When I woke up this morning and read David Waldstein’s New York Times piece on Yankees acquisition Hiroki Kuroda, it made me feel really good about the signing. While it’s true that he’s never been tested in the AL, let alone the AL East, he’s a veteran who sounds like a warrior and who won’t need any tips about making it in the Bronx. I love his attitude. I hope I’ll love his pitching too. Here’s the article for anyone who may have missed it.
A Japanese Pitcher Without the Mystery
By DAVID WALDSTEIN
The first time Trey Hillman saw Hiroki Kuroda pitch, he was compelled to do something he would not do again during his five years in Japan. Hillman was managing the Nippon Ham Fighters, and he had stood amazed in the Sapporo Dome as Kuroda, pitching for the Hiroshima Carp, fought and schemed his way through a close game. The Fighters won, 2-1, Hillman recalled, on a couple of bloop hits and a critical error. But through all nine innings Kuroda never grew frustrated, constantly making adjustments while refusing to concede a millimeter on any pitch.
The next day during batting practice Hillman took his interpreter to ask the opposing manager if he would introduce him to Kuroda.
“I wanted to meet him and tell him how impressed I was,” Hillman said. “I couldn’t believe how hard he battled in that game. It was incredible. I actually couldn’t believe we won that game, and I just wanted to meet him. That was the only pitcher I ever did that with.”
Eight years later, the two men reunited. Last season Kuroda pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Hillman was Don Mattingly’s bench coach there. Little had changed.
“He’s the same guy I first saw in Japan,” Hillman said. “He still attacks hitters, he still has good stuff, and he still competes like a son of a gun. I’m a huge Kuroda fan.”
The Yankees tried unsuccessfully to acquire Kuroda last winter. Then, in late July, the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox pursued him as they tried to bolster their rotations with a playoff-tested veteran. Kuroda invoked his no-trade clause, however, deciding to remain with the Dodgers, at least for the rest of the season.
But last month the Yankees’ persistence was rewarded when they signed Kuroda as a free agent to a one-year, $10 million contract. They finally had the determined competitor with a four-pitch repertory they had coveted for so long.
“I think the two previous attempts by us to get him helped us in the end,” Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman said, “because he realized how much we really desired him.”
For weeks before the deal, Cashman, when asked about another Japanese pitcher, Yu Darvish, emphasized his concern that players from other countries always brought a level of mystery about whether they could succeed in the United States. Cashman knew this as well as anyone, for misjudgments on this issue had cost the Yankees far more than other teams.
The Yankees had enjoyed great success with one Japanese star, outfielder Hideki Matsui, but their history with pitchers from Japan was not a happy one. The temperamental Hideki Irabu pitched for the Yankees from 1997 to 1999, went 29-20 with a 4.80 earned run average and pitched once in the postseason, in relief. The hype that greeted him ended up being far out of proportion to his production in the major leagues.
Far worse, the Yankees spent $46 million to sign Kei Igawa in 2007. He made only 13 starts for them over two seasons and spent the last three years in minor league exile, the most expensive mistake in Cashman’s long run as general manager.
But there would seem to be little mystery surrounding Kuroda after four years in the majors. During his stay with the Dodgers, Kuroda proved he had the ability to adapt here. He went 41-46 with a 3.45 E.R.A. while suffering from a chronic lack of run support, especially last season. In five starts last June, he had a 2.12 E.R.A., but his record was 0-4.
“He’s shown his stuff translates in the National League,” Cashman said. “Now he has to show it translates to the American League East. We think it will.”
At one point last season, Kuroda developed a sleep disorder and spent two nights in a hospital being evaluated. He never told his teammates, but after games he went to the hospital for tests and observation, then returned to the ballpark the next day without anyone knowing. The problem eventually went away.
Hillman said he was aware that Kuroda was having some difficulty but did not know the extent of it.
“That’s the way he is,” Hillman said. “He just kept showing up and pitching for us.”
Alex Ochoa, the former outfielder and now the first-base coach of the Red Sox, said he always thought Kuroda had the stuff and the mentality to pitch in the United States.
Ochoa played against Kuroda for four years when he was on the Chunichi Dragons, then played with Kuroda on the Carp in 2007. Kuroda was not a high draft pick or a high school superstar like many of Japan’s top pitchers, but he doggedly worked his way up the Carp’s rotation and had a method of pitching that hinted at future success in the major leagues.
“He pitched like an American,” Ochoa said. “He got ahead with his fastball and then used his breaking stuff and his splitter to get you out, and he always competed. I remember one game where he gave up three runs in the first inning and I figured he would be gone. But the eighth inning rolls around and he’s still in there, and he only allowed those three runs.”
That kind of competitiveness would have been helpful to other teams last year, particularly the Red Sox. So Kuroda’s decision to invoke his no-trade clause was puzzling, considering he turned down a potential chance to pitch in the postseason to remain with a team that had little chance at the playoffs.
“A key factor in staying here is that it’s really important to play with the same guys I started the season with,” he said on the Dodgers’ Web site. “I want to finish with these guys. It’s hard for me to win, but it’s more important to play with my teammates.”
But when his contract was up and the Dodgers showed little ability or interest in re-signing him, Kuroda decided to play elsewhere.
Tommy Lasorda, the former Dodgers manager, was instrumental in the pioneering success of the Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo in Los Angeles. Lasorda said that Kuroda was a worthy successor to Nomo’s legacy.
“They’re both kind of shy guys, both very loyal guys,” Lasorda said. “I think that’s why Hiroki wanted to stay with us. He felt an obligation to the team that signed him, and to his teammates. But I tell you what, with that offense in New York, he’s going to win a lot of games.”
As I said, I feel good about Kuroda. I’m glad he’s a Yankee.