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THE HOT CORNER: Is Kuroda better than Kawakami?

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THE HOT CORNER: Is Kuroda better than Kawakami?

by Jim Allen (Jan 1, 2009)

When asked to evaluate the performance of Japanese players moving to the major leagues this season, it seemed like a slam dunk.

There seemed simply no way Kenshin Kawakami and Koji Uehara would--at this stage of their careers--be comparable to where Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kei Igawa, Akinori Iwamura, Kosuke Fukudome and Hiroki Kuroda were when they left for the majors.

This appraisal didn't sit well with some. One person was incensed by a simple assertion of the fact that right-hander Kenshin Kawakami's figures with the Chunichi Dragons were compiled in a tremendous pitchers' park with one of Japan's best defenses behind him. At the same time, Kuroda toiled in Japan's easiest home run park with a defense that ranked from average to poor.

Kawakami, this gentleman asserted, was every bit as good as Kuroda and would do just as well in the majors. While one can argue the two pitchers are extremely comparable, Kawakami's agent, Dan Evans, has been trying to go one better. Evans has been trying to use the numbers to prove Kawakami had a better career here than Kuroda.

Unfortunately, that's a red herring.

Kawakami has a better career win-loss record (112-72 compared to Kuroda's 103-89) and a better career ERA (3.22 to Kuroda's 3.69). Factoring in the teams they played for here and the parks they've pitched in, however, and they're almost dead even--Bill James' Win Shares formulas rank Kawakami barely ahead of Kuroda, 114-113.

Evans, a former Dodgers' GM, has also been touting Kawakami's award haul as "evidence," but even that is weak. Kawakami won the Central League's MVP award in 2002, but only because the Dragons won the pennant. Despite the award, Kawakami was really the league's third best pitcher behind the Tigers' Igawa and the Giants' Uehara. The Hiroshima Carp, on the other hand, never won a pennant in the 11 years Kuroda was with them and were rarely close, while Kawakami helped raise four CL flags. He also won eight Pitcher of the Month Awards to Kuroda's four, for what that's worth.

But anyone who hands you their won-lost records and career ERAs and says that's evidence Kawakami is better is talking out his butt. When one compares the conditions in which they worked here, one only sees two very good pitchers with very good records.

Other than the two pitchers' home parks, the most obvious difference between Kawakami and Kuroda is the kind of run support they've received.

In his 11 seasons with Chunichi, Kawakami has played for a club that scored a lot despite playing in a pitchers' park. The Carp had a monster offense in the 1990s--before Kuroda figured out how to survive in Hiroshima Citizens Stadium. Since then, Hiroshima's offense has been one of Japan's worst.

If you took the two pitchers out of Hiroshima and Nagoya, and had them facing the same teams in neutral parks, that might provide a useful comparison.

In games outside Nagoya and Hiroshima from 2006 through 2007, Kawakami went 14-8 while allowing 4.08 runs per nine innnings. Under the same circumstances, Kuroda was 9-7 while allowing 3.40 runs per nine innings.

The difference between these records is mostly run support. The Dragons scored five runs a game in Kawakami's starts, the Carp 3.36 behind Kuroda.

Kawakami is a tough pitcher, but he's also benefited from more help from his bullpen, as well.

In his last two seasons at neutral venues, Kuroda was 7-0 in 12 starts when his team scored three-plus runs. In those situations, Kawakami went 13-5 in 19 starts. In 2008, Kawakami was 2-2 in five starts.

A colleague said recently one couldn't compare two pitchers unless they had similar styles, and these two don't.

Kuroda might not be a better pitcher, but in the same parks against the same opponents and with the same run support--but without the advantage of the Dragons' bullpen--Kuroda got better results.

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