Healthy (for now), Kuo’s killing it

Since he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers out of Taiwan in 1999, Hong-Chih Kuo‘s career has come to be defined by strikeouts and surgeries. Kuo’s minor league K rate is 12.3 per nine innings pitched, and he has punched out 10.6 per nine frames in the majors. In 231.2 MLB innings over the 2005-2010 seasons, Kuo has been worth 5.4 Wins Above Replacement. When he’s available, he’s awesome.

If only the lefty were available more often. Sadly, his injury dossier is thicker than the McCourts’ divorce filings. Kuo has endured two Tommy John surgeries (in 2000 and 2003), and he pitched all of 42.1 minor league innings from the turn of the millennium to 2004. He missed significant time in 2007 with a left rotator cuff injury, and then surgery to remove bone chips. The sometimes-starter pitched almost exclusively out of the ‘pen in 2008, and he dominated — 10.8 K/9, 2.36 BB/9 and a 2.76 xFIP in 80 innings. And then, as The Los Angeles Times’ Dylan Hernandez recounts, another setback:

Warming up for a game in San Francisco, Kuo said that his fingers went numb and that the skin on his arm turned bright red.

“He couldn’t feel the ball as well,” Dodgers trainer Stan Conte said. “You use the word ‘feel’ in two different contexts. One is the sensation of the ball in your hand. Then there’s what a pitcher will talk about: ‘I just don’t have the feel.’ Although they have a feel with the ball, they don’t have a great idea of what they can do with it. I think with him, it was both.”

Kuo then contracted “The Thing”:

The next spring, Kuo had trouble commanding his pitches.

The problem started out as something minor, Kuo missing several inches high or wide of his intended target.

But in a game at Dodger Stadium in May, Kuo was warming up in the bullpen and sailed a couple of balls into the infield.

Uh-oh.

Kuo said he didn’t know what was wrong, but theorized that his loss of control resulted from a combination of physical and psychological factors. He was put on the disabled list.

Kuo returned last July, and he had 9.6 K/9, 3.9 BB/9 and a 3.74 xFIP in 30 innings pitched. He also punched out eight batters in five postseason frames, surrendering one run. Kuo sat around 94 MPH with his fastball, which he threw four-fifths of the time, and he mixed in a wicked mid-80′s slider, too. After yet another DL stint this past April with elbow soreness, Kuo has been one of the best relievers in the game.

In 26.1 innings, Kuo has an eye-popping 12.3 K/9, 2.73 BB/9 and a 2.67 xFIP. He has already racked up a win above replacement despite not being activated until April 22nd. The soon-to-be-29-year-old ranks seventh in reliever xFIP, and he places fifth in swinging strike rate (15.4 percent).

He has gone to the slider more this season (about 32 percent of the time), and the pitch is inducing a whiff nearly 20 percent (13 percent MLB average). Of course, the heater has been ridiculous, too, with a 13.3 percent whiff rate (6 percent MLB average). Those averages include starters as well, but they give an idea of how dominant Kuo is right now. He has earned the trust of Dodgers manager Joe Torre, as Kuo ranks second on the club in Leverage Index (1.42).

For his perseverance, Kuo has earned an endearing nickname — “the Cockroach.” Here’s hoping “the Cockroach” keeps beating the odds and silencing hitters in the late innings.

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