As I was enjoying the latest pitching gem from Hiroki Kuroda's 2012 Greatest Hits on Sunday night, something the ESPN broadcast team commented on piqued my interest, and not in the normal way where I immediately run to the computer to bash them for their idiocy. In their praise of Kuroda, they made multiple references to his age (37) while discussing the durability he's shown in his career and rattling off the more noteworthy numbers speaking to both his durability and dominance this season. Francona and Hershiser then went on to discuss the option of resting Kuroda down the stretch to keep him and his 37-year-old body as fresh as possible for the postseason. That got me thinking, with the load he's had to shoulder already this season, and the injuries that have befallen the other 30-and-over Yankees' starters, is there any chance of Kuroda being overworked and being at risk of some drop-off in the playoffs?
After last night, Kuroda is up to 167 innings pitched this season in 25 starts, a very good average just a tick over 6.2 IP/start. On the current rotation schedule, Kuroda is scheduled to make 8 more starts this season, and at his current IP/Start rate that would put him at 220.1 IP at the end of the regular season. That value would represent a new career high for Hiroki, surpassing the 202.0 that he threw for the Dodgers last season. Even including past seasons where he pitched in the postseason (12.1 IP in 2008, 1.1 in 2009), Kuroda's projected regular season innings this season would exceed any previous combined season IP totals in his Major League career.
Assuming the Yankees make the playoffs, and assuming they advance all the way through the postseason in the maximum number of games per series, there's potentially another 5 starts and 30-40 IP on the table for Kuroda, which would put him into the 250-260 IP range for the entirety of 2012. That's a lot of innings for any pitcher, let alone one who's 37 years old. If there’s going to be concern about Andy Pettitte’s 40-year-old body holding up, and presumably some about CC’s now that he’s had some injury problems, shouldn’t we at least be thinking about the same issues with Kuroda?
Adding to my concern is the fact that the bulk of Kuroda’s 2012 workload has been accumulated recently. He’s had 15 starts where he’s gone 7 innings or more this season out of 25, allowing 2 ER or fewer in 12 of the 15. 8 of Kuroda’s last 11 starts have been of that 7 IP+ variety, and in each of those last 11 starts he has thrown at least 101 pitches (106 average pitches/start). That puts his Pitches/Game average at 101.32 this season, not incredibly taxing on paper but another career high and a bump up from last year’s 100.06 P/G average, the first time Kuroda averaged over 100 pitches per start in his Major League career. This has all been done during the best stretch of ball he’s thrown this season, and with the holes in the rotation right now it makes perfect sense strategically to let your best pitcher pitch as deep into games as he can. But that has to catch up with a 37-year-old pitcher at some point, right?
Maybe not. There’s nothing in Kuroda’s past monthly splits to indicate that he’s lost something at the end of the regular season. His ERA, FIP, K rate, and BB rate numbers from 2010 and 2011 are all pretty consistent month by month, and in some cases the Sept/Oct splits are better than their counterparts from earlier months. However, considering that he’s never thrown as many innings or pitches per game as he’s on pace to this season, that history doesn’t do much to calm my nerves about the possibility of Kuroda breaking down.
Maybe I’ve just been conditioned to expect the worst with injuries this season because of what’s already happened and there’s really nothing to worry about. But again, the workload issue has come up with Pettitte before, CC before, and even the Yankees’ younger pitchers before. It only makes logical sense to me to be concerned about the workload of a 37-year-old pitcher as we get late into the season, no matter how well he’s pitching. Concerns about this very issue surely had to do something with the Yankees only offering Kuroda a 1-year deal.
There’s certainly no need for the Yankees to go to the extremes that Francona and Hershiser discussed last night and skip Kuroda’s turn in the rotation a time or 2 in September. With the condition their rotation is in, the uncertainty surrounding that group moving forward, and the Orioles’ and Rays’ insistence on keeping the division race just close enough, removing your best starting pitcher from the rotation would be idiotic. But would it be such a bad thing if Joe took Kuroda out a little earlier here and there to avoid putting extra stress on his body? Kuroda was near 100 pitches on Sunday night after the 7th inning, D-Rob was available and warming in the ‘pen, and Soriano was obviously in play for the 9th. I’d much prefer Kuroda have that extra gas in the tank for the 8th inning in an October game when he really needs it. If Joe shutting him down an inning before he was planning to and handing it the bullpen helps that happen, that might be a tactic worth using in September.