Thursday’s other farewell: Hiroki Kuroda likely making final start in pinstripes

(Alex Goodlett/Getty)
(Alex Goodlett/Getty)

Later tonight, Derek Jeter will play his final home game at Yankee Stadium. We’ve known this was coming for months now but I still can’t believe it. I grew up watching Jeter’s career from start to finish and I’m finding it impossible to imagine a world in which he isn’t the shortstop of the Yankees. I’m certain tonight will be memorable regardless of the weather forecast. Everything Jeter does is memorable.

Tonight’s game will also feature another, much less celebrated farewell. Hiroki Kuroda is set to make what will likely be the final start of his Yankees career and possibly his MLB career. He has flirted with retirement in each of the last two offseasons and he’s already started doing it again this year. Sure, there is a chance he could return, but the feeling all season has been that the Yankees will move on from Kuroda now that he’s approaching 40 and his effectiveness is staring to wane.

It’s fitting Kuroda’s final start will be (understandably) overshadowed by Jeter’s farewell tonight. Just about everything he’s done in pinstripes has been overshadowed. The day the Yankees signed him was the also day the day they shipped Jesus Montero to the Mariners for Michael Pineda. When Kuroda re-signed with the team after that season, it was overshadowed by Andy Pettitte announcing he wanted to return for one more year. When he re-signed again this offseason, it was the same day Robinson Cano bolted for Seattle and Carlos Beltran became a Yankee.

Getting overshadowed is what Kuroda does, but the fact is he has been the team’s best and most reliable pitcher since first putting on pinstripes. There were always starters getting more attention — CC Sabathia in 2012, Ivan Nova in 2013, Masahiro Tanaka and Pineda in 2014 — but Kuroda was the stalwart in Joe Girardi‘s rotation. He missed one start in three years with the Yankees, and that was when they shut him down after being eliminated last September and sent out a spot starter in Game 162.

Kuroda was remarkably consistent these last three seasons — 2012-14 WHIP: 1.16, 1.16, 1.17; 2012-14 FIP: 3.86, 3.56, 3.58; 2012-14 K/BB: 3.27, 3.49, 3.91 — and he was truly one of the best pitchers in baseball, even with his late-season fades in 2012 and 2013. Here is where he ranks among his peers since joining New York (min. 300 IP, 131 qualifiers):

Innings Starts ERA ERA+ FIP WHIP K/BB bWAR fWAR
Kuroda 612 96 3.46 117 3.67 1.165 3.52 11.7 11.0
MLB Rank 12th t-8th 36th t-26th t-44th 22nd 29th t-13th 17th

Kuroda has been no worse than a top 15-20 starter these last three years when you look at the whole picture, his effectiveness on a rate basis and the bulk innings he provided. He went 7+ scoreless innings in 14 starts over the last three years, the fourth most in baseball behind Clayton Kershaw (20), Adam Wainwright (19), and Felix Hernandez (15). In his only two postseason starts with the Yankees, Kuroda allowed two runs in 8.1 innings (2012 ALDS) and three runs in 7.2 innings (2012 ALCS). He struck out 14 and walked one.

“The next outing, I may end my career there. Who knows?” said Kuroda to Chad Jennings following his start last Friday. “For now, I still have a job to do, which is to finish this season. I don’t really put too much time on (thinking about what’s next). It’s something I need to think about once I finish my responsibilities here.”

During his three years in New York, Kuroda was consistently solid, occasionally brilliant, and rarely bad. He was almost like the position player version of Hideki Matsui, fitting the team in a way that made it seem like he had been with the Yankees for years and years. Kuroda was obviously excellent on the field but he also carried himself with class and represented the team with dignity. Forgive the cliche, but he was a True Yankee in every way.

Kuroda’s tenure in pinstripes will likely come to an end tonight, overshadowed by Jeter’s farewell. That’s fine though. He’s been overshadowed and somewhat underappreciated ever since he arrived in New York. That’s his thing. Hopefully he gets a moment in the spotlight and a big ovation when he walks off the Yankee Stadium for what figures to be the final time tonight. Kuroda has been a great pitcher and a damn good Yankee these last three seasons, and he deserves a little send-off of his own.

Plenty of positive signs in Tanaka’s return to the rotation

(Andy Marlin/Getty)
(Andy Marlin/Getty)

Even though they’re a long shot to make the postseason, yesterday afternoon’s win over the Blue Jays was one of the most important games of the season for the Yankees. Masahiro Tanaka returned to the rotation after missing more than three months with a partially torn elbow ligament, an injury that usual requires Tommy John surgery. But, because his tear was small (supposedly less than 10%), doctors recommended rehab.

Tanaka threw a handful of bullpen sessions and pitched in three simulated games while rehabbing, but nothing can simulate real game action. It’s one thing to feel good while throwing without much adrenaline against a bunch of teenage minor leaguers in Tampa. It’s another to feel good while facing actual big leaguers looking to do damage in front of a packed stadium with 50,000 fans in attendance.

“I was able to go pretty strong today, so I’m relieved. I feel that I was able to do all of the things that I wanted to do,” said Tanaka to Vince Mercogliano following yesterday’s start. “Obviously (the elbow felt) way better today (compared to the last start before going on the DL). I don’t remember exactly when, but gradually as the game went on, I guess I forgot about it.”

To my untrained eye, Tanaka looked like, well, he looked like Masahiro Tanaka. His fastball velocity was down a bit but I expected that after the long layoff. He didn’t have a whole lot of time to build arm strength. Tanaka not only did not shy away from his breaking pitches — the pitches that supposedly put the most stress on the elbow — he actually shook off Brian McCann to get to his slider and splitter on several occasions. He threw them in situations he would normally throw them. Here’s a quick breakdown of his pitch selection, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

Four-Seamer Sinker Splitter Slider Curve
Pre-Injury % 22.0% 19.3% 25.8% 21.5% 5.4%
Per-Injury Velo. 92.8 91.6 87.4 84.1 74.6
Sunday % 25.7% 27.1% 21.4% 10.0% 15.7%
Sunday Velo. 90.2 90.2 85.5 81 73.2

I wouldn’t obsess over Tanaka’s pitch selection from yesterday’s start since it was just one start. A short 70-pitch start at that. What he lacked in sliders he made up for in curveballs — “My curveballs were pretty sharp today, so that’s why I was throwing that a lot … I wanted to go out there and check all of my pitches,” Tanaka said to Mercogliano — and his four-seamer and splitter usage was in line with the rest of the season. It would have been a red flag if Tanaka had thrown, say, 80% fastballs and just few splitters or sliders, something that may have indicated he was nursing the elbow. That isn’t the case though. If he was trying to protect the elbow in some way, it doesn’t show in his pitch selection.

Tanaka’s biggest issue on the afternoon was his location. This guy was damn near pinpoint with his command earlier in the season, but yesterday his ability to locate was nowhere to be found, especially in the early inning. It did get a little better as the game wore on, though it never got back to what he showed earlier in the season. Tanaka was missing with fastballs by the full width of the plate at times:

Missed the target by thaaat much.
Missed the target by thaaat much.

He missed by a significant amount with several other pitches as well, both side-to-side and up-and-down. It wasn’t every pitch — he hit the glove and dotted the corners a bunch of times as well — but much more often than we saw in any of his pre-injury starts. Elbow problems usually result in poor location — a drop in velocity tends to indicate a shoulder problem — but I think this was simply rust. Tanaka mentioned he didn’t feel all the way back to normal following his last simulated game. The location is something to watch in his next start, sure, but I’m not concerned yet.

Most importantly, Tanaka looked like a healthy pitcher yesterday. He did not appear to be tentative — “He just went after it, the way you’re used to seeing him do,” said pitching coach Larry Rothschild to Brendan Kuty — and he didn’t labor in any way. Tanaka wasn’t taking a lot of time between pitches or anything like that, which pitchers will commonly do if they’re uncomfortable or not 100% physically. He looked like Masahiro Tanaka with bad control, and I think that represents the best case scenario for yesterday given the circumstances. The closer he looks to normal, the better.

Tanaka’s situation is a new experience for everyone. Well, at least to fans. The Yankees claim to have had pitchers in the organization successfully rehab a partial tear like this. We’ve never seen anything like this though. We’re used to seeing a tear — even a partial one — result in Tommy John surgery almost immediately. Everything about Tanaka is unique, from his background to the way he joined the team to his extreme competitiveness, and this injury is no different. Too many pitchers have gone down with Tommy John surgery in 2014, but based on everything we saw yesterday, it looks like Tanaka just might be the pitcher who beats it.

Yankees’ current 2015 rotation options full of uncertainty

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

On Sunday, Masahiro Tanaka will get back on the mound and pitch in the big league game for the first time since the week before the All-Star break. It will be the biggest step in his rehab from a partially torn elbow ligament, and, really, the best case scenario is seeing that the ligament won’t blow out the instant is it subjected to a game action stress level. It’s either going to blow out or not blow out, but even if it doesn’t, there is no guarantee it will stay intact going forward.

No matter what, Tanaka will head into next season as a big health question mark. The Yankees have to go into the offseason assuming the worst — that the elbow will give out at some point relatively soon — and act accordingly, meaning bringing in plenty of pitching depth. In fact, just about every big league caliber starter in the organization will carry uncertain health into next season if Hiroki Kuroda does not return. To wit:

  • CC Sabathia is coming off knee surgery after there were concerns he may need a career-threatening microfracture procedure.
  • Ivan Nova had Tommy John surgery on April 29th and the best case rehab scenario has him back on a big league mound in late-April 2015.
  • Michael Pineda is healthy right now but missed more than three months this year with a muscle problem in his back/shoulder. That’s on top of the shoulder surgery that cost him 2011-12.
  • David Phelps just missed a month with elbow inflammation after missing more than two months with a pair of forearm strains in the second half last year. He’s yet to show he can handle a full season’s workload.

And then there’s Tanaka’s elbow on top of all of that. We already know Nova will not be ready come Opening Day and the recent rash of pitchers who have had complications coming back from Tommy John surgery — with the last 14 months Daniel Hudson, Cory Luebke, and Jonny Venters all needed a second Tommy John procedure before completing the rehab from their first surgery — is a reminder that Tommy John is not fullproof. Several doctors, most notably Dr. James Andrews, have said the 12-month rehab may be too aggressive, so the Yankees might take is slow with Nova.

No one really knows what to expect out of Sabathia going forward, so at this point the safest bets to be healthy at the start of next season are Pineda and Phelps, and that is kinda scary because neither of them is all that durable. As I’ve said before, I think the Yankees need to focus on adding depth and multiple pieces to strengthen the roster for top to bottom this offseason. Adding one star caliber pitcher like Max Scherzer or Jon Lester will certainly help, but in the end those guys only fill one of five rotation spots while the other four remain questionable.

Priority number one this winter will clearly be improving the offense. It has to be. The patchwork rotation has done a fine job filling in this year but many of the rotation injuries are going to carry over to next year. In a perfect world I’d like to see Pineda and Phelps penciled in as the fifth and sixth starter again, respectively, but at the moment they are the team’s two healthiest starters under contract (or team control, really) for next year. Bringing in a starter to replace Kuroda this winter is the bare minimum. The Yankees have a lot of injury risks in the rotation and the offseason is the time to add some protection.

Success of makeshift rotation could change how Yankees approach pitching market

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Given the number of pitching injuries they suffered this season, the Yankees should have been out of the postseason race a long time ago. I mean out out. At one point five of the organization’s six best starting pitchers were on the disabled list and right now three of their top four Opening Day rotation members are still out with injuries. The Masahiro Tanaka injury the week before the All-Star break should have been the final straw. It should have been over after that.

Instead, Brian Cashman & Co. have cobbled together a five-man rotation that not only prevented the Yankees from falling apart, but has actually improved upon what the team was getting out of their starters earlier in the season. The rotation had a 4.10 ERA (3.92 FIP) before Tanaka got hurt and they have a 3.39 ERA (3.26 FIP) since. That’s remarkable. A notable trade (Brandon McCarthy), a scrap heap pickup (Chris Capuano), a timely call-up (Shane Greene), and a return to health (Michael Pineda) have kept the club afloat. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild deserves a lot of credit.

The Yankees figure to be in the market for pitching help this winter because they and every other team look for pitching help every winter. One thing I’ve learned is that it doesn’t matter how much pitching a team already has or how bad the offensive environment is around the league, teams will always look for more arms. In the case of the Yankees, they’ll be bringing back three injury risk starters next season in Tanaka (elbow), Pineda (shoulder), and CC Sabathia (knee). Greene and David Phelps provide some depth, but the need for some rotation protection is obvious.

The upcoming free agent pitching class is top heavy thanks to Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, and James Shields, three inarguably excellent pitchers who come with their own unique sets of pluses and minuses. All three will require pretty massive contracts — Shields is likely to get the smallest deal of the three and I have a hard time believing he’ll sign for fewer than four or five years at this point — and in the case of Scherzer and Shields, forfeiting first round draft picks as well. They’re worth it though. Those three guys are legitimate top of the rotation arms.

(Ezra Shaw/Getty)
(Ezra Shaw/Getty)

The Yankees are already paying Sabathia and Tanaka top of the rotation dollars and, unless they up payroll substantially next year, fitting another $20M+ per year starter doesn’t seem doable without skimping on offense. They have opened the season with a payroll in the $195M to $215M range in six of the last seven years, and Cot’s says they already have $168.8M committed to only ten players next season. Considering how their offense has been below-average for two straight years now, fixing it should be the top priority this winter.

This season showed the Yankees are capable of building a quality rotation with smaller moves and lower profile pickups. Would they be a better team with Scherzer or Lester? Absolutely. But I think the focus has to be on adding depth this winter, not one big star player. Given all those risky starters under contract, the Yankees should focus on adding two or even three starters this offseason. The alternative to spending, say, $25M annually on Lester could be spending $20M combined on two of McCarthy, Jason Hammel, and the reclamation projects that are Brett Anderson and Justin Masterson, giving the club more options and keeping the contract lengths short.

Now, those are just a bunch of names I’m throwing out there and I’m an idiot. Who knows what it will take to sign those guys in reality or if any of them will want to come pitch in Yankee Stadium. The Yankees have shown they are adept at not only identifying starting pitchers who are better than what they’ve shown recently, but also getting more out of them then expected. It’s not a one-time thing either. They’ve done it with Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, and even Hiroki Kuroda in recent years. That’s a valuable skill they can use to their advantage. (The fact that no one can hit anymore works in their favor as well.)

The Yankees are still the Yankees and they’re always going to be in the mix for big name free agents. That’s what they do. Lester in particular is very tempting as an AL East proven workhorse left-handed ace with big market chops, and I fully expect the team to be all in on him this winter. But, as I said the other day, I think the Yankees are where they are right now because of their unwavering reliance on long-term, big money contracts. I think their ability to dig up quality starters out of seemingly nowhere is incredibly valuable and would allow them go to a different route this winter, eschewing yet another long-term pitching contract in favor of shorter term deals that add depth and flexibility.

Makeshift rotation setting the tone during Yanks’ recent surge

(Duane Burleson/Getty)
(Duane Burleson/Getty)

The story of last night’s win over David Price and the Tigers will be the nine consecutive hits in the third inning and rightfully so, but, just as importantly, rookie right-hander Shane Greene had another solid start and continues to solidify his place in the rotation going forward. I mean, nine straight hits is cool and all, but it’s an anomaly. Greene pitching well has become the norm.

Greene’s performance against the Tigers was particularly impressive because he was facing them for the second time. It was the first time a team got a second look at him as a starter. He threw eight scoreless innings against Detroit three weeks ago and followed that up with seven innings of two-run ball last night. Chase Whitley‘s second turn through the league was a disaster — the Blue Jays, the first team to face him a second time, pounded him for eight runs on eleven hits and three walks in 3.1 innings the second time around. It was good to see Greene more than hold his own against a team somewhat familiar with him.

The Yankees have now won six of their last seven games and eight of their last eleven games overall. Greene’s outing continued a stretch of strong starting pitching from the makeshift rotation — the Yankees are on what, their eighth through 12th starters at this point? I’ve lost count — that has kept the team afloat during their offensive struggles. Here is what the rotation has done since August 16th, the start of this eleven-game stretch (via Baseball Musings):.

NYY rotation 8-16 to 8-27

The table does not include Greene’s strong start against the Tigers last night — I didn’t have time to wait for the Baseball Musings database to update, so sue me — which was his third excellent outing during this eleven-game stretch. Include him and the rotation has a 3.36 ERA (2.69 FIP) with a 5.50 K/BB in 69.2 innings during these eleven games. Stretches like this explain why the rotation has a 3.82 ERA (3.75 FIP) this summer despite all the injuries.

The only real terrible start in the table above is Brandon McCarthy‘s outing on Tuesday, when he clearly didn’t have his usual command and ability to locate. He walked two batters and a hit a guy in the second inning alone. He never does that in a full start, nevermind one inning. Pitchers have off nights once in a while and that was one for McCarthy. The bullpen (specifically Adam Warren) deserves some level of blame for allowing two inherited runs to score during Chris Capuano‘s start against the Astros, the other eyesore in the table.

Otherwise the Yankees have been getting strong start after strong start during his eleven-game stretch. And, really, it dates back even further than that. The team has been getting strong starting pitching for several weeks now, but the offense has failed to hold up to its end of the bargain most nights. These last few offensive explosions — you do realize the Yankees scored 16 runs in 14.2 innings against Chris Sale, James Shields, and David Price these last few days, right? — have been nice but they are hardly he norm for this club.

The Yankees don’t win if they get anything less than a strong outing from their starter. They aren’t capable of winning high-scoring games consistently and may the baseball gods have mercy on their soul if the bullpen is any worse than dominant on a given night. In this low-scoring day and age, it all starts with pitching, and the Yankees have been getting lots of it from everywhere imaginable. Scrap heap pickups, trades, big money free agents, you name it and they’ve helped out.

These eleven games have helped the Yankees climb back into the wildcard race — they’re 2.5 games back and FanGraphs has their postseason odds at 13.8%, so they still have a ton of ground to make up — and they’ve had a chance to win just about every game because of the rotation work. This season could have (and, depending on who you ask, should have) been sunk once the regular rotation members started going down with injury. Guys like Greene, McCarthy, and Capuano have picked up the slack, and it has been especially evident during this recent surge.

Sherman: Yankees considering six-man rotation for Sept., possibly 2015

Via Joel Sherman: The Yankees are “strongly considering” using a six-man rotation in September and are at least “talking about” doing the same next year, pitching coach Larry Rothschild and Brian Cashman confirmed. “No doubt, you have to see how all the pieces fit, but I think it is something you have to take a look at,” said Rothschild.

There are several good reasons for employing a six-man rotation once rosters expand in September and I’m for it. Doing it next season is a different matter. The Yankees will have four starters with varying levels of injury concern in Masahiro Tanaka (elbow), Michael Pineda (shoulder), CC Sabathia (knee), and Ivan Nova (elbow), and giving them extra rest makes sense, but how do they pull that off? Do they go with a six-man bullpen/four-man bench or seven-man bullpen/three-man bench? Everything they’ve done with their roster the last few years points to the latter. Do it in September, sure, but they’d need to figure some stuff out before doing it in 2015.

Six-man rotation would actually make sense for the Yankees in September

(Greg Fiume/Getty)
(Greg Fiume/Getty)

The Yankees have struggled to piece together a decent rotation for much of the season. At one point arguably the five best starting pitchers in the organization were on the disabled list, and for a big chunk of the summer they were without CC Sabathia (knee), Michael Pineda (shoulder), and Ivan Nova (elbow). Masahiro Tanaka (elbow) went down right before the All-Star break. Pineda has since returned but the other guys are all still on shelf and only Tanaka has a chance of returning before the end of the season.

Finding five quality starters has been a struggle at times, though the Yankees have a decent group right now. Pineda joins young Shane Greene and veterans Hiroki Kuroda, Brandon McCarthy, and Chris Capuano in the rotation, which isn’t the most intimidating fivesome in the league, but they’ve been no worse than solid these last few weeks. It would be nice if they pitched a little deeper in the game once in a while — Greene is the workhorse at this point, no? — but what can you do? Take what you can get. Those guys done more than any of us could have reasonable expected, really.

Rosters expand in only ten days now, at which point the Yankees will surely call up some extra players to help out in the final month of the season. Extra arms like Bryan Mitchell, Matt Daley, and (if healthy) Preston Claiborne will be back, and they may be joined by Manny Banuelos as well. Jacob Lindgren or Tyler Webb could replace Rich Hill, though that’s not adding another pitcher to the roster. Once rosters expand and the Yankees have extra bodies lying around, it actually makes sense to implement a six-man rotation for the final month of the regular season. Here are some reasons.

Control Workloads
Fatigue is always a concern this late in the season, especially for young pitchers and older pitchers. Kuroda has faded late in each of the last few seasons — he’s again showing signs of fading this year — and scaling back on his workload these last five weeks wouldn’t be a bad idea. I know Kuroda is likely in his final few weeks with the team, but he’s been a damn good Yankee these last three years and you take care of your people. He gave the club everything he had and they should reciprocate by taking it easy on him in September even if he won’t wear their uniform in 2014.

The 25-year-old Greene is actually in great shape with his innings total. In fact, he might not throw enough innings this season. He is at 109.2 innings total right now (MLB and Triple-A) after throwing 154.1 innings last season, the most in the farm system. The final weeks of the season probably get him up to 150 or so for the year. Ideally you’d like to see him get up to 170-180 innings this year, but still, we’re talking about a guy who was in High-A and Double-A last year. Major League innings are a different animal. They’re more intense and take more out of you. The raw innings total only tells you so much. Easing Greene towards those 150-ish innings is in no way a bad idea.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Injury Concerns
Needless to say, the rotation is still loaded with injury concerns. Pineda has made two starts after missing more than three months with a back/shoulder issue, and he didn’t even get stretched all the way during his rehab assignment. Given his injury history, taking it easy on him these last few weeks makes an awful lot of sense. Same goes for McCarthy, who has been healthy this year but has a long history of shoulder problems. If the Yankees intend to try to re-sign him after the season — and they should absolutely try to bring him back — then they have every reason to do whatever they can to keep him healthy in September.

And then there’s Tanaka, who threw his second bullpen session yesterday as he works his way back from a partially torn elbow ligament. Everything is going well so far — he even threw some breaking balls and splitters yesterday — so much so that he might face hitters in live batting practice for his next throwing session. The hope is Tanaka will return in September to make a few starts, and if he does, using a six-man rotation would be a fine way to take it easy on that elbow. They were trying to get him extra rest whenever they could before he got hurt. There’s no reason that should change once he returns, right?

Busy Schedule
The Yankees will play their final 38 games of the season in only 39 days. They do have two off-days (September 1st and 8th) but also one doubleheader (September 12th). They close the season out with 21 games in 20 days. There will be no opportunity to give the rotation an extra day of rest here or there the last three weeks of the season — at least not without more rainouts, which would only lead to more doubleheaders — so playing it safe with guys like Greene and Tanaka and Pineda will be tough. The six-man rotation would give everyone an extra day of rest each time through the rotation automatically. They won’t have the opportunity to give them that otherwise.

* * *

Though the Yankees are bringing David Phelps back from his elbow injury as a reliever, they’ll still have Mitchell and Esmil Rogers as sixth starter candidates until Tanaka returns. Maybe even Banuelos, if he’s physically up to it after missing close to two full seasons. That would be fun. Expanded rosters in September ensure there will be plenty of extra arms available in case someone gets knocked out early or anything like that. There’s no worry about overworking the bullpen.

Let’s face it, the team’s postseason odds are tiny — 4.3% according to FanGraphs and 3.1% according to Baseball Prospectus — so it really doesn’t matter who they run out there as the sixth starter. The important thing is getting guys like Tanaka and Pineda extra rest down the stretch, not winning every last ballgame. A six-man rotation isn’t all that practical before September, but it’s plenty easy to implement once rosters expand and winning is a secondary concern. It makes a lot of sense for the Yankees to use six starters in the season’s final month given the injury and workload issues on the roster.