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« Zoom Zoom to Minnesota | Main | Pineda's Power Stuff »
Saturday
Jan142012

Kuroda: Master of the Chase

Michael Pineda wasn't the only upgrade the New York Yankees made to their rotation Friday night. The club also agreed to terms with former Dodger Hiroki Kuroda on a one-year, $10 million contract. Kuroda, 37 in February, has quietly ranked among the better starters in the National League since coming over from the Hiroshima Carp of the Japanese League prior to the 2008 season. With Kuroda combining a passable strikeout rate (6.7 per nine innings pitched) with a stingy walk total (2.1 BB/9) and few homers surrendered (0.8 per nine), the right-hander's ERA has outpaced the league average by 14 percent.

Kuroda's stuff -- a low-90s four-seam fastball and sinker, as well as a mid-80s slider and splitter -- isn't what you would call Pineda-like. But he has shown a real talent for getting hitters to chase his pitches off the plate. Opponents have gone after 32.5 percent of Kuroda's out-of-zone offerings since 2008, a top-15 mark among starters with at least 1,000 pitches thrown over that period:

Highest chase rate for starting pitchers, 2008-2011

PlayerChase Pct.
Stephen Strasburg 35.3%
Carl Pavano 34.5%
Roy Halladay 33.8%
Brandon Webb 33.6%
Doug Fister 33.5%
Scott Baker 33.5%
Ricky Nolasco 33.4%
Jorge Campillo 33.0%
Craig Stammen 32.9%
Dan Haren 32.7%
Hiroki Kuroda 32.5%
Odalis Perez 32.4%
John Smoltz 32.2%
Daniel Hudson 32.1%
Justin Verlander 32.1%
League Avg. for SP 28.4%

 

In particular, Kuroda has induced a bunch of chases on his four-seamer and his sinker. With the four-seamer, he gets hitters to go after pitches that straddle the top of the strike zone, and pitches tailing away to Kuroda's arm-side. Here's a look at batters' swing rate by pitch location versus Kuroda's four-seamer from 2008-2011, and then the league average:

Hitters' swing rate by pitch location vs. Kuroda's fastball, 2008-2011 Average swing rate by pitch location vs. fastballs, 2008-2011

Opponents have chased 32 percent of Kuroda's four-seam fastballs overall, easily besting the 26 percent league average.

With the sinker, Kuroda gets chases on pitches thrown just off the outer third of the plate:

Hitters' swing rate by pitch location vs. Kuroda's sinker, 2008-2011

Average swing rate by pitch location vs. sinkers, 2008-2011

Kuroda has a 35 percent chase rate with his sinker, tops among all starters with at least 1,000 thrown since 2008: 

Highest sinker chase rate among starting pitchers, 2008-2011:

PlayerChase Pct.
Hiroki Kuroda 35.0%
Felix Hernandez 33.9%
Carl Pavano 33.9%
Scott Baker 33.5%
CC Sabathia 32.7%
Kevin Slowey 32.0%
Mike Pelfrey 31.7%
Bronson Arroyo 31.7%
Fausto Carmona 30.9%
Jon Garland 30.7%

 

If there is one concern with Kuroda outside of age and quality of competition (his opponents had a collective .744 OPS last season, which ranked 81st out of 104 qualified starting pitchers), it's that he became less of a ground ball-oriented pitcher in 2011. He got ground balls about 52 percent of the time that the ball was put in play against him from 2008-2010, but that dropped to slightly under 46 percent this past year. That, in turn, led to more home runs (1.1 per nine innings, compared to 0.7 HR/9 the previous three years). Kuroda's sinker and slider suffered the largest declines in ground ball rate:

Kuroda's ground ball rate with his sinker and slider

Pitch2008-20102011
Sinker 61.2 51.3
Slider 40.3 34.3

 

Keeping the ball down will be paramount in New York, as Yankee Stadium isn't near as kind as Dodger Stadium when it comes to containing long drives to the outfield.

With Kuroda providing a short-term, modestly priced boost to the staff and Pineda representing a long-term upside play, the Yankees have dramatically upgraded the quality and depth of their starting rotation.

According to The Hardball Times' Oliver, a one-through-five of CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia and A.J. Burnett was projected for a total of around 11 Wins Above Replacement. Putting Burnett and Garcia in the 'pen and slotting in Pineda and Kuroda increases that total to about 15 WAR. A potential four-win upgrade in the cut-throat AL East is huge, and that's not accounting for the decreased likelihood that the Yankees need to turn to a lousy spot-starter in case of injury and the increased talent now in the bullpen. Plus, gifted-but-raw prospects like Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos can get needed innings in the upper minors instead of being rushed to the Bronx.

After three months of grumbling about the Bombers' inactivity, New York now boasts a deep, talented rotation capable of ranking among the best in the AL. Yankees fans must feel anything but cursed after this Friday the 13th.

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