Kuroda Quietly Brilliant During MLB Tenure

hiroki kuroda

Seven years ago, Hiroki Kuroda began his MLB career with little of the fanfare that has accompanied other Japanese players who decided to compete stateside. The Hiroshima Toyo Carp starter wasn’t a pioneer like Hideo Nomo, a multi-time batting champ and MVP like Ichiro, or a twenty-something Sawamura Award winner like Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish. At the time, the LA Dodgers merely hoped Kuroda could be a veteran innings-eater as Clayton Kershaw and other young stars came of age.

In 2015, Kuroda will re-join the Hiroshima Carp having proven to be durable, occasionally dominant, and still capable of vanquishing MLB hitters as he nears his 40th birthday. From 2008-14, Kuroda ranked 19th among starters in innings pitched (1,319) and Wins Above Replacement (21.7). Had he decided to pitch another year in the show — or make just one more stellar start, even — he would have passed Nomo (21.8 WAR) for the highest career WAR total among Japanese-born hurlers. As a youngster in Japan, he posted a 3.69 career ERA. Transitioning to a a higher level of competition in the U.S., Kuroda compiled a 3.45 with the Dodgers in his early-to-mid-30s. In his late thirties, he didn’t skip a beat despite shifting to the DH league (3.44 ERA with the Yankees). Kuroda is baseball’s Benjamin Button, aging in reverse.

Kuroda didn’t overpower hitters, striking out 6.7 per nine frames, but he displayed top-shelf control (2.0 BB/9) and kept the ball in the park (0.9 HR/9). He limited and walks and homers thanks in large part to one of the nastiest splitters ever seen on a U.S. diamond.

While successful Japanese pitchers are helping to popularize the offering, splitters remain a rare sight in MLB games (just 1.5% of all pitches were splitters last season, and that’s a high-water mark since Pitch F/X came into existence full time in 2008). Kuroda threw his high-80s split about 15% of the time in the majors, the highest clip among starters this side of Hisashi Iwakuma and Alfredo Simon. As the years went by, Kuroda relied on his out-pitch more and more (he threw it a career-high 27% in 2014). And with the results he got, who could blame him?

Opponents slugged just .273 off Kuroda’s splitter, the second-lowest mark among starters throwing the pitch 500+ times since 2008 and nearly 80 points below the overall MLB average since 2008 (.356). Of the 500+ splitter group, only Jeff Samardzija (.220 slugging percentage) did a better job of limiting extra-base knocks. Kuroda rarely tossed his splitter in the zone — just 27% crossed home plate — but he was adept at getting batters to chase the pitch as it tumbled towards their shins and shoe-tops.

Opponents’ swing rate by pitch location vs. Kuroda’s slider, 2008-14

The righty goaded hitters into chasing splitters off the plate about 40% of the time, well north of the 35% big league average. All of those low splitters and even lower hacks explain how Kuroda racked up ground balls 55% of the time with his signature pitch.

Kuroda departs America without any hardware or accolades — he didn’t make an All-Star team, despite ranking as one of the top 20 arms in the game — but his quiet excellence proved to be a major bargain for the Dodgers and Yankees. Kuroda earned a cool $88 million in the majors, but Fangraphs estimates his pitching was worth around $105 million. How many thirty-something free agent starters with significant mileage on their arms produce enough to justify big pay days, much less exceed them? Who knows, with Kuroda seemingly impervious to the calendar, he might just earn that Sawamura Award next year.