Amid considerably less fanfare than some other recent Japanese stars coming stateside, Dodgers right-hander Hiroki Kuroda delivered just what was expected of him in 2008. Inked to a three-year, $35.3 million contract last offseason, the longtime Hiroshima Toyo Carp ace translated his excellent control and groundball tendencies to the big leagues rather seamlessly.
Prior to the 2008 season, Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system churned Kuroda’s Japanese numbers and spit out the following projection: a 4.12 ERA, 5.1 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9. The 33 year-old slightly surpassed that forecast, posting a 3.73 ERA, 5.69 K/9 and 2.06 BB/9. In addition to limiting the walks, Kuroda was a worm-killer, generating grounders at a 51.3% clip (11th-highest among starting pitchers).
His 7.6 Home Run/Flyball rate (HR/FB%) was pretty low and figures to regress (HR FB% tends to hover around 11-12% for starters), so the 0.64 HR/9 figure will likely increase in 2009. Using Expected Fielding Independent ERA (XFIP) from the Hardball Times, we can adjust for Kuroda’s home run luck on flyballs. XFIP uses strikeouts walks and an average HR/FB% (thus eliminating fluky home run performances) to find what a pitcher’s ERA “should” have been, given his controllable skills. Kuroda’s XFIP was 4.02: still pretty solid.
Kuroda came to the Dodgers with the reputation of possessing a deep repertoire. He showcased it in 2008, featuring a 92 MPH fastball (thrown 59.3% of the time), 83.7 MPH slider (26.3%) and an 87.2 MPH splitter (12.2%). The 6-1, 210 pounder also sprinkled in a very light serving of 88.6 MPH cutters (2%) and 78.2 MPH curveballs (0.2%). Kuroda is not an overpowering pitcher. Instead of blowing hitters away, he tries to bait them into making weak contact, beating the ball into the dirt. He had plenty of success in that regard, as batters swung at pitches outside of the strike zone 30.6% of the time versus Kuroda. That tied for the 10th-highest mark in the majors, with Javier Vazquez. While he held his own versus lefties (.260/.306/.399), Kuroda stifled right-handers to the tune of .246/.292/.319.
While Kuroda’s debut was certainly a success, there was one odd aspect of his season worth discussing. One would ordinarily expect that a veteran pitcher with Kuroda’s sort of skill set (low walks, groundball tendencies) would be pretty consistent. However, that was not the case. Baseball Prospectus keeps track of a stat called “FLAKE“, which measures the standard deviation of per-start performance for pitchers. In other words, it measures how consistent a pitcher is from start to start; a lower FLAKE number means that the pitcher is consistent, while a higher FLAKE number indicates that the pitcher is all over the place in terms of the quality of his starts. Kuroda had a FLAKE of .281, third-highest among all starters throwing at least 150 innings. Only Mark Buehrle and Matt Garza had more variance in the quality of their starts. It’s difficult to say whether or not this portends to anything in 2009, but it is worth keeping in mind that Kuroda tossed some gems and some stinkers this past season. His overall numbers scream “consistent”, but his performance might vary more than most.
Kuroda looks like a solid bet to post similar overall numbers in 2009. Marcel projects him to post a 3.94 Fielding Independent ERA, punching out slightly more batters (6.04 K/9) while also issuing a few more free passes (2.55 BB/9). If Kuroda can continue to get batters to chase his diverse arsenal out of the zone, he should be worthy of a middle-round draft pick.
A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at firstname.lastname@example.org and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.