Hiroki Kuroda’s Case for the Cy Young Award

When it comes to thinking about the best pitchers in the American League this year, the names that jump out to most might be along these lines: Felix Hernandez (always awesome and having one of his better seasons), Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez (two non-Verlander Tigers having big years), Yu Darvish (strikeout machine), Chris Sale (great pitcher on a bad team), and Derek Holland (finally living up to his stuff in a hitter’s park). One pitcher that would probably come up less frequently is Hiroki Kuroda. He probably would not be totally ignored (especially by Yankees fans), but he has flown somewhat under the radar (has never made an All-Star game) for whatever reasons, some having to do the nature of his performance, some not.

External factors aside, an examination of Kuroda’s 2013 performance shows why he might not get as much attention for the year-end awards, but a deeper look also reveals his worthiness.

Since you are reading FanGraphs, you probably already know that at the moment, Hernandez leads American League pitchers in Wins Above Replacement (4.8), closely followed by Scherzer and Holland (4.5 each). Kuroda is currently a distant eighth at 3.2 WAR. While WAR is not the sort of metric where one should quibble over half of win, Kuroda is not just a half-win away — he is closer to two wins away from the leader.

FanGraphs’ implementation of WAR for pitchers uses a version of FIP as the basis for pitcher value. However, if one looks at WAR based on straightforward Runs Allowed (RA9-WAR), Kuroda leads the league at 5.3, just edging out Hernandez (5.1) and Bartolo Colon (5.0). As just said above, the difference between 5.3 and 5.0 really is not decisive, but in terms of RA9-WAR, Kuroda has been just as valuable as Hernandez this year, which certainly would put him into consideration for the Cy Young.

Some will argue that RA should be used for WAR and stuff like determining awards anyway. That is longstanding debate, and I will not address that here. My argument here will be that Kuroda has a case for Cy Young consideration (assuming his performance thus far continues) even if one does accept that FanGraphs WAR for starting pitchers is the right way to go.

Most of those (myself included) who believe that a DIPS-based metric is best for pitching realize metrics like FIP have limitations. Knuckleballers, for example, tend to be exceptions to the persuppositions of defense- and batted ball-independent metrics. Even for non-knuckleballers, as their career grows longer (I have seen this as anywhere from three full seasons of starting to 1000 innings), RA becomes a better guide to their value. While stats like BABIP and strand rate may not relate to true talent in small (even one full year) samples like strikeout and walk rate, this is not to say that they represent no skill. There is less variation in skill among the population for those metrics, but that does not rule out any variation at all. It simply takes a larger (often much larger) sample to get an idea of which players stand out. (This works out differently for various metrics, but I will not get into those details here.)

While this relates to “true talent” as opposed to observed performance, it is not quite the same. When we fans gets into debates about, e.g., “who was the AL’s most valuable pitcher in 2013,” we are not talking about talent, we are talking about observed performance. The problem is that we often have trouble, particularly with pitchers, in figuring out which parts of players true performances should be credited to them.

If Kuroda was a one-year wonder when it came to outpitching his peripherals, I would probably not give him much thought. But as in my Phil Birnbaum-inspired discussion from last year of Clayton Kershaw and R.A. Dickey, we can use past performance to get an idea of how much we might credit stuff like BABIP to a pitcher’s observed skill as opposed to random variation (also known as “luck”).

Kuroda is outperforming his FIP by a long shot this year (2.45 ERA versus 3.33 FIP), hence his high RA9-WAR. It is mostly due to his very low BABIP (.261) and high left on base percentage (82.7), represented in his FDP stats as being worth 1.3 and 0.9 wins, respectively. But, as said above, this is not out of nowhere for Kuroda. For his career, his 3.29 ERA is better than his 3.58 FIP, although not by tons. Starting in 2011, the difference in more pronounced, though: 3.01 ERA versus 3.69 FIP over almost three full seasons of pitching (568 innings). While his career left on base percentage is not exceptional, since 2011 it has been almost 80 percent. Without getting into what may or may not have changed for Kuroda in 2011, that is worth noting. This is not to say that no luck was involved, but the sample is not negligible, either. Moreover, Kuroda has always been a low BABIP pitcher, with a career .279 mark. That is still higher than this season’s .261 mark, but after more than one thousand career innings pitched, I think it is fairly safe to say that Kuroda probably is not some true talent .300 BABIP pitcher who just has been getting really fortunate.

Now, as was pointed out to me, Kuroda does seem to have had exceptionally good fortune with runners in scoring position this year, giving up just a .163 BABIP and .177 wOBA. It is a small enough sample of his performance that it makes it more difficult to say it is just him. On the other hand, Kuroda does have a history of pitching better with in scoring position for his career (.277 wOBA as opposed to .289 with the bases empty, (.253 BABIP with runners in scoring position as opposed to .279 overall career). Since 2011, Kuroda has a very low BABIP with runners on (.221) as opposed to overall (.278).

That does mean I believe Kuroda should full credit for his 2013 BABIP with runners in scoring position. There is probably some skill involved, although I do not know how much. Even if there is some skill, Kuroda is stranding runners this year in a way that suggests he is getting particularly lucky. Still, this should not lead us to dismiss his performance. After all, every metric, even those whose observed realization are close to true talent like strikeout and walk rate, are subject to random variation and luck.

For example, Felix Hernandez is putting up career-best rates in strikeout and walk rates, and I would guess that at least some of that is random variation. Now, they are far more likely to reflect his individual contribution and thus he should get credit for to a greater extent than Kuroda’s performance with runners in scoring position this year. This is true not only because of stuff like the general year-to-year correlation of such metrics but also because of the logic behind DIPS (what a pitcher individually controls). Still, given Kuroda’s career-long low BABIP and his last few years of outpitching his peripherals in general, it would be foolish to simply throw it all out as good luck.

Does this mean that I would vote for Kuroda for Cy Young if I had a ballot and if the vote were today? Well, probably not. Even without attributing it all to luck, I do think that there is probably a fair bit of random variation in Kuroda’s Ra due to FDP factors. Moreover, it is not as if he is blowing away the field when it comes to RA9-WAR — Hernandez, Bartolo Colon, Yu Darvish, and maybe even Max Scherzer are close enough that Kuroda’s lead should not be overemphasized, and Hernandez and Scherzer, in particular, have been far better in DIPS terms. So the answer is no, I probably would not make Kuroda my Cy Young vote. However, I do think that Kuroda should be in the conversation, and would not mock anyone who did vote for him.




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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

35 Responses to “Hiroki Kuroda’s Case for the Cy Young Award”

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  1. Fastpiece says:

    first

    Anyway, not gonna happen brosmacks.

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  2. phoenix2042 says:

    With regard to your final paragraph, I think there is a difference to be made between putting him on the ballot and saying that he is one’s top pick for the award. I would give him a down-ballot showing to recognize his great run prevention this year, but the pitchers you mentioned (Darvish, Scherzer, Hernandez, etc) would obviously slot in above him. This is all assuming the ballots voters get have multiple spots like the MVP ballot, about which I am suddenly questioning myself…

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  3. tz says:

    Kuroda has obviously absorbed Jeter’s clutchiness and TWTN. This is why he is so awesome at clamping down on runs when the going gets tough, even when he only had the enveloping aura of Cap’n Intangibles to lead the defensive hierarchy.

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  4. Snax says:

    I got offered Kuroda for Ruf and Skaggs in my dynasty league in the midst of a playoff run. 6 out of 20 make playoffs

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  5. ErnestoSalvaderi says:

    Can’t really see Scherzer not winning it if his record stays as ridiculous as it is. 22-3 or 21-4 with all those ks isn’t something voters are going to overlook unless his ERA goes north of 3 or someone else’s goes south of 2.10.

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  6. Robbie G. says:

    Hiroki Kuroda has averaged over 3 WAR/year during his ages 33-38 seasons, which is really impressive. I’d be interested in seeing a complete list of pitchers with 18 or more WAR during their 33-38 seasons. My guess is that a high percentage of these players are current or future HOFers. If Kuroda had started pitching in MLB at age 23 rather than at age 33 then we’d probably be talking about his HOF credentials on a fairly regular basis.

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    • ErnestoSalvaderi says:

      since 1946 39 guys have accumulated at least 18 WAR between age 33 and 38.

      Top 5
      1. Randy Johnson 51.9
      2. Bob Gibson 40.0
      3. Roger Clemens 38.9
      4. Steve Carlton 37.5
      5. Gaylord Perry 37.3

      Kuroda is 34th at 18.4, just ahead of Dennis Martinez and David Cone, behind Harry Brecheen, Preacher Roe, and Jamie Moyer(19.0)

      Full disclosure, No idea who Harry Brecheen and Preacher Roe are.

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      • Wobatus says:

        Harry “The Cat” Brecheen was a Cardinals lefty who won 3 games in the 1946 world series. He went 20-7 with a 2.24 ERA and 8 WAR in 1948.

        Preacher Roe was one of The Boys of Summer Brooklyn Dodgers in the late 40s to mid-50s. He retired in 1954, the year before the Dodgers finally won. Read The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn. He went 22-3 with a 3.04 ERA in 1950, and had 7.3 WAR with the Pirates in 1945.

        He came to the Dodgers in a deal for Dixie Walker after Jackie Robinson’s rookie year.

        Not to be confused with Lynwood “Schoolboy” Rowe, who pitched quite well in a couple of World Series himself for the Tigers in the ’30s and into the ’40s. Famed at one point for asking on Eddie cantor’s radio show “How’m Ah doin’ Edna?” of his girlfriend back home in Arkansas. He went 24-8 in 1934.

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    • Robbie G. says:

      Here is the complete list of pitchers with 18.4 or more total WAR compiled during that pitcher’s ages 33-38 seasons, since 1871; asterisks next to current or future HOFers (and I am counting Roger Clemens as a future HOFer, for argument’s sake):

      1 Randy Johnson* 51.9
      2 Cy Young* 44.5
      3 Bob Gibson* 40.0
      4 Roger Clemens* 38.9
      5 Steve Carlton* 37.5
      6 Dazzy Vance* 37.3
      7 Gaylord Perry* 37.3
      8 Curt Schilling* (?) 36.3
      9 Lefty Grove* 34.0
      10 Jim Bunning* 33.4
      11 Phil Niekro* 30.6
      12 Kevin Brown* (?) 30.0
      13 Greg Maddux* 28.3
      14 Grover Cleveland Alexander* 27.7
      15 Bert Blyleven* 27.3
      16 Walter Johnson* 27.3
      17 Mike Mussina* (?) 24.9
      18 Tommy John 24.7
      19 Early Wynn* 24.6
      20 Jerry Koosman 24.6
      21 Luis Tiant 24.6
      22 David Wells 24.5
      23 Warren Spahn* 24.4
      24 Bobo Newsom 23.9
      25 Eddie Ciccote (likely HOFer but for the Black Sox stain) 23.9
      26 Chuck Finley 23.8
      27 Nolan Ryan* 23.1
      28 Andy Pettitte* 22.6
      29 Red Faber* 22.3
      30 Larry Jackson 22.2
      31 Whitey Ford* 22.0
      32 Eppa Rixey* 21.9
      33 Eddie Plank* 21.8
      34 Paul Derringer 21.3
      35 Dolf Luque 20.6
      36 Jim Kaat 20.5
      37 Bob Ewing 20.4
      38 Dutch Leonard 20.3
      39 Kenny Rogers 20.2
      40 John Burkett 20.0
      41 Don Sutton* 20.0
      42 Doyle Alexander 19.8
      43 Earl Whitehill 19.8
      44 Red Ruffing* 19.3
      45 Jim Perry 19.2
      46 Claude Passeau 19.2
      47 Virgil Trucks 19.0
      48 Jamie Moyer 19.0
      49 Preacher Roe 18.8
      50 Burleigh Grimes* 18.8
      51 Harry Brecheen 18.7
      52 Herb Pennock* 18.7
      53 Ted Lyons* 18.5
      54 Ray Kremer 18.5
      55 Hiroki Kuroda 18.4

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    • Jon L. says:

      Kuroda’s adjusted ERA has improved 4 straight years, at ages 35, 36, 37, and 38. After a decent 93 at age 34, he’s had 89, 84, 79, and (so far) 60. On the other hand, it’ll take a freakin’ miracle for him to improve again at age 39. Brosmacks.

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  7. Alexander Nevermind says:

    “That does mean I believe Kuroda should full credit for his 2013 BABIP with runners in scoring position. There is probably some skill involved, although I do not know how much.”

    Does NOT mean I believe Kuroda should RECEIVE full credit? For context’s sake, there appear to be some important words missing.

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  8. Stephen says:

    Slightly off-topic, but how, other than correlation, do we know the following?
    “Metrics like FIP have limitations. Knuckleballers, for example, tend to be exceptions to the persuppositions of defense- and batted ball-independent metrics. ”

    Keith Law said as much last year, when he picked Dickey for Cy Young. Not so much, this year. Reminds me of Ricky Romero, who also had a bad season after a career-best, where his ERA significantly outperformed his FIP.

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  9. JuanPierreDoesSteroids says:

    That first paragraphs gave me a Rangergasm! Can you imagine the Rangers having TWO top 5 finishers in the Cy Young race?!?!?!

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  10. dave k says:

    Question: When it comes to position players there seems to be a more straightforward reading of WAR. WAR tells us that Mike Trout is superior to Cabrera and there appears to be very little debate here (see Dave’s column the other day). However, when we analyze pitchers, we spend more time looking at peripherals. Why is this?

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    • Bip says:

      Pitchers experience more variation in the statistics we typically use to judge their effectiveness. ERA and Wins fluctuate a lot year-to-year, so when a player has a great ERA year, we want to know if he’s likely to do it again before deciding he’s a new great pitcher. Peripherals make it easier to do that.

      Additionally, more factors out of a pitchers control affect the stats we use to judge pitchers by. When a position player hits a home run, steals a base or makes a nice play, there isn’t very much factoring in besides that player’s individual performance. On the other hand, there a wide variety of factors independent of the pitcher that affects whether he gives up a run or not.

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    • Bip says:

      It’s sort of like judging hitters by RBI’s and Run Scored, which the majority of people don’t use as their primary measures of performance.

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  11. MikeS says:

    How can he win the Cy Young when he can’t even beat a crummy pitcher like Sale who only had 6 wins all year before last night?

    (sarcasm)

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    • AC of DC says:

      If you can say that on camera and keep a straight face, I think there’s a network job in your future, kid.

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  12. Colin says:

    Why do we still always discuss FIP? I believe it has been shown that SIERA has better correlation to actual performance, so why hasn’t anybody tried to measure WAR with it rather than FIP?

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  13. ted says:

    this article was really tough to read. Lots of grammatical errors and just poorly written in general.

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  14. Tim says:

    Why wouldn’t you mention that he is a sinkerballer? We all know FIP is biased against sinkerball pitchers who don’t rack up a lot of Ks.

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    • derp says:

      A sinker pitcher gives up fewer flyballs, and thus, less chances for home runs against. It is quite balanced, unless the pitcher has a tendency to serve meatballs which will be instantly reflected in a high HR/FB ratio. In which case, FIP still accurately portrays his performance.

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  15. DNA+ says:

    Can there be a world were both pitch framing and DIPS exist? …there are currently articles supporting both up on the front page of this site.

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