ROUND 15: Hiroki Kuroda (SP, Dodgers)
Almost everybody in this round was some variety of injury or new-team comeback story hoping to happen. If round 14 was everybody rolling the dice on the game's top prospects and feel-good stories, round 15 demonstrated that the talent pool is shallow. This is also, of course, where fantasy seasons are won and lost, so making the best educated guesses here is important.
I want to note here that, at the time of the draft, Matt Capps was radioactive in spring training and nobody had any real idea what was going on in Toronto, since Gregg, Downs, and Frasor were all still undrafted at this point. The closer pool was essentially closed. I still wasn't taking shortstops for the same reason I've ignored them for ten rounds. This left only my fifth starting pitcher to pluck from the bottom of this murky barrel. Having gone to the AL for my last three starters, I felt some pressure here to hedge my bets by not only selecting an NL player but also deviating from the Scherzer/Matusz gamble of high-strikeout high-WHIP, opting instead to seek out a more conservative source of outs, maybe somebody with a longer track record to use to justify the selection post-hoc when Wade Davis or Gio Gonzalez or whatever rookies of the year start tearing up the league and make their owners look like fucking geniuses.
Scanning down the list of players taken in the remainder of the draft, here's the list of remaining NL starters with at least two MLB seasons under their belts, and a quick note about them and their 2010 performances thus far:
Hiroki Kuroda: His 2009 season was cut short due to non-arm-related injuries, but he still squeezed in 117 innings of 8-7 ball for the Dodgers, posting a 1.14 WHIP (primarily by only walking 1.84 batters per nine innings) with an ERA under four. He's presently 2-0 with a 2.18 ERA and 1.21 WHIP.
Chris Young: Has been injured his entire career, and is in fact on the DL as I type this now, having gotten through six whole innings of work before shoulder inflammation.
Clayton Richard: Has never gone over 90 innings in his career, and is currently winless with bad stats.
Paul Maholm: Has started 31 games the past two seasons, which were all rubbish. Currently has a 4.74 ERA, which leads all Pirates starters.
Joe Blanton: Hasn't pitched an inning this season, but was drafted nonetheless.
Johnny Cueto: Winless, 1.59 WHIP
So you can see where I'm going with this. In my extremely narrow list of NL-non-rookies that stops immediately before Brad Penny, I seem to have made the right pick. This however doesn't forgive me the oversight of the litany of AL pitchers having equally impressive or better seasons to date, like Andy Pettitte, Jeff Niemann, Carl Pavano, Wade Davis, Shaun Marcum, and Ricky Romero, all of whom went entire rounds later. In a longer-term sense, I don't think we'll have a decent understanding of how the first month performances of any of these guys translates over the course of a full season, but I can still try to analyze what I've got.
Aside from the superficially excellent stats listed above, his 7.89 K/9 is nearly 1.7 above his career average. His 1.31 BB/9 is half a walk lower than his career tally. 3.03 FIP suggests he's been lucky but still very good (.332 BABIP supports the unlucky bit). Of his ten runs allowed this season, five have been unearned. He's always been a ground ball pitcher, but this year even moreso (57.1% vs. 49.5%). The biggest change this year seems to be in his pitch selection. His traditional 60/25/10 split for fastball, slider, split-finger has become 43/35/22. Maybe the increased emphasis on breaking balls accounts for the higher strikeout and ground ball totals, or maybe he just had good outings against K-happy teams like Arizona and Florida (second and fifth in MLB, respectively, for strikeout totals).
The unknown factor here is that Kuroda is 35 this year, an advanced age for pitchers, especially Japanese ones. You hardly ever see statistical improvement at this stage in a career (if they're even in the league at all). But we also don't really know what Kuroda can do in a full MLB season on a competent team. He went 8-7 in two thirds of a season in 2009, and 9-10 for a 2008 Dodgers team that was 24th in the league in runs (but had the best bullpen in baseball by various metrics). What are his comps? What would PECOTA do?
Hideo Nomo is the original Japanese pitching success story. Nomo was a beast in Japan, going 18-8 and striking out 287 hittiers in 235 innings during his rookie season, and continuing that success throughout his career there. By the time he was 35 and pitching in the US, Nomo had a pair of 16-win seasons with a low-3 ERA for the Dodgers. He capped that last season with shoulder surgery and was a non-factor in baseball forevermore.
Shigetoshi Hasegawa was the 1991 NPB rookie of the year and had a respectable Japanese career. His age 35 season for the Mariners resulted in a 5.16 ERA, and he was out of the league by 37.
Hideki Irabu held the title of the fastest pitch in professional Japanese baseball until 2005, and was basically the NPB's Lincecum for roughly seven years. He then came to the Yankees at age 28 and was immediately and uniformly awful and washed out of baseball by 33. Career ERA: 5.15. Guess those magnets didn't help.
Masato Yoshii debuted for the Mets at age 33, and his ERAs over the next three years were: 3.93, 4.40, 5.86. Out of the league by 37. Did he have shoulder surgery? Of course he did.
Masao Kida was the Japanese Eric Gagne, but his entire MLB career (beginning at age 31) consisted of 95 innings of 5.83 ERA baseball and one car accident, and he was arguably done before the accident.
Tomo Ohka sadly never made it to 35. His final stint in the bigs resulted in a 5.79 ERA, three years after his own personal arm surgery.
Kaz Ishii, 1,277 strikeouts in 1,184 innings in Japan with a no-hitter in the books. Face surgery age 29, out of the league by 32. Career ERA: 4.44
Kei Igawa, won Japan's equivalent of the Cy Young and had a NPB-career 3.13 ERA. 72 innings of 6.66 ERA baseball for the Yankees, washed out of the US, didn't even make it to his 30+ career-ending surgery.
Hiroki Kuroda's best Japanese season came in 2004, when he posted a league-best 1.85 ERA and won various video-game-sounding awards through 2006. He didn't even come to the US until age 33. He's currently 35 and to date hasn't had arm or shoulder surgery. His career line with the Dodgers is 3.64 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 6.19 K/9, 19 wins and 17 losses. His final year in Japan looked like this: 3.56 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 6.16 K/9, 12 wins, and 8 losses. You tell me what the comp is, because I don't have a BP subscription.