Monday December 29th, 2014

Amid the extended news cycle of the Christmas holiday, word leaked out that Hiroki Kuroda has decided to return to Japan after seven seasons stateside. The 39-year-old righty (40 on Feb. 10) has signed a $3.3 million deal to pitch for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, the team with which he spent 11 seasons in the Japanese Central League prior to joining the Dodgers in 2008. While his overall impact could not equal that of predecessor Hideo Nomo, Kuroda has a claim — perhaps fleeting — on being the most successful Japanese pitcher in MLB.

That Kuroda is heading back to Japan comes as little surprise, for he had pitched on one-year contracts for the past four seasons, allowing him an annual return to the same crossroads: remain in the U.S., retire, or return to Nippon Professional Baseball to close out his career. Last April, he told Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal that during the previous offseason he had never mulled retirement more seriously; while his wife and three young daughters live in Los Angeles and joined him in New York in the summer, he quite understandably missed Japan. Sooner or later, he was going to choose this route.

Not that Kuroda would have had trouble finding work had he chosen to remain in the majors. After pitching to a 3.71 ERA (104 ERA+) in 199 innings for the Yankees in 2014, he likely could have returned to the Bronx — where there are no shortage of questions about the health of Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda, not to mention the pending return of Ivan Nova from Tommy John surgery — albeit with something of a pay cut after pitching for $16 million this past season. Failing that, other teams, particularly those on both coasts, likely would have considered him at the right price.

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In all, Kuroda spent seven seasons in the majors, the first four of them (2008-11) with the Dodgers and the last three with the Yankees. He came stateside after starring with the Carp, going 103-89 with a 3.45 ERA during his 11 seasons and earning a Best Nine Award in 2005, as well as an ERA title the following season. Kuroda had re-signed with the Carp via a four-year deal after the 2006 season, eschewing free agency in exchange for the right to negotiate with a major league team at any time during the deal, but without going through the posting process. After the Carp went 60-82 en route to a fifth-place finish in the six-team JCL in 2007, he announced his desire to depart, and soon signed a three-year, $35.3 million deal with the Dodgers.

While Kuroda's 79-79 win-loss record in MLB was nothing to write home about, he was often plagued by poor run support; in three of his past four seasons, his teams scored fewer than four runs per game, and for the past two, the Yankees averaged a combined 3.5 runs per start. More impressive were his 3.45 ERA (115 ERA+), microscopic walk rate (2.0 per nine) and outstanding control (3.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio). Among the 56 pitchers with at least 1,000 innings over the past seven seasons, those numbers rank 17th, fourth and 14th, respectively, while his 1,319 innings rank 19th.

Just as impressive was his consistency. He made at least 31 starts in the past five seasons and six of his seven overall; he only fell short in 2009, when he served a pair of stints on the disabled list for an oblique strain and a batted ball-induced concussion, then was additionally limited in September and October by a bulging disc in his neck. He topped 180 innings in six of those seven seasons and threw at least 196 1/3 in each of the past five, with an average of 204 per year over that span. His ERAs always landed between 3.07 (2011) and 3.76 (2009), his FIPs between 3.26 (2010) and 3.86 (2012). He was worth at least 2.4 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference version) in every season save that injury-marked one, with a high of 5.5 in 2012, his first season with the Yankees.

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In January of that year, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman stunned the baseball world with a two-fer, trading top prospect Jesus Montero to the Mariners in a deal that brought back Pineda while on the same day agreeing with Kuroda on a one-year, $10 million deal (physicals and other considerations delayed the announcement of both moves). That 2012 season, in which Kuroda was the team’s best pitcher via multiple measures, was the last time the Yankees reached the postseason; he made two strong starts in that October, throwing 8 1/3 innings of two-run ball against the Orioles in Game 3 of the Division Series and then 7 2/3 innings of three-run ball with 11 strikeouts against the Tigers in Game 2 of the ALCS, an effort that went for naught as the Yankees were held scoreless.

In all, Kuroda pitched to a 3.94 ERA in five postseason starts, a mark inflated by a six-run pounding in 1 1/3 innings against the Phillies in 2009, when he was in less-than-mint condition due to his neck. In the other four starts in 2008 and 2009, when he helped the Dodgers reach the NLCS, he averaged 7.1 innings with a 2.22 ERA and a 23/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Kuroda never made an All-Star team during his seven seasons. Notably, he was snubbed in 2013, the year the game was played at Citi Field; he went 8-6 with a 2.65 ERA in the first half, a mark that ranked second in the league at the time, but manager Jim Leyland instead chose Baltimore's Chris Tillman (11-3, 3.95 ERA) on the basis of won-loss record. That hole in his resumé keeps the argument for which Japanese pitcher has had the best major league career alive, though it may eventually become a moot point given the dominance of Yu Darvish, Tanaka, or Hisashi Iwakuma. But Kuroda has a compelling claim on that distinction. Thus far, 10 Japanese pitchers have made at least 50 starts in the majors. Here they are ranked according to career WAR:

player war years w-l ip era era+ war/180
Hideo Nomo 21.8 1995-2008 123-109 1,976 1/3 4.24 97 2.0
Hiroki Kuroda 21.7 2008-14 79-79 1,319 3.45 115 3.0
Yu Darvish 12.8 2012-14 39-25 545 1/3 3.27 127 4.2
Tomo Ohka 11.9 1999-2009 51-68 1,070 4.26 105 2.0
Hisashi Iwakuma 11.5 2012-14 38-20 524 3.07 120 4.0
Daisuke Matsuzaka 9.3 2007-14 56-43 790 1/3 4.45 99 2.1
Masato Yoshii 7.4 1998-2002 32-47 757 1/3 4.62 101 1.8
Hideki Irabu 3.4 1997-2002 34-35 514 5.15 89 1.2
Kazuhisa Ishii 0.2 2002-05 39-34 564 4.44 90 0.1
Mac Suzuki 0.2 1996-2002 16-31 465 2/3 5.72 86 0.1

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​Kuroda is just 0.1 WAR shy of Nomo for the all-time lead, though of course he can't compete in terms of historical impact. Nomo opened the door for Japanese players to come stateside and stormed through the league upon arriving in 1995, winning NL Rookie of the Year honors, making the All-Star team in his first season, finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting both that year and the next, and tossing no-hitters in 1996 (the only one in Coors Field history) and 2001 (for the Red Sox at Camden Yards). But after his first two seasons, Nomo was an erratic and often subpar pitcher, racking up strikeouts galore but pitching to a 4.61 ERA (91 ERA+) from 1997 onward for a total of seven teams; only in the first two years of his return to the Dodgers (2002-03) did he truly shine again. Though he can't touch Nomo's strikeout rate (8.7 per nine career), Kuroda has been the better pitcher in terms of run prevention and value; that last column shows WAR per 180 innings.

The claim may be a fleeting one, as a wave of more recent arrivals have gotten off to strong starts stateside. Darvish has become the first Japanese starter to earn multiple All-Star berths, making the AL team in all three of his seasons. He's also come the closest to winning a Cy Young, finishing second behind Max Scherzer in 2013. Iwakuma finished third in that race in addition to making the All-Star team, and in fact his 7.0 WAR from that season (via a 2.66 ERA, 138 ERA+ and 4.4 K/BB ratio) ranks as the single-season high for a Japanese pitcher, ahead of Darvish's 5.8 that year and Kuroda's 5.5 from 2012. Tanaka may well have challenged that mark in 2014 given his early-season dominance, but a partial tear in his ulnar collateral ligament limited him to just two starts after July 8, one of which lasted just 1 2/3 innings; he finished with 3.3 WAR.

Whatever his standing relative to his countrymen, Kuroda put together a fine major league career on top of his run in Japan. Regardless of what happens during his victory lap with the Carp, he'll be remembered fondly for his time in both leagues.

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