In Japan, where traditional ranking permeates even baseball, the ace of a team’s pitching staff typically wears the number 18. It is a custom confined to that country, although Hiroki Kuroda has certainly upheld its notion in baseball’s metropolis.
Indeed, it has been Kuroda – not purported ace C.C. Sabathia – who has been the finest starting pitcher this year for the New York Yankees. Though Sabathia may eat more innings – and given the drop in his velocity, perhaps he should begin eating more than that – Kuroda is the steadier arm. His placid demeanor befits his consistency on the mound, where all season long the savvy 38-year old has given his team a chance to win.
Unfortunately for him, they haven’t always taken advantage of it. Kuroda’s record is 6-5, but he has pitched well enough to win at least 11 times. On three occasions he has earned a no-decision when pitching at least seven innings and allowing two runs or fewer. Twice he has lost when surrendering three runs or fewer. Yesterday against the Oakland A’s, Kuroda hurled eight innings of spectacular two-hit ball, was perfect in every inning but one, and left the game with nothing to show for it.
As a nod toward his consistency, in 14 starts this year Kuroda has given up four runs or more just twice. By comparison, Sabathia has done so six times. A corollary of C.C.’s munificence: 101 hits. Only one pitcher in the majors has allowed more hits than that. Kuroda has allowed a far stingier 72 hits, a thriftiness that has contributed to a WHIP of 1.04, good for 7th in the A.L. and ahead of the likes of Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander and Jake Peavy. His 2.78 ERA ranks 8th in the A.L.; Sabathia’s 4.07 is a distant 30th.
What’s most impressive about Kuroda, though, is his ability to dominate hitters without throwing all that hard. Whereas most pitchers on the leaderboards can rear back and throw 95 mph fastballs when they need to, Kuroda’s velocity tops out near 90 mph. But if his contemporaries throw heaters, Kuroda throws darts. His pitches are sharp and precise, and targeted for an exact location. They move suddenly, keenly; a two-seam spilling over the inside corner here, a splitter diving into the dirt there. They don’t so much smack the catcher’s mitt as they do sting it.
Maybe dominate is the wrong word. Verlander dominates hitters. Hernandez, Darvish and Buchholz do, too. Kuroda more closely manipulates hitters. He muffles them through deception, changing his speed and location with the automated ease of a translator switching languages. Like a world-tour golfer choosing the right club, Kuroda always seems to know the right pitch for the right situation. As the baseball saying goes, he’s a pitcher’s pitcher.
But the Yankees, just recently swept by the A’s, are going to need the dominating ways of Sabathia too. As evidenced so far this season, the big lefthander can’t rely on guile the way Kuroda can. They need him to rediscover that ability to suppress hitters, to stifle them. When Kuroda is at his best, he controls an offense. When Sabathia is at his best, he smothers it. It was in this manner that he won the Cy Young award in 2007, and carried the Yankees to a World Series title in 2009. And it will be in this manner that he combines with Kuroda to form a formidable one-two punch at the top of the team’s rotation. With Sabathia and Kuroda, it must be power and ploy.
Sabathia has always been one to shoulder the burden of winning. And he has always been one to assume responsibility in defeat. In the wake of a loss, he does not lament a lack of run support, blame a guilty defense or question a tight strike zone. He looks only at himself.
With the Yankees ragtag offense coming back down to earth – June averages for Youkilis, Hafner and Wells are .135, .114 and .095, respectively – surely Sabathia knows the time to step up is now. The mercenaries can only take this team so far.
Kuroda has done magnificently to account for C.C.’s inconsistency. But at some point – at that may be now – Sabathia needs to don the number 18 on his back.