Take the names off the numbers, and there's no doubt about who the New York Yankees' best starting pitcher has been this season.
One guy is 13-6 with a 3.63 ERA and a 1.199 WHIP, the other is 14-10 with a 3.26 and a 1.119. But more importantly, one is trending upward, the other decidedly downward -- and as we head toward the postseason, it is time to give the question some serious thought.
Assuming both pitchers are rested and ready to go -- and, perhaps the biggest assumption of all, the Yankees have won the AL East -- who do you hand the ball to for Game 1 of the ALDS? CC Sabathia or Hiroki Kuroda?
Such a question would have seemed ludicrous at the beginning of the season. Sabathia was the ace, the horse, the guy they Yankees had just chosen to give an extra year to on top of the five they had already committed to, and a minimum of 30 million more dollars.
Kuroda was here on the baseball equivalent of a trial run, a one-year deal, and would need to make the difficult adjustment of coming from the National League (where no one hits) to the American League (where everyone does).
But now, 144 games into the season, the data indicates the question isn't so ludicrous after all.
Yet, when I posed it to Joe Girardi after the Yankees' 6-4 win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday -- a game in which Kuroda got his 14th win, and should have been charged with just a single earned run -- the manager chose to dance out of it like he was Fred Astaire.
"Come on, Wally," Girardi said, to giggles from his Greek chorus of sycophants in the Yankees media. "We got three weeks to go. Let me worry about Tuesday."
Of course, he had just gotten through explaining why he wasn't worried about Tuesday, with Andy Pettitte coming back and all. But rather than parse the manager's particular brand of evasion, let's pose a simple question to those of you whose agendas do not include mollifying the high-priced talent in the Yankees clubhouse.
If there is one Yankees starting pitcher you can trust more than Hiroki Kuroda right now, who would that be?
And knowing that only one starter can start twice in a five-game series, which would you choose for that assignment?
My answer is the same to both questions: Kuroda.
It's not that Sabathia has been bad. Not at all. But he certainly hasn't been the kind of shutdown ace a team needs to lean on, especially in a short playoff series.
Kuroda, on the other hand, certainly was that pitcher on Sunday -- even if the combination of an enthusiastic fan in the field boxes and an errant pebble on the infield conspired to give the Rays a three-run sixth inning, all of which got charged to Kuroda.
Steve Pearce probably should have caught Ben Zobrist's pop fly. But in leaping to avoid the glove of a fan, the ball popped out -- giving the Rays an extra out, prolonging the at-bat and leading to the next act of fate, an Evan Longoria hit that Alex Rodriguez easily could have turned into a double play but instead leaped high over his glove for a freakish two-run single. Without those two mishaps, Kuroda might have gotten away with only Zobrist's solo homer leading off the fourth to taint his day's work.
What was more telling about the quality of Kuroda's stuff was the six K's he had in the first two innings and the 10 he rolled up overall in six innings of work, against the same lineup that Sabathia could only manage three K's against in losing Friday night.
"He looks pretty confident on the mound right now," said Russell Martin, who caught Kuroda in Los Angeles also. "Early on in the season I felt like he had to get his feet wet a little bit. Now that he’s seen these hitters, I feel like he’s a lot more comfortable. Now he has a feel for the hitters and what they try to do. Once he knows that, he can pick them apart pretty well. He’s always done that."
Now that the Yankees appear to have weathered the storm that nearly sunk them last week -- they have a one-game lead in the division, and aside from three games with Oakland next weekend, a pretty soft schedule the rest of the way -- success in the playoffs is all about riding the hot hand.
Right now, Martin is hot -- with a huge three-run homer on Sunday -- A-Rod is hitting well, Eduardo Nunez has added a missing dimension to the offense, and Pettitte is coming back.
And Kuroda is steady on his worst day, and dominant on his best.
As much as the Yankees like and admire Sabathia, no one can say either of those things about him.
Girardi might want to sidestep the issue right, but sooner or later he's going to have to face it head-on.
Who does he hand the ball to for Game 1? The pitcher the Yankees are paying to be their ace?
Or the guy who is actually pitching like one?