Yankees Retain the Quietest Workhorse

Imagine, if you will, that the Yankees signed Matt Garza. Alternatively, imagine that the Yankees signed Ervin Santana, or Ubaldo Jimenez. Those guys have been considered the three best domestic free-agent starting pitchers, and if the Yankees were to pick up one of them, it would be a major investment and it would be considered a major improvement to a rotation in some need. It would make headlines, and it would cost the Yankees three or four or five guaranteed years at something in the neighborhood of $15 million each. It would be a splash, the latest in what would be a series of offseason splashes for the front office.

The Yankees just recently signed a free agent who was more valuable than each of those guys in 2013. They signed a free agent who was more valuable than each of those guys between 2011-2013, and they signed a free agent who projects to be more valuable than each of those guys in 2014. I’ll grant that what Hiroki Kuroda doesn’t have on his side is age, but what he does have is ability, and for a year and $16 million, he ought to be Hiroki Kuroda again. Which is likely to be under-appreciated, again.

Of course, the situation is different. Garza, Jimenez, Santana — these guys are free to sign anywhere. Kuroda’s up there in years, and consensus was that he would either re-sign with the Yankees or return to Japan. There wasn’t much in the way of consideration that he might find a new big-league ballclub. So in that sense it isn’t the biggest surprise that he’s remaining in New York for at least another season, but the Yankees would be hard-pressed to find a bigger upgrade than going from a rotation without Kuroda to a rotation with him.

He’s 38, and he’ll be 39 in February, which is worryingly old for any player. But people like to say “there’s no such thing as a bad one-year contract” because that one year is the most projectable, and with Kuroda there’s no other reason to believe he’s teetering on the edge. He’s an aging pitcher, which is a red flag, generally. But he’s been the exact same pitcher since he broke into the majors in 2008. He’s always posted a strikeout rate just low enough to not be thought of as a strikeout pitcher. He’s always posted an ERA just high enough to not be thought of as an ace. But his stuff’s all there, and his results are all there. His decline down the stretch last season looks like it can be easily explained by simple randomness.

Let’s take a quick glance at xFIP-. The best mark of Kuroda’s career is 85. The worst mark of his career is 92. By ERA-, the best mark of his career is 79, and the worst mark is 93. His OBPs against have bounced between .282 and .300. No matter where you look, it’s all more or less the same, over the years. Kuroda has neither improved nor declined. He’s demonstrated some ability to suppress hits. The last four years, he’s started 128 games, and whatever concern there might’ve been about his transition from Los Angeles to New York has been proven insignificant. He’s adjusted fine. He’s been very quietly terrific.

There’s little that Kuroda does to draw attention to himself. Performance-wise, he’s solid across the board without being amazing at anything, and if we change our opinions of players based on how they change as players, we haven’t changed our Kuroda opinions in half a decade. We know that he’s solid and that’s old hat. He goes about his business while people think about newer pieces, or shinier pieces.

It’s interesting, now, to reflect a little bit on Kuroda’s time in Japan, given how successful he’s been in the States. At 32, in his last year with Hiroshima, he posted his highest ERA in years, and his lowest strikeout rate in years. Also, his highest walk and dinger rates in years. At that point, there was reason for concern that Kuroda might be wearing down, but that obviously hasn’t been the case as he’s been effective and mostly durable. He was well-scouted by the Dodgers, yet I don’t know how many people expected him to still be pitching in the majors in 2014, as an important component of a hopeful contender.

The Yankees say they’re not done looking for pitching help, and as long as they can afford it, they might as well keep looking for upgrades. They’re expected to be in deep on Masahiro Tanaka in the event that he’s actually posted. Brian Cashman says the desire is to add 400 innings behind CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova, with Kuroda accounting for half of that. But while the Yankees want to get better, and while the Yankees have room to get better, they’re already in pretty decent shape as far as the rotation is concerned. According to our current projected WAR, the Yankees’ rotation ranks fourth, between the Rangers and Nationals. Steamer thinks that Sabathia, Nova, and Kuroda will be three of baseball’s 30 most valuable starters or so. Sabathia’s a question mark, but he was terrific as recently as 2012. Nova is coming off a year with an arm problem, but he also solved his dinger issues at the age of 26. It’s a pretty good front, even without an ace, and there’s the additional major wild card in Michael Pineda, who for all I know is back to 100%.

The Yankees’ starting rotation, right now, is a bit underrated. Its most stable, reliable starter is a bit underrated. The move to re-sign him has been a bit underrated. There’s no way that enough people out there properly appreciate Hiroki Kuroda, but thankfully for the Yankees, wins and losses aren’t based on appreciation. For a year and too little money, given his talent, the Yankees should hand the ball to Kuroda 30-odd times and focus their worries on everything else.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

45 Responses to “Yankees Retain the Quietest Workhorse”

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  1. marechal says:

    With all the talk about the rotation problems, it’s interesting to see that the lineup will remain the major problem for the Yankees in 2014. 1B, 2B, 3B and SS are all big question marks right now.

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    • GilaMonster says:

      Mark Teixeira is going to play 1st. He is actually pretty good.

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      • The Year 2009 says:

        I agree.

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        • Tyler says:

          He is also a power hitter coming off a wrist injury that shelved him for pretty much the entire season. There is plenty of concern there.

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      • Travis L says:

        Teixera has produced 2.5 WAR in the last 2 years (600 PA, so one full season-ish).

        His Steamer projection is 2 WAR.

        I think it’s fair to say he’s average to slightly above average.

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        • Cliff says:

          So your argument is that his last season was average and therefore he is average? Good analysis.

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        • nada says:

          age + injury history predicts a high likelihood of a DL visit in Texeira’s future. At a minimum, that will rob him of PAs; more realistically, it will also sap his performance when he does play.

          To say he produced 2.5 WAR in the last two years is also somewhat misleading. He produced ~3 WAR 2 years ago, and negative WAR since. The Steamer projection seems optimistic to me, based on his recent history.

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        • vivaelpujols says:

          cliff: are you a fucking idiot?

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    • pft says:

      Johnson is fine at 2B, Nunez at 3B is not great but Arod may be around for 60 games, Tex will progress in his age related decline. The big question mark really is SS and Jeter, but Ryan is an adequate fill in if they don’t need offense.

      The biggest problem with the team is pitching. CC was awful last year, and Kuroda was awful at the end. Nova was inconsistent. Need another starter. No closer (or set up guy) or LOOGY, and they need another RH arm to replace Joba.

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      • Mike says:

        For some reason I don’t see how Nunez airmailing everything from 3B is the best idea.

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      • Jason B says:

        I think Nunez/a few games of A-Rod/??? at 3B is at least a big a question mark as Cap’n Jetes…man, the more you look at it, that is a pretty scary infield. (And not ‘scary’ in a good way.)

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      • steve says:

        CC was hardly awful. A superficial examination of his year yields conclusion: “BABIP luck.”

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  2. Trotter76 says:

    I know this isn’t a fantasy baseball site, but those of us who play in deep leagues appreciate Hideki Kuroda. Bad pitching burns you a lot more than good pitching helps, and Kuroda rarely is flat bad. He ranges from excellent to serviceable, and from an real-life baseball perspective, that means he generally keeps his team in the game. If the Yankees offense is what it should be next year, he should win a fair share of games.

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  3. GilaMonster says:

    I wonder if there is a correlation between being a soft throwing splitter heavy pitcher that allows graceful aging? Kuroda,Uehara and Joel Peralta all come to mind.

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    • He’s not a soft thrower. His fastball averages 91.5, which has only declined 1 mph over the last five years. Kuroda signing was a great move. It probably flew under the radar because it seemed inevitable he would wind up back with New York. I wrote about it at Beyond the Box Score


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      • B N says:

        Spot on. If Kuroda hit the open market, any team would be foolish not to inquire. However, over his career, he’s been quite picky about where he wants to go. Part of the reason he’s such a bargain is that he basically only negotiates with one team or two teams each season.

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    • japem says:

      Yeah, he’s not all that soft-throwing, and I’ve also heard that splitters are hell on your arm, which obviously goes against what we see with Kuroda, Koji, and Peralta, but maybe it’s another factor… it could be that they develop players differently in Japan, which is why Kuroda and Uehara seem ageless.

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      • Bip says:

        With only two data points, it’s more likely we’re seeing the top end of a typical variability of durability and age-related decline.

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  4. DNA+ says:

    Everyone is so fast to write CC Sabathia off. Would anyone really be shocked if he comes back and puts up a typical CC year this year? If you look at what he did last year, a lot wasn’t out of line with his career, and a lot might have been bad luck.

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    • Travis L says:

      Depends on what you consider a typical year. A 4 WAR season wouldn’t surprise me, but a 6 WAR season definitely would.

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    • GBE says:

      Yes, I would be shocked if a typical year is an elite top 15 pitcher. I’d be less surprised if he just keeps declining.

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  5. pft says:

    “His decline down the stretch last season looks like it can be easily explained by simple randomness.”

    So easily explain it. Randomness seems like the god of a new religion in some circles. Amen.

    To me a 2nd half collapse of this magnitude for an aging pitcher (heck even a young pitcher) has the alarm bells going off.

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    • Maybe he’s not an ace anymore, but the guy was still average or better with regards to K%, BB%, and Swinging Strike rate, he’s not a #4/5 like some people are saying.

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    • August: 4.06 FIP
      September: 3.85 FIP

      August: 3.39 xFIP
      September: 3.82 xFIP

      Velocities all normal, other numbers not jarring. Spared the reader some sentences about LOB% and BABIP which are just difficult and unpleasant to read. Yankees say Kuroda was a bit worn down toward the end, but I don’t see any reason for actual concern going forward.

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  6. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Kuroda is a guy I’ve liked for a while. He’s good, underappreciated due to age and enjoyable to watch. The Yankees are lucky to have him.

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  7. GBE says:

    wow such pitching

    success so workhorse

    wow many outs

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  8. ChinaConor says:

    Watching the games at the end, Kuroda looked exhausted. It would be wise for the Yankees to consider skipping a start here and there to protect him. But he’s still a great signing for them.

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  9. B N says:

    I’d say that to call Kuroda a “Workhorse” really undersells him still. He’s played out the tail end of his career in the US with an ERA of 3.4 and a FIP around 3.6. His ERA last year was 3.31 with a FIP of 3.56. If that’s a workhorse, I’ll take a rotation full of them. I’d call that an “ace on a bad team” or a “great #2″ in the AL East.

    Is anyone surprised that Kuroda has lead the team in pitching WAR since he joined (2012-2013)? I’m not. His FIP WAR is nice (7.5), but that undersells the fact that he’s beat his FIP over his career consistently. How does a 10.1 RA9-WAR sound? Almost twice as much as his nearest competition (Pettite, 5.1; Sabathia, 4.6). Would it surprise you to find that those stats put him between Yu Darvish and David Price over that period? I will admit, that actually mildly surprises even me. Going by FIP WAR, he’s “only” between Lester and Greinke.

    Tell you what: as a Red Sox fan, I’ll be very happy if Lester stays on with the Red Sox and pitches 3/4 as good at that age. Chances of that occurring? Probably lower than Kuroda’s .282 BABIP.

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    • B N says:

      But yah, wait. He looked tired for like… a few starts near the end of last season. Guy is probably done. ;)

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    • Iron says:

      I guess it depends on your definition of “workhorse”. I’ve always considered that a pretty strong complement. It’s not like saying ‘journeyman’ or ‘innings eater’, or at least I do not equate it as such. To me a workhorse is the member of the pitching staff you can lean on the most.

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  10. hk says:

    I wouldn’t consider it “a splash” if the Yankees signed Garza, Santana or Ubaldo, but let Kuroda sign elsewhere? Would others (outside of the mainstream media)?

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  11. Mike Green says:

    Steamer thinks that Ivan Nova will be one of baseball’s 30 best starters because it has him throwing 190 innings. That is not a reasonable projection in light of his history. The Steamer projection that he will have an ERA of about 4 is (on the other hand) entirely reasonable.

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  12. HawkeyeCub says:

    If the Yankees sign Infante for 8-10 mil. per and pick up a back-up starter if Tanaka isn’t available or they whiff on him (Robert Hernandez’s groundballing ways might work well in that stadium), they will likely be a contender in 2014. Last year they really lacked depth–they appeared stretched coming into the season (already starting guys like Ichiro and Wells rather than expecting them to maybe be useful bench pieces). This year they will have better options to fill when guys inevitably go down.

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    • stevenam says:

      This introduces another question about Kuroda. As a groundballer, he’s been a good fit in the Bronx Bandbox, but that’s been with Cano at 2b and mostly (or at least partly) Jeter at ss. I would suggest that Kuroda will be heavily impacted by whoever replaces Cano at the keystone. If they forsake defense in exchange for a professional bat, Kuroda will pay a price. If they go with Ryan, Kuroda will benefit greatly.

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      • nada says:

        Cano + the Jeets (sounds like a band a little) was/is a pretty bad defensive pairing, there’s almost nowhere to go in terms of infield defense but up. So maybe Kuroda will get a boost from that.

        Together, they were worse than replacement level (-4 runs for Jeter, +2.5 runs for Cano; also a further -1.5 runs for A-Rod, who probably won’t be playing next year).

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  13. JKB says:

    This is tangential, but according to Fangraphs current projected WAR that you reference in the article, Roberto Hernandez is a 3 WAR pitcher next year and the second best free agent starter? Hernandez hasn’t even come close to that in the last 5 years. How is he projecting so highly? Is he going to Oakland or something?

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  14. I wanted Awoyo ovah Karoda. Karoda’s good, not great, I’ll give em that, but Awoyo is a proven winnah. And in New Yawk you hafta sacrifice stats for winnahs.

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