When I heard that Hiroki Kuroda, the Dodgers’ veteran right-hander, refused a trade to the Yankees last summer, my first thought was “Fine, we don’t want you anyway.” If he didn’t want to play in New York, his loss. Better for him to stay away than become the next Ed Whitson. God knows we’ve seen turkeys in pinstripes, from Britt Burns and Denny Neagle to Jeff Weaver and A.J. Burnett.
So I was surprised when I read that Brian Cashman was pursuing Kuroda this off-season. This after trying to sign him as a free agent last winter as well. What was I missing? Then last month, there it was: the 37-year old Kuroda signed a 1-year, $10 million contract to pitch with the Yankees. Coming on the heels of the trade that sent Jesus Montero to the Seattle Mariners for Michael Pineda, the signing was pushed off the back page, yet drew rave reviews from baseball analysts. I e-mailed my pal Jon Weisman, who runs the Dodger Thoughts blog, and he said that Kuroda “was one of the classiest guys to wear a Dodger uniform. A good pitcher who might have the occasional stumble but can usually be counted on to pitch seven good innings. He goes right after hitters.”
Okay, the guy’s a pro. But there’s more to him than that. As Jon said, “It’s hard to feel too low when you’ve got Hiroki Kuroda on your side.”
Last year, his fourth year in the major leagues, Kuroda was having his finest season when he met with Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti in mid-July. Kuroda had gotten little run support and had a 6-11 record (from May 12 through July 27, Kuroda went 1-10 with a stellar 3.38 ERA), but as the trade deadline approached, he drew interest from several teams, particularly the Yankees and Red Sox.
Colletti told Kuroda how much he liked and respected him. He’d signed Kuroda three-and-a-half years earlier and admired how well the pitcher adapted to the major leagues. “He takes everything so seriously,” Colletti told me over the phone recently. “He has tremendous focus, even to a greater extent than most players.” The general manager told Kuroda, “I want to give you a chance to experience a pennant race again,” all the while understanding that being traded is not considered an honor in Japan.
“He is someone who takes his time and contemplates every major decision,” Colletti said, “but I could tell that day that his heart wasn’t in it.”
Kuroda liked L.A., where he lived with his wife and two daughters. He appreciated his time with the Dodgers and got along with his teammates. Under the visor of his cap were the characters 感 謝, which mean ‘thankful’. For Kuroda, being thankful isn’t a glib daily affirmation; it is a reminder of where he came from and who he is.
Unlike most other Japanese pitchers who played in the United States, Kuroda was not a star in high school. In fact, he spent most of his time on the bench. Kuroda’s father had been a professional player though he never pushed his son. His mother, however, supported the old school brand of discipline practiced by his coach. Kuroda was strong and durable but wild and was often relegated to pitching in practice. During bullpen sessions, his coach Hidemasa Tanaka told the catcher not to catch any pitch that wasn’t a strike. Kuroda had to retrieve each errand toss and then sprint back to the mound to make the next pitch.
“Pro scouts frequently came to watch our teams play,” Tanaka told Dylan Hernandez of the L.A. Times. “But no one bothered with Kuroda. There was no point.”
Kuroda wanted to quit many times but he stuck with it, pitching at Senshu University in Tokyo without achieving stardom. It was no surprise he wasn’t a high draft pick in 1997 when the Hiroshima Carp, a losing small-market team, signed him to the customary 10-year Japanese contract.
“The team had a lousy defense and he had to pitch in a small park,” says Robert Whiting, author of “You Gotta Have Wa”. “It was hard for him to put up the numbers he might have if he had played for the Yomiuri Giants, and accordingly, he did not get as much attention as he might have.” Nevertheless, Kuroda developed into an accomplished pitcher with good control.
“Kuroda earned everything by merit, including his chance to take the mound,” says Mike Plugh a professor of communications in Akita City who has written about Japanese baseball for Baseball Prospectus.
Alex Ochoa, the first base coach for the Red Sox, played against Kuroda for 4 years in Japan. Last week, Ochoa told David Waldstein of the New York Times, “He pitched like an American. He got ahead with his fastball and then used his breaking stuff and his splitter to get you out.”
Plugh says that Kuroda was appreciated by baseball fans in Japan, but adds, “The Carp are notoriously stingy. When he became a free agent, even after he showed himself to be one of the best pitchers in Japan, they didn’t want to pay him at first.” When they finally came around, Kuroda signed a 4-year deal. He was a rarity. Since the advent of free agency in Japan in 1992, players have changed teams at will. “Players move about quite a lot these days, usually from less influential teams to more influential teams like the Giants,” Whiting told me. “In this sense, Kuroda was an exception.”
Kuroda wisely had a clause written in the contract that allowed him to leave if the majors came calling. After one more season with the Carp, he declared free agency and signed 3-year, $35.3 million deal with the Dodgers. He was in tears at his farewell press conference.
“I made the decision because I wanted to go one step forward as a baseball player,” said Kuroda. “I would’ve been fine finishing my career with the Carp, but my feelings of wanting to challenge myself in a different kind of baseball grew stronger.”
Perhaps his decision was not necessarily compatible with the need to stay loyal to the Carp. He may have felt the need to repay the debt in full and then take a step up the ladder. Only after he was freed by a sense of obligation was he able to concentrate on personal ambition.
Kuroda arrived in the States with none of the hype that accompanied Dice K in Boston. “He didn’t have superstar baggage,” said Dylan Hernandez. Kuroda was open to changing his approach to fit the American game. In Japan, pitchers only throw once a week and they don’t face the same level of hitters they do in the States. With the help of an interpreter, Kuroda talked with Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and catcher Russell Martin. He also watched a lot of video. “The first year it wasn’t so much spring training as the long season,” Honeycutt told me last week. “We tried to give him a day off when we could.”
The most difficult adjustment was cultural. “You think about it, it’s a very lonely existence,” Joe Torre, the Dodgers’ manager told Andy Kamenetzky who profiled Kuroda for ESPN Los Angeles in 2010. “When you’re changing countries, it’s a little overwhelming.”
In Japan, players don’t seek out coaches so Kuroda was honored when Torre eventually approached him with a friendly pat or a few words. He spent some time on the DL with tendinitis that first year but he had a solid season. He took a perfect game into the eighth inning against the Braves in July before Mark Teixeira broke it up with a single. What made Kuroda’s transition to the majors impressive is that he continued to strike batters out while maintaining the same fine control he had in Japan.
He came into his own in the playoffs. Kuroda had never pitched in postseason with the Carp, yet there he was throwing 6.1 shutout innings against the Cubs in the clinching game of the NLDS. The Dodgers lost the first two games of the NLCS against the Phillies. In Game 2, Phillies starter Brett Myers threw a ball behind Manny Ramirez. After the Dodgers jumped all over Jamie Moyer in Game 3, Russell Martin was hit twice. In the top of the third, with two men out, Kuroda threw a fastball over Shane Victorino’s head. The benches cleared (and Kuroda was later fined $7,500) but he allowed just two runs over 6 innings and the Dodgers won the game. “That was a big turning point,” Torre told Kamenetzky. “You knew he was a competitor, but I think at that point and time you realized what kind of competitor.”
The next season, Kuroda had an oblique strain and missed most of April and all of May. Then, in August he suffered a concussion after getting hit in the head with a batted ball in Arizona. The ball ricocheted all the way to the Diamondback’s on deck circle. “I didn’t know if he was going to get up,” said general manager Colletti. Kuroda went to the hospital and only missed a few starts. “That tells you everything you need to know about him, ” said Colletti. Kuroda didn’t pitch in the NLDS due to a bulging disk in his neck and gave up six runs against the Phillies in the NLCS without making it out of the second inning.
The next 2 years, Kuroda was healthier and he improved incrementally. He went from 183 and 117 innings to 196 and 202; his ERA went from 3.73 and 3.76 to 3.39 and 3.07. His walks stayed low and he continued to strike hitters out.
“He is a nice, no bullshit pitcher who pitches deep into games and is economical,” said Jay Jaffe from Baseball Prospectus.
Honeycutt calls Kuroda a true professional: “He commands the fastball in the lower part of the zone with movement. He’s a groundball pitcher, an attack guy, especially from the wind up, who looks for contact early in the count. With two strikes he will use a hard split finger, 86-88 mph that goes straight down and is lethal. But last year, he also challenged guys up in the zone when he was ahead and surprised them.”
“When he’s really on, his splitty is on,” Russell Martin told Anthony McCarron of the Daily News last week. “It gets him out of trouble. He can throw his fastball at 94 or 95 (miles per hour), though he’s mostly at 92 or 93, so it’s impressive. His slider is different, a really short break. It’s not a strikeout pitch, but it gets a lot of balls off the end of the bat, and his splitty is nasty against lefties or righties.”
Kuroda also became more comfortable with his English and was popular with teammates who appreciated his droll sense of humor.
Kuroda may come across as stoic or reserved but Clayton Kershaw thought he was “a goofball.”
What stood out to me in Kamenetzky’s ESPN piece is this quote from Kuroda: “There’s so much that you can understand about a person beyond words. And since I can’t really express myself, I’ve noticed a lot more, I’m tuned to notice the quality of a person without speaking. There’s a definitely a lot more importance in trying to understand a person without words.”
One Dodger teammate recalled how Kuroda comforted pitcher Jamey McDonald after Macdonald had a bad outing. Mcdonald refused to speak to reporters and Kuroda approached him and touched his shoulder as if to say, “I’ve been there.” It was a seemingly innocuous gesture but one that conveyed empathy and sensitivity.
Which brings us back to the meeting with Colletti. Kuroda thought about accepting a trade but he valued the commitment the Dodgers made to him when they signed him to a 1-year deal that spring. Would the champagne taste as sweet if he won a championship with a team that he didn’t start with in spring training? For Kuroda, the answer was no. A sense of loyalty—or ningen-kankei, the Japanese term for human relations—far outweighed the lure of moving to a contender. He stayed with the Dodgers.
“I wanted that feeling to remain important to me,” Kuroda told Hernandez last summer. “I think your self-identity is defined by certain decisions you make. If you go back on them, you lose a sense of who you are.”
The more I learned about Kuroda, the more I saw how narrow my thinking was last summer. Colletti called Kuroda’s decision to stay with the Dodgers “honorable” and I agree. When the season was over, Kuroda was expected to return to Japan and end his career with the Carp.
“I was surprised that he didn’t go back,” says Dylan Hernandez. “On the last day of the season he was crying in the clubhouse and I thought ‘this is it.’” Takashi Yamakawa, a Japanese baseball writer for Kyodo News said that Kuroda “changed his mind after deep consideration. Kuroda is not young in his spirit. He is an adult.”
The chance to pitch for Yankees meant not only pitching for a contender but pitching for the most famous team in the world. It is the challenge of playing for a perennial favorite, something that Kuroda has never experienced. “My feeling is that he made an exception for the Yankees,” said Hernandez. “They are the best, most visible team in the world. You just don’t say no.”
Kuroda will pitch in a new league, against a DH, and work in smaller ballparks than he did in the NL West. He’s coming off his two most durable years and is at his peak just when physical decline is set to take effect. Oh yeah, he’s also pitching for the Yankees, where the pressure to win is unrelenting.
“The pressure is more than double,” says Yamakawa, who told me that Kuroda went to a doctor last summer when he was having trouble sleeping at night. Unbeknownst to his teammates Kuroda spent two nights in the hospital. The doctor said that stress was keeping him awake. “But he is good at switching his mind when he’s on the mound,” Yumokura said.
Although Robert Whiting predicts that “Kuroda will suffer from the Yankees weak infield defense on the left hand side of the diamond and the home run jet stream to right center,” the pitcher will be reunited with his old catcher Russell Martin. “He was sad when Martin left,” says Yumokura. He said that ‘Martin is the only catcher for me.’”
“Without a doubt it’ll help pitching to Russell,” said Honeycutt. “That’s a huge positive for the Yankees and I have no doubt that Kuroda’s qualified to handle the change.” He is almost certain to get more run support, too. “He might have won 17 games last year with that offense,” said Colletti.
Kuroda is not expected to be an ace but a workhorse. Maybe he’ll have a higher ERA but should also win more games. Kuroda wanted an opportunity to be the best in the world and it seems as though he owed himself the chance to take a shot at it. And while winning a World Series is all that matters in certain quarters in the Bronx, there are some of us Yankee fans who appreciate toughness and effort no matter what the result.
“He is a humble man and not afraid,” said Yamakawa. “But he’s never had that great fame and he is ambitious to be successful.” The reporter thought for a moment before adding a small request: “Please help him.”
[Photo Credit: ESPN, SI; Kuroda meal via Rico and Coco]