There were quite a few reasons to be concerned about Hiroki Kuroda last season. At age-37, he was reaching a point where few pitchers are able to remain at the top of their game. He was also moving from the NL West to the AL East, and a home ballpark that is friendly to hitters. Despite all of those concerns, Kuroda was masterful once again. Over the past three seasons, Kuroda has been as consistent as they come. Kuroda’s good for a mid-3.00 ERA, with solid strikeout, and low walk, totals. While that level of consistency is uncommon with a player of his age, the now 38-year-old pitcher hasn’t shown any signs of decline just yet.
Kuroda adapted to a much harsher run environment by producing the highest ground ball rate of his career. That’s important because not only is offense better in the AL, but Kuroda moved to a park with a 140 home run park factor to lefties. Kuroda’s 52.3% ground ball rate was a career-high, and one of the best rates in the game last year.
In order to increase his ground ball rate so drastically, Kuroda stopped using his four-seam fastball. He compensated by throwing a higher percentage of sinkers, splitters and sliders. Kuroda’s four-seam fastball usage dropped from 22.8% down to just 10.7%. While he saw the biggest increase in his slider usage, which jumped from 18.9% to 28.3%, that didn’t feed his ground ball numbers nearly as much as his sinkers and splitters. Both his sinker and splitter had ground ball rates of over 60% last year, according to Brooks Baseball. Throwing both pitches more frequently contributed to his high ground ball rate.
The increase in Kuroda’s slider mainly came against right-handed hitters. While his usage with the slider was fairly high in any count, Kuroda really counted on the pitch when he needed to get a strikeout. In two strike counts against righties, Kuroda when to his slider 61% of the time. He wasn’t nearly as reliant on the pitch against lefties, preferring to use his splitter when he was ahead of hitters. His adaptability helped offset an expected rise in HR/FB rate last year. At 13.0%, it was a career-high for Kuroda, and the second straight year where his HR/FB rate was on the rise.
The areas where Kuroda has shown some signs of decline have been very pronounced, and because of that, he’s probably a good bet to be just as effective next season. The Bill James projections agree, expecting another 212 innings with a 3.57 ERA and a 3.83 FIP. They expect a slight decline in Kuroda’s strikeout rate, but all of his other numbers remain fairly consistent.
Despite his old age, Kuroda is one of the most dependable pitchers in the game. He is able to contribute in every relavent starting pitcher stat categories in fantasy leagues. While Kuroda won’t be able to hold off age-related decline forever, there’s little reason to believe he will fall off a cliff next year. Until we start to see some decline in his rate stats, he’s going to be as consistent as they come.
Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.