Just as we all expected, the only pitcher from the Opening Day rotation to avoid the disabled list this past season was the 39-year-old who had an abysmal end to the 2013 season. Hiroki Kuroda was, once again, the rock in Joe Girardi‘s rotation, taking the ball every fifth day as CC Sabathia (knee), Ivan Nova (elbow), Michael Pineda (shoulder), and eventually Masahiro Tanaka (elbow) went down with injuries. Even the replacements were getting hurt, like David Phelps (elbow).
Kuroda’s first two years with the Yankees followed a similar blueprint. He was excellent from Opening Day through about mid-August before falling off down the stretch, mostly due to fatigue. It got to the point where Kuroda had to stop throwing his usual between-starts bullpen sessions to stay fresh in September. The late-season fade was much more severe in 2013 than 2012, which is why Kuroda was more of a question mark coming into 2014.
This past season though, Kuroda started out slowly and finished strong. It was the exact opposite of the 2012 and 2013 seasons. He had a 4.62 ERA (3.75 FIP) in his first eight starts and a 3.41 ERA (3.56 FIP) in his final 24 starts this summer, which worked out to a 3.71 ERA (3.60 FIP) overall. His usual slow September instead featured a 2.81 ERA (2.73 FIP) and was his strongest month of the season. In fact, let’s take a second to look at Kuroda’s monthly splits:
Kuroda was better in May than he was in April, better in June than he was in May, and better in July than he was in June. August was a slight bump in the road, but Kuroda was then better in September than he was in July or August. He just got better and better as the season progressed, which is the exact opposite of what you’d normally expect from a veteran starter pushing 40, especially one who had stumbled to the finish the last two years.
Although he did get better as the season went along, Kuroda was not as good as he was from 2012-13 this past season. He was a little more shaky and his best starts were merely very good, not outstanding. According to Game Score, Kuroda’s two best starts of the season came in September, when he held the Red Sox to one run in seven innings on the 3rd (73 Game Score) and the Orioles to two runs in eight innings on the 25th (77 Game Score). Only two starts with a 73+ Game Score after having eight in both 2012 and 2013.
Kuroda recorded an out in the eighth inning in only two of his 32 starts after doing it in six of 32 starts last year and in eight of 33 starts the year before. He was still a workhorse who threw 199 total innings, the 18th most in the league, but he averaged only 6.22 innings per start, down a touch from 6.29 innings per start last year and 6.66 innings per start the year before. Again, Kuroda was still very good this past season, he was just not quite as good as he was his first two years in pinstripes.
Because he’s considered retirement in each of the last two winters and slipped a bit performance-wise this year, I and I think a lot of other people assumed this would be Kuroda’s final season. He’s a prideful guy and seems like the type who would retire before going through an ugly disaster year. If that is the case, Kuroda’s final start with the Yankees was overshadowed because it was also Derek Jeter‘s final home game, a game he won with a walk-off single. Girardi said he wanted to send Kuroda back out for the ninth inning in that game so he could get one last ovation from the Yankee Stadium faithful, but Kuroda declined.
“I was really grateful when he approached me to do that. But yesterday was meant for Jeter, so I didn’t want to take anything from him,” said Kuroda to Wally Matthews the next day. Girardi summed up Kuroda’s tenure in pinstripes by telling Matthews “Hiro’s meant a lot to our organization as well and has been a really good Yankee and a really good role model as well … Obviously he’s pitched well enough to pitch again if he wants. But that’s up to him. There comes a point in your life sometimes you say, enough’s enough.”
There’s still no word on whether Kuroda will play or retire next season, and even if he decides to play again, there’s no guarantee he will return to the Yankees. He could decide to pitch closer to his family’s home in Los Angeles, or he could return home for one final season in Japan. Either way, Kuroda was once again a very important part of the rotation, and the Yankees needed him more than ever this year due to the injuries. If this is it for him, I will miss watching him pitch and I greatly appreciate what he did these last three years. Baseball needs more people like Kuroda.