Inconsistent slider behind Kuroda’s slow start

Fan Confidence Poll: April 28th, 2014
The somewhat complicated infield rotation
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Thanks to Friday night’s beatdown at the hands of the Angels, Hiroki Kuroda is sitting on an unsightly 5.28 ERA (4.26 FIP) in 29 innings through five starts this year. Obviously one disaster outing like that one will skew numbers this early in the season, but Kuroda did go into that start with a 4.07 ERA (3.58 FIP) in 24.1 innings. The runs allowed are a bit higher than what we’re used to seeing from the right-hander, the fielding independent stuff right in line with past years.

Kuroda faced 25 Angels on Friday night and ten had hits, including six in two-strike counts. He allowed just seven two-strike hits total in his first four starts. Kuroda was having problems with his offspeed stuff in his previous start against the Rays, but he worked through that and turned in a representative outing (three runs in 5.2 innings). He had the same issue against the Angels but couldn’t limit the damage.

“Overall my command was bad and all my pitches weren’t good,” said Kuroda to Brian Heyman following Friday’s game. “Right now, there are certain pitches that are inconsistent. I need to make an adjustment and get them back. The biggest thing is to improve the quality of my breaking ball.”

Kuroda does throw the occasional curveball but his slider is his go-to breaking ball. Has been for years. He uses the pitch mostly against righties (duh) while relying on his splitter against lefties (also duh), so it makes sense the righty-heavy Angels smacked him around on Friday. Same-side hitters have tagged Kuroda for a .351 wOBA in the early going this year, up from .266 last season. When the finish pitch isn’t there, it’s tough to put batters away. Same applies to every pitcher ever.

Here are the details on Kuroda’s slider:

% Thrown % In Zone % Swings % Whiffs Horiz. Mvmt Vert. Mvmt mph
2012 30.0% 33.6% 45.4% 16.5% 1.3 in. 3.2 in. 84.3
2013 25.1% 33.2% 46.0% 16.1% 0.5 in. 3.3 in. 84.5
2014 14.0% 36.9% 40.0% 13.9% 1.3 in. 3.3 in. 84.1

The movement and velocity of Kuroda’s slider is right in line with his first two seasons as a Yankee — the 0.5 inches of horizontal movement last season is the outlier compared to the rest of his career, according to Brooks Baseball — but he’s throwing considerably fewer of them this year, which suggests a lack of faith in the pitch. Kuroda admitted his slider hasn’t been good and pitchers tend to shelve pitches they are struggling to execute. When he has thrown it, he’s catching more of the plate and hitters aren’t swinging and missing.

Kuroda is not overpowering and he uses his slider as a chase pitch, both to get swings and misses and weak contact. He outperformed his FIP and posted a below league-average BABIP every year from 2011-13, classic signs of a guy who generates weak contact. Kuroda is a unique pitcher in more ways that one. Now that his slider isn’t behaving as it normally does, he isn’t getting those whiffs and certainly isn’t getting weak contact. When he’s been hit, he’s been hit hard.

The question now is why is his slider being so fickle? It could be any number of reasons and there’s no way we could possible know from where we sit. Could be mechanics, could be the cold weather, could be something else. Age is an obvious concern — “I don’t know. This is the first time I’ve been 39,” he quipped to Andrew Marchand when asked if he’s getting to be over the hill — but Kuroda’s stuff doesn’t appear to be diminished at all. His velocity and movement are fine, he’s just not executing and locating. When he struggled late last year, Kuroda was making his pitches and still getting beat. He just isn’t making his pitches right now, especially with the slider.

Kuroda doesn’t lack a good fastball but he is definitely more of a crafty pitcher than a power pitcher. He needs all three of his fastball, slider, and splitter to be effective, and when one or more of those pitches doesn’t behave, he’s in for a real grind. The inability to locate his slider juuust off the plate to righties has left him without one of three primary weapons, and that’s no way to succeed in the AL East. Kuroda has to make an adjustment — it’s entirely possible he won’t be able to make that adjustment at his age, but I’m not going to say that is the case after five starts — and get back to being a true three-pitch pitcher, otherwise he’s in for more rough outings.

Fan Confidence Poll: April 28th, 2014
The somewhat complicated infield rotation
  • Yankenstein

    I blame it on the weather. It’s been cold in NY at night. When the weather warms up so will Kuroda. The Yankee staff may also be a little gun shy about using the old pine tar.

    • Kosmo

      Michael Pinetara.

    • Holy Ghost

      Now every time pitchers struggle with command during cold weather night games, people are going to attribute it to them being gun shy about using Pine Tar. Thanks Boston!

      • nyyankfan_7

        Thanks Boston?

        Don’t think it was Boston that put a big glob on Pineda’s neck with a flashing neon sign that said “LOOK I HAVE PINE TAR ON ME”.

      • qwerty

        All yankee pitchers should put globs of pine tar on their necks in protest whenever they start a game.

        • Deep Thoughts

          I smell group neck tattoo.

  • Jorge Steinbrenner

    “I don’t know. This is the first time I’ve been 39” – I definitely laughed at that.

    If the stuff doesn’t look diminished, then my guess is rough patch and mechanical adjustment. For some reason, I’m just not overly concerned about him. He’s a highly intelligent pro, and struggles are part of the life of a pitcher. The bigger issue is that it’s occurring a time when CC is experiencing his own adjustment period, Nova went under the knife, and Michael Pineda didn’t want to hit anybody. That magnifies his struggle, to me.

    • Kenny

      Kuroda’s quip reminded me of Stengel’s, when he got fired after 1960: “I’ll never make the mistake of turning 70 again.”

      • nsalem

        Stengel should have said what was I thinking when I didn’t start Whitey in Game One. One of the worse manegerial mistakes in basbell history.

      • nsalem

        Stengel should have said what was I thinking when I didn’t start Whitey in Game One. One of the worse manegerial mistakes in basebell history.

        • Andrew j

          Exactly. We would have one that series otherwise.

  • ropeadope

    Mike, in last night’s recap you set forth your theory on Ichiro’s misplay in left field as follows:

    Ichiro made a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad play in left field that resulted in a Howie Kendrick triple with two outs in the fifth. … I think it was a passive aggressive dig at Tanaka because he is now the most popular Japanese player on the team.

    However, you don’t seem to give any consideration of the same rationale for Kuroda’s subpar performance thus far. Is Hiroki more forgiving than Ichiro? More of a team player? Less proud of a countryman? I don’t think it’s unfair to investigate whether the same motivation is behind both situations.

    • nsalem

      I thought that was a sarcastic comment. The only time I ever saw Ichiro misplay a ball so poorly was about 5 years ago when he was a Mariner. It was an afternoon game against the Yankees and IIRC it cost the Mariners the game. It was a pretty easy play and Ichiro gave a very mystical explanation. Something to the effect if I had gotten there I would have caught it. I thought last nights error was due to his inexperience as a left fielder.

      • ropeadope

        Didn’t hear Ichiro’s comments (if any) after last night’s game. Guess he couldn’t blame it on the sun, lol. Anyway, here’s an interesting article from the SI Vault (5/16/60) on treacherous left field at OLD Yankee Stadium. If you’re an old timer (like me), the names will bring back memories.

        • hey now

          You posted a link to a pertinent SI article from 1960. That’s some legendary shit, man.

          • Grasp

            I attributed Ichiro’s miscue to his lack of playing time in LF, too – but boy, that was ugly to watch. This SI story, on the other hand, is a gem. Thanks for posting.

            • ropeadope

              @ hey now & Grasp – most welcome friends, glad you enjoyed.

    • Macho Man “Randy Levine”

      That was an obviously tongue-in-cheek remark.

      • ropeadope

        Admittedly, my sarcasm meter is roughly on par with Sheldon Cooper (though I’m far less intelligent). However, any Ichiro remarks on this blog being obviously tongue-in-cheek may be assuming too much.

        • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead

          Gonna have to agree with you on this one. Can never really tell with the Ichiro stuff.

  • nsalem

    Not worried about Hiroki at all.

  • dars

    I think this is Hiroki’s last run as a Yankee. Next year those 16 Million will fetch us one of Lester/Masterson. If we want to spend more we can turn those 16 M into Max Scherzer…..

    2015 rotation: Pineda/Tanaka/Masterson/Sabathia/Banuelos with Nova to return mid-season…..

  • Lem Da Gem

    Some veteran pitchers don’t find their complete repertoire in April.
    Whether it’s the weather, their command and control, the umpire’s specific strike zone that start or all of the above, let’s not write off the crafty Kuroda just yet.
    His ability to mentor Tanaka will benefit the team and just may inspire McCann to work harder to ensure Kuroda continues to improve as summer approaches.