One of the things always seemingly lost amidst Derek Jeter’s magical farewell in the Bronx was that the game also marked the end of veteran hurler Hiroki Kuroda’s career in the States. The then 39-year old Kurda allowed consecutive homers to open the game, but gave up just one more hit and shutdown the Orioles across eight strong innings. He struck out a season high nine batters and further cemented himself as one of the best free-agent signings in recent Yankee memory. David Robertson took over the ninth inning with a 5-2 lead and the rest of history.
The understated veteran may not have gotten a proper sendoff in the States, however, now, at 41, Kuroda appears ready to hang up his spikes for good following the conclusion of the Japan Series. He is riding into the sunset following a two-year stint in Japan’s Central League as a member of the Hiroshima Carp, the organization he broke in with for the first eleven years of his professional career before joining the Dodgers for the 2008 campaign.
“The Japan Series will be the end. I’ve decided to hang it up,” Kuroda said last week as the Carp prepared to meet the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. “I’ve been shown an excellent dream with an excellent team. And now I want to go out with a smile on my face, all of us celebrating a championships pouring beer on each other.”
The seven-year major league veteran has pitched in the Nippon Professional Baseball league for the last two seasons upon returning to his homeland after spurning lucrative offers from the Yankees and Padres, leaving millions on the table to fulfill a promise of throwing his last pitch as a member of the Carp. After going 11-8 with a 2.55 earned run average in 2015, Kuroda went 10-8 this season with a 3.09 ERA. In the process, he joined Hideo Nomo as the only pitchers with 200 wins combined in Japan and the major leagues. He also helped guide Hiroshima to their seventh Central League title and first appearance in the championship series since 1991.
“This had been constantly in my mind the past two to three years. It became tangible in September when we won the pennant,” said Kuroda, who was the highest-paid player in Japan this season. “I had thought about announcing it after the Japan Series. But that next game might be my last, and I felt I had to tell my teammates and the fans who have cheered me on before that.”
Kuroda, an Osaka Prefecture native, joined the Carp in 1997 as a No. 2 draft pick out of Senshu University. In 2008, the right-hander made the jump to the major leagues, where he played in Los Angeles and New York, but was consistently one of the more underappreciated pitchers in the big show. In four seasons with the Dodgers and three with the Yankees, Kuroda became one of the stingiest Japanese-born starting pitchers in major league history despite a modest 79-79 record and 3.45 ERA.
His win-loss record will obviously discount how good he’s been in the eyes of some people. Even beyond the numbers, chances are Kuroda won’t be remembered much by New York fans as he had the misfortune of playing on two of the most disappointing teams of the Yankees’ last 20-plus years. He has no Cy Young Awards or All-Star appearances on his résumé. He never made it to the World Series despite advancing to the LCS three times. Although he was never a star like Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, Daisuke Matsuzaka, or Nomo, Kuroda should be remembered in the States for his consistency, durability and professionalism.
In each of Kuroda’s seven seasons in the majors his ERA fell between 3.07 and 3.76. He only completed one campaign — his 2009 sophomore MLB season — with less than 31 starts. Among all Japanese pitchers with at least 450 innings logged in the big leagues, Kuroda’s 3.45 ERA ranks fourth behind Tanaka (3.12), Darvish (3.29) and Hisashi Iwakuma (3.39). His 79 wins and 986 strikeouts rank second only to Nomo, who won 123 big league games and whiffed 1,918 batters.
Kuroda, who didn’t come over from Japan until his age-33 season, was in some ways the righty Andy Pettitte — not flashy or dominant but always reliable, unflappable and sturdy. Of his twenty years of professional pitching, Kuroda spent 13 in the NPB — all for the Carp, where he posted a 3.55 ERA and 124-105 record. Meanwhile, he essentially provided his two big league clubs with the same production: 699 innings of 3.45 ERA pitching with 6.7 K/9 for the Dodgers, and 620 innings of 3.44 ERA ball with 6.7 K/9 for the Yankees. His career record on both sides of the Pacific equates to 203-184 with one save.
Even as his fastball velocity dwindled, Kuroda’s sinker/slider mix allowed him to maintain his effectiveness into the twilight years. He was one of only five AL pitchers to throw at least 600 innings between 2012-14 while pitching to an ERA below 3.50: Felix Hernandez, David Price, James Shields and Max Scherzer were the others. The quiet and clean-cut Kuroda could probably still pitch in the big leagues if he wanted, but he’s ready to go home after two decades as a ballplayer.
Making the first Japan Series start of his long career on Tuesday, Kuroda fought through 5 2/3 innings, allowing only one run and four hits before leaving with an apparent leg injury. He stood tall until the end and walked off with fans from both teams showering him with applause. Even though his stay in the United States was brief, he compiled one of the better pitching careers put together over the last quarter-century. Through the years, Kuroda has been a model of consistency and he should be fondly remembered for his competitive spirit and tireless dedication to his craft.