sabathia hasn't pitched poorly when he's been healthy this season, but Kuroda's been the Yankees' most consistent starting pitcher all season. And, more recently, their most dominant starting pitcher.
It took some time for Kuroda to adjust to life in the American League. Per Baseball-Reference.com, he had an ERA of 4.56 through his first nine starts with an opponents' batting average of .281. Worse, he had surrendered 10 home runs in just 53.1 innings pitched with only 34 strikeouts and 20 walks.
Kuroda figured things out in late May, and he's been on a tear ever since.
Over his last 15 starts, Kuroda has an ERA of 2.30 and he's holding hitters to a mere .225 average. He's given up only six home runs in over 105 innings, with 87 strikeouts and only 18 walks.
In these 15 starts, Kuroda has failed to log at least six innings exactly once. It was just a matter of time before he went the distance, and he finally did that on Tuesday night against the most dangerous offensive team in the American League.
Kuroda took a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the Rangers, ultimately ending up with a two-hit shutout. The hit that broke up the no-hitter was a mere infield single off the bat of Elvis Andrus, and Michael Young's clean base hit up the middle in the eighth inning was quickly erased thanks to a double play ball.
Kuroda earned a game score of 86 with his two-hit shutout, a personal high for him on the season. It was also the sixth game he's pitched this season in which he's held the opposition scoreless through seven innings. According to the Yankees, no other pitcher in the majors has done that this season.
Go ahead. Call him the Yankees' ace. You won't be insulting the big guy if you do so.
To be fair to Sabathia, he is having a good season. He's pitched at least six innings in all but one of his starts, and his 3.56 ERA isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination even if it is a little high for him.
It's worth noting that his ERA should be a little lower, mind you. Per FanGraphs, Sabathia's FIP (fielding independent pitching) is 3.32. That's the fifth-best mark in the American League, ranking him ahead of standout hurlers like Jered Weaver and Jake Peavy.
The only knock against Sabathia that has any legs is that he's been injury-prone for the first time in his career. That's very much true, but it doesn't look like his elbow troubles are going to be a lingering issue. He should be fine by the time October rolls around.
That shouldn't stop him from taking a back seat to Kuroda, though. The list of pitchers the Yankees could come up against in the first game of the postseason includes Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver, David Price, Chris Sale and Matt Harrison (who also pitched very well on Tuesday night). Joe Girardi will need to start somebody who can match zeroes with those guys, and Kuroda has a much better chance of doing that than Sabathia.
Case in point, you know those six starts in which Kuroda has held the opposition scoreless through seven innings? Sabathia has had one such start this season, and it came all the way back on May 10 against the Evan Longoria-less Tampa Bay Rays.
Furthermore, Sabathia hasn't fared particularly well against teams with records of .500 or better. He has a 3.70 ERA against them, as opposed to a 3.21 ERA against teams with sub-.500 records.
Kuroda has a 3.77 ERA against teams with sub-.500 records, and a 2.77 ERA against teams with records of .500 or better. One assumes only teams with .500 or better records are going to make the postseason, so Kuroda will very much be in his element when he takes the mound in October.
Sabathia would presumably prefer to start Game 1 in the postseason when the Yankees get there, but having him start Game 2 instead would be something of an ideal scenario for the Yankees as a team. Sabathia may not be up to matching up against other teams' No. 1 starting pitchers this year, but he's more than capable of matching up against their No. 2's.
That list includes names like Doug Fister, Zack Greinke, James Shields and Jake Peavy, none of whom are decidedly better than Sabathia. What's for sure is that none of the four can hope to match Sabathia's postseason experience.
Grabbing a quick 2-0 lead in a postseason series is never a bad way to go about things. And if the Yankees start Kuroda and then Sabathia, their chances of grabbing a quick 2-0 lead will increase significantly.
As for who starts Game 3...Well, that's another headache.
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