Hiroki Kuroda didn’t actually retire, but he did for all intents and purposes. The 39-year-old free agent pitcher, most recently of the New York Yankees but also formerly of the Los Angeles Dodgers, decided to return to his former team, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, in his homeland of Japan. Kuroda had worked on one-year contracts each of the last four years — weighing the decision of whether or not to return to Japan heavily each season. This year, something tipped the scales.
It certainly wasn’t a matter of the demand for his services. Kuroda is coming off a three-win season and took just $3.3 million to play in Japan. It almost certainly is a matter of a nearly 40-year-old man simply desiring to go home, back to the place in which he grew up and lived for the first 32 years of his life. And back to the team he called his own for the first 11 years of his professional baseball career.
Kuroda was never the best pitcher in the league; he was never the best pitcher on his team. But he wasn’t supposed to be. What he was, was consistent. In an era where pitchers are more volatile than ever, Kuroda was anything but. Since coming to the USA in 2008, he made at least 31 starts in six of his seven MLB seasons. In the other, he made 20.
Over the last five seasons, Kuroda averaged 32 starts per year. Only 11 other pitchers can make that claim. You’ll notice what sets Kuroda apart from those 11 other pitchers:
Kuroda has been among the game’s most durable pitchers, which is impressive. He’s also been among the game’s oldest, which is not only impressive in and of itself, but makes the previous statement that much more impressive.
But it’s not just that he gave his team innings, it’s that he gave his team good innings. As previously mentioned, he was never an elite pitcher, but his career is far more than just innings. During his seven years in the majors, he ranked 19th in pitcher WAR, by FIP. He ranked 17th in pitcher WAR, by ERA.
When you compare him to his historical peers, it’s more impressive. First, consider that Kuroda threw more than 1,000 innings after his age-35 season, something to which only only 46 pitchers during the live-ball era (1940-Present) can lay claim. Of that group, Kuroda ranks 29th in a 50/50 split of FIP-WAR and ERA-WAR. This rank is worse than the previous rank I presented, but this pool of players also dates back 74 years, instead of five. If it doesn’t sound remarkable enough, let me phrase it another way — only 28 pitchers, throughout the history of baseball as we know it, have had better careers, after the age of 35, than Hiroki Kuroda.
So how did he do it? The most important thing, especially for a pitcher his age, is that he stayed healthy. But beyond that, the biggest thing was his command. He never posted a single-season walk rate above 6%, in a time when the league average was a little more than 8%. Other than that, he did just enough of everything. He got just enough strikeouts. He got just enough grounders. How much better was he than the league at allowing home runs? Just enough.
Here’s a nice little nugget from MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch:
As a Yankee, Kuroda was 38-33 with a 3.44 ERA in 97 starts. No pitcher who has made at least 50 starts with the Yankees produced a lower career ERA as a starter since Ron Guidry compiled a 3.32 mark from 1975-88.
And he was abnormally consistent. In four seasons with the Dodgers, his ERA was 3.44. In three seasons with the Yankees, his ERA was 3.45. Consistency isn’t something we spend a lot of time on — it probably doesn’t matter all too much when a player accumulates his value over the course of a season, so long as he accumulates it. But there’s something to be said for knowing exactly what you’ll get out of a player, with no worries. It’s nice to have somebody to count on.
Kuroda’s walk rate, by season: 5.4, 5.0, 5.9, 5.9, 5.7, 5.2, 4.3
His yearly ERA and FIP, in graphical form:
Kuroda was the model of consistency over his MLB career which, again, is made all more impressive by his age. Neither his ERA nor his FIP ever finished above 4.00 in a single season.
Kuroda made five playoff starts in three separate postseasons. Two in the 2008 postseason with the Dodgers were good. One in the 2009 postseason with the Dodgers was a clunker. The other two, in the 2012 postseason with the Yankees, were also good. He never got the chance to pitch in a World Series.
These have just been words, and what Hiroki Kuroda did at his job every day deserves to be seen, so let’s watch.
The pitch for which Kuroda will be best remembered is his splitter. Opponents hit just .193 of Kuroda’s splitter and slugged just .270. He threw it 3,405 times in the major leagues and allowed 10 home runs off of it, in seven seasons. It generated 463 swinging strikes. Of those 463 whiffs, here are the three with the most movement, courtesy of the BaseballSavant PITCHf/x search engine:
A splitter with considerable armside run:
A splitter with considerable vertical drop:
And, finally, a particularly nasty splitter against Prince Fielder in the 2012 ALCS:
Kuroda struck out 11 batters in 7 2/3 innings of work that night, but the Yankees weren’t able to muster any runs off Anibal Sanchez and Phil Coke, and the Yankees lost, 3-0. That’s rather fitting for Kuroda, though, as he received notoriously low run support throughout his career. The Yankees and Dodgers combined to score less than four runs per game for Kuroda, who will finish his MLB career with a record of 79-79.
For seven seasons, Hiroki Kuroda quietly went about his work in the MLB, before slinking off to Japan, surely to do more of the same. He didn’t have a big personality and he was never elite, so for these reasons, perhaps Kuroda didn’t quite get the appreciation he deserved during his career in America. But that’s not to say what Hiroki Kuroda did isn’t worth appreciating, because it is. Farewell, Hiroki. Sayonara.
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.