Hiroki Kuroda has thus far been a very solid addition to the Yankees starting rotation. The 37-year-old right-hander, who spent the first four years of his Major League career in Los Angeles with the Dodgers, has made five starts on the young season. And though Kuroda is just 2-3 in those five starts, he has been arguably the most productive starter on the team. His 3.69 ERA leads all Yankee starters by nearly a run, the result of a home run rate far below the rates given up by the rest of the rotation.
So far, so good. And thank God. With Michael Pineda out for the season and Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia sporting ERAs over 7.00, the acquisition of Kuroda is looking like a lot more than overkill. The second piece acquired on the same night as Pineda this past winter, Kuroda was seen as a luxury acquisition by some. Now, in the Yankees’ quest for a 28th title, Kuroda will likely be a major deciding factor.
Kuroda has pitched well. But five starts into the season, there is some reason to worry that age is catching up with the Japanese import. While some regression was to be expected, moving from the NL West to the AL East, Kuroda is now sporting a FIP and xFIP far above his career levels. After striking out 7.3 and 7.2 batters per nine innings in the past two seasons, respectively, Kuroda has just 20 strikeouts in his first 30.2 innings pitched. That’s a rate of 5.7 per nine innings. A normal drop for a pitcher making such a transition? Hardly. While the the pitcher in the National League provides strikeout fodder, the difference in K-rate between the National League in 2011 and American League in 2012 is, so far, just 0.2 strikeouts per nine innings pitched.
Kuroda has never been a strikeout pitcher, per se. His low walk rate and high groundball rates have kept his ERA firmly in the low-to-mid threes since joining the Dodgers in 2008. But even on those fronts, Kuroda has lost a step. Coming off a season in which he allowed well over a home run per nine innings – far above his career levels – some regression in that respect was expected. Kuroda’s groundball rate is up from last season, though still below his 2008-2010 levels. Moving from Dodger Stadium to Yankee Stadium hasn’t helped either. Kuroda has given up four home runs in five starts – two in one start at home, against the Minnesota Twins. Home runs hurt less without baserunners. But Kuroda’s walk rate, a career 2.1 per nine innings, sits just under 2.6 per nine. His strikeout to walk rate, generally int he threes and good indication of a pitchers ability to prevent baserunners, is just 2.2 on the season.
It’s early yet, but Kuroda’s deteriorating skill set does not look as much like a statistical fluke as a traditional aging pattern. Unlike Sabathia, among others, Kuroda does not suffer persistent slow Aprils. His caree ERA in the month is 3.19 and his velocity has generally been near his year-long average in the month. Yet so far this season, there is underlying underperformance. His fastball, which sat at 92.0 MPH last season, sits at 91.0 MPH so far this season, and he has thrown it about 5% less often. His breaking balls have similarly lost between 0.5 and 1.0 MPH. But Kuroda has thrown his slider 45% more frequently, his curveball twice as frequently. His swinging strike rate, around 10% for his career, is just above 8%. Kuroda is throwing fewer strikes, yet batters are making contact off more of his pitches, suggesting his stuff is suppressed and that Kuroda is less than willing to cave to hitters who are taking him deep at a career high rate.
Today is May 2nd, and May 2nd is always too early to get worried about anyone, let alone a pitcher with a 3.69 ERA. Yes, Kuroda has a history of strong starts, and yes, Kuroda is not an innings eater. The Yankees want to get what they can out of Kuroda in the innings he will give them, particularly early in the season. Even if Kuroda has lost a step, and given his age and the transition he’s made between divisions no one would be surprised, his skill set is still solid enough. His 3.97 xFIP is third among Yankees starters, behind Ivan Nova and Sabathia. But his 4.11 SIERA, and his 5.11 tERA suggest that his ERA could be higher, perhaps much higher, and that lesser results could be forthcoming. Kuroda’s stuff, and his ability to come into the zone with great frequency, and successfully, bares watching going forward.
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