The continuing adventures of Hiroki Kurodaby Steven Booth
February 22, 2012
Hiroki Kuroda made a move this offseason that stunned many Dodger fans by signing with the New York Yankees. It could be said that the in-limbo Dodgers didn’t want to spend eight figures on an aging pitcher, but that same “aging” pitcher had one of his best years in 2011. His disappearance will rob the middle of the Dodgers rotation of a stabilizing presence that kept the team semi-competitive last year.
On the other hand, the Yankees were desperate for starting pitching depth, can hand out eight-figure contracts like pocket change, and give a guy possibly in his last year a realistic run for a championship. Whoever won or lost in this scenario will not be known for sure until October, but all sides involved have reasons both to celebrate and be concerned.
Kuroda was nothing if not solid for the Dodgers. In three of his four years in LA, he made over 30 starts. He never had an ERA over 3.76, and that figure declined his last two years, culminating in a 3.07 mark for 2011. He has had a solid strikeout rate, punching out 6.7 per nine innings, and it was over 7.0 in his last two seasons.
Batters did not get on base against him much, either. While his 8.6 hits-per-nine innings (H/9) is a little higher than one would like, it is more than made up for by his low 2.1 walks-per-nine (BB/9). Kuroda throws the ball over the plate, he makes batters swing, and while they will get some hits off him, he rarely gets in over his head.
You can point at his record, but know that in nine of his 13 losses in 2010, he pitched a quality start, and seven of his 16 losses last year were also quality starts. With any offensive support, he would’ve been a 15-game winner in both of the last two seasons, easily.
Kuroda also is durable. The only season in which he missed significant time was 2009 when he was hit in the head by a Rusty Ryal line drive. The only major red flag was the increase in homers hit off him last season. Opponents went deep 24 times last year, while they never hit more than 15 in any previous season. With him spending much of his time this year pitching at Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Rogers Centre, that may be a problem.
The Dodgers lost the heart of their rotation. Clayton Kershaw should have another scary-good year, and Chad Billingsley can be counted on to eat 200 innings, but his declining whiffs and increasing hits and walks are concerns. LA's $10.5 million man Ted Lilly also ate quite a few innings for the Dodgers, but his decent–looking stat lines were greatly helped by a huge September. Whether this portends garbage-time bottom-feeding or a new inspiration remains to be seen.
A few seasons ago, Aaron Harang was a top-of-the-line starter; he had a few bad years but then seemed to redeem himself as a San Diego Padre last year. Chris Capuano pitched passably last year for the Mets after being out almost two seasons. Kuroda was able to take some of the pressure off Billingsley and Lilly last season, and it remains to be seen who will do so this year.
This is not a bad rotation, but it's probably a downgrade from last year. It was the pitching that inched the Dodgers toward respectability in 2011, carrying an inept offense. With little or no offensive upgrades and the pitching stagnant at best, it’s their weak division and perhaps some magic dust from the new ownership group that Dodgers fans can base their hopes on.
The Yankees look longingly to Kuroda. CC Sabathia is the resident horse of the rotation, but it's a mixed bag after that. A.J. Burnett was anything but a reliable No. 2, and the Yanks have now shipped him off to Pittsburgh. While Ivan Nova came out of nowhere last year, it’s hard to say what he’ll do in 2012.
New York also does not know what to expect from Phil Hughes. Michael Pineda is an intriguing find, but Kuroda is money. He will have the No. 2 or No. 3 slot in the rotation and, with the big Yankee bats, will not feel the pressure of his offense not scoring runs. He is playing for a team that does whatever it takes to win, as opposed to one teetering on instability and bankruptcy. It may not all be wine and roses, though.
The NL West is a dream come true for pitchers. Dodger Stadium, Petco Park and Pac Bell Stadium are all very pitcher-friendly parks, and while Coors and Chase are homer-friendly, neither the Diamondbacks or Rockies have had lineups that seriously took advantage of their dimensions. Compared to that, the AL East is the cauldron of doom. Kuroda will play many games in homer-friendly Yankee Stadium, Fenway and Rogers Centre against teams that can hit.
The Red Sox were in the top three in virtually every major offensive category, the Blue Jays would be a perennial contender in virtually every other divisions, and while you could laugh all you want at the Orioles, they do have four guys who hit over 20 homers last year. The Rays don’t scare too many people offensively, but with their pitching, they are in virtually every game. The Yanks will also spend some quality time with powerhouse offensive teams like the Angels, Rangers and Tigers. They also have the DH.
Kuroda may still be the right guy for the job, though. He is known to be a big-game pitcher. He is 2-1 in playoff games, shutting out the Cubs and a powerful Phillies team in 2008 while getting roughed up in 2009 by virtually the same Phillies team. He is quite unflappable, though he will be tested by the psychotic and hyper-adrenalized East Coast media.
Kuroda is not the ace Sabathia is, but neither is he the head-case that Burnett is, or the (so far successful) reclamation project known as Freddy Garcia. His ERA will go up, but so will his wins. Perhaps the ultimate victory here will be that Sabathia for once may not feel like he has to do it all on his own.