First Pitch: Cy Hiroki?

May, 22, 2013
5/22/13
6:00
AM ET


On the occasion of his first start at Camden Yards -- that's right, he has never pitched there in six major league seasons, four of which were in the National League -- let us take a moment to consider the brilliance of Hiroki Kuroda.

Two winters ago, when the Yankees' Era of Fiscal Responsibility was in its infancy and Brian Cashman was otherwise occupied with explaining why he would not be bidding on C.J. Wilson or Yu Darvish, the Yankees' GM said this: "If tomorrow Hal Steinbrenner told me I could have $10 million to sign a starting pitcher, I'd sign Hiroki Kuroda."

Two years later, Cashman's judgment has proved accurate. While Darvish has been brilliant for the Texas Rangers, bringing him to the Yankees would have cost upward of $100 million with the posting fee and a commitment of six years. And considering the Yankees' history with Japanese pitchers, you can't really blame Cashman for being gun-shy. And while Wilson has been OK for the Angels, he certainly wasn't worth the $75 million it would have cost to get him.

In Kuroda, Cashman knew he was getting a good, reliable performer.

But there's no way even Cashman, an admirer of Kuroda from afar, could have foreseen just how good, and how reliable, Kuroda would turn out to be.

There's little question that right now, Kuroda is the Yankees' best starter, even if CC Sabathia remains the nominal ace.

His 6-2 record, 1.99 ERA and 0.95 WHIP place him solidly among the top five starters in the American League.

Even more remarkably, while Kuroda was a good pitcher with the Dodgers who suffered from poor run support, he has been a significantly better pitcher in the offense-rich AL -- although, ironically, he still suffers from a comparative lack of run support.

In four seasons with the Dodgers, Kuroda's record was 41-46 (ERA 3.45). In one-plus season as a Yankee, his record is 23-13 and his ERA is down to 3.04.

And with slightly more than one-quarter of the season gone, Kuroda certainly belongs in any conversation regarding AL Cy Young Award contenders.

There are about a half-dozen legitimate candidates so far: Matt Moore of the Rays is 8-0 with a 2.29 ERA; Darvish is 7-1 with a 2.97 ERA; the Indians' Justin Masterson is 7-2 with a 2.83 ERA; the Red Sox's Clay Buchholz is 7-0 with a 1.78 ERA; King Felix Hernandez is 5-3 with a 2.07 ERA while toiling for the relatively punchless Seattle Mariners.

But Kuroda is right there with any of them. His ERA is lower than anyone's but Buchholz. He is one of a half-dozen AL starters whose opponents' batting average is sub-.200 (.197) and whose WHIP is lower than 1.00. He has one of the highest ground ball percentages in the league (54 percent), one of the lowest line-drive percentages (14.5 percent) and a minuscule home run-to-fly ball ratio of just 5 percent, meaning just one of every 20 fly balls hit off him leaves the park. Plus, his opponents' BABIP -- the batting average opposing hitters have on him when they put the ball in play -- is just .228.

In plain English, that means that even when they do hit Kuroda, they're not squaring him up very often.

Best of all for the beleaguered Yankees bullpen, aside from his first start of the season, when Kuroda had to leave the game in the second inning after taking a liner off his pitching hand, he virtually guarantees you close to seven innings of work.

It might not turn out to be enough to win the Cy Young Award -- no Yankee has won it since Roger Clemens 12 years ago -- and at 38, there is the legitimate question of how long he can keep up this level of performance without injury.

But no matter. Nearly two months into the season, Kuroda is unquestionably one of the best pitchers in his league and certainly the best pitcher on his team.

And tonight, he makes his Camden Yards debut.

QUESTION OF THE DAY: If the playoffs started today, whom would you hand the ball to, Sabathia or Kuroda?

UP NOW: All the news from Tuesday night in Baltimore. The Yankees bought a soccer team. They will wear different caps on Memorial Day.

ON DECK: Andrew Marchand is in Baltimore for the finale of the three-game series in Baltimore. Kuroda (6-2, 1.99) faces Jason Hammel (5-2, 2.72).
Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Masahiro Tanaka
WINS ERA SO IP
13 2.77 141 136
OTHER LEADERS
BAJ. Ellsbury .271
HRB. McCann 23
RBIB. McCann 75
RB. Gardner 87
OPSB. Gardner .749
ERAH. Kuroda 3.71
SOH. Kuroda 146