Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Kuroda Throws His Cap Into the Cy Young Ring

If you look at the won/lost record of Detroit Tigers starter Max Scherzer, it's difficult not to imagine that he's the shoe-in for the American League Cy Young Award. It's difficult not to think that way when you see a gaudy 17-1 record.

Times have changed however, and there is a new way of looking at numbers in addition to a pitcher's won/lost record. Felix Hernandez won the award three years ago with a very ordinary 13-12 mark. He also led the league in ERA (2.27), games started, least hits per nine innings pitched, and struck out more than 200 hitters.

It takes nothing away to say that Hernandez had the benefit of pitching in a "pitcher's ballpark". He limited hitters to a .533 OPS at Safeco Field. Then again the Mariners inept offense hurt him as much as the home field advantage helped him. Seattle score two or less runs in 15 of Hernandez's 34 starts and 3-5 runs in 13 starts. Hernandez lost 10 of his 12 games when the M's scored two runs or less.

It also takes nothing away from Scherzer, but he also pitches in a "pitcher's ballpark". The difference between his season and Hernandez's is that, led by Miguel Cabrera, he has a devastating offense behind him as well. The Tigers have scored 3-5 runs in 10 of Scherzer's starts and 6 or more in 11 of them. Detroit has scored two or less runs in just two of Scherzer's start- a loss and a no decision.

To his credit Scherzer's been even better on the road (.500 OPS vs. .622 at home), but that was the wind up. Here comes the pitch.

Right-hander Hiroki Kuroda does his home pitching in a field made for left-handed hitters. Batters routinely deposit baseballs over the fence from right-center field over to the right field foul pole. Powerful right-handed hitters have no problem poking a long ball the opposite way either.

Kuroda is also in the AL East, a league chock full of big time hitting teams. That would normally include his team, the New York Yankees, but not this year. Due to injuries, age, and ineffectiveness, the Yankees look like a combination of the Bad News Bears (think of Rudi Stein in the original movie with Walter Matthau) and coach-pitch Little League.

It's led to an 11-7 record for Kuroda despite a 2.33 ERA and a league best 174 ERA+ (100 * (league ERA / ERA)). The Yankees have scored two or less runs in 11 of Kuroda's 24 starts (3-5 W/L) and 3-5 runs in 10 of them. (5-2 W/L). Just three times the Yankees went  wild and scored six or more runs with Kuroda on the mound. He's won all three of those starts.

The native of Osaka, Japan has pitched into the 7th inning or later 17 times. He's gone less than five innings just twice and once was because he tried to snare a Shane Victorino comebacker with his bare hand.

Quality starts is a nonsense statistic - 3 runs allowed in 6 innings is not anything of quality - but Kuroda has thrown 16 games where has allowed two runs or less and allowed three runs in a seven inning start to boot. He's 9-2 in those 17 starts with six no decisions . He's also pitched into the 7th inning or greater 18 times and left with the lead three times only to see the Yankees bullpen blow it. (The Yankees are 14-10 when Kuroda starts.)

Since Mother Nature cranked up the heat, Kuroda has been phenomenal. In five starts since the calendar turned to July 1, the 38-year old has allowed five earned runs in 48 innings pitched. (He's 4-1 with three no decisions.) That calculates out to a 0.94 ERA, which also matches his WHIP during that period. He’s walked just eight hitters and struck out 35, and has not allowed a home run.

Kuroda is not only the Yankees ace, he's their MVP as well. Without him, there is no way the Yankees could even see the AL wild card on the horizon. So, if he continues to pitch this way through the end of the regular season, will he have a legitimate shot at the AL Cy Young Award? That remains to be seen, because no matter how good Kuroda's year is, Scherzer's won/loss record could still distract voters like the neon lights along the Las Vegas strip pulls in gamblers.

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