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Pitcher preview: Dan Wheeler with ground balls

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(Hiroki Kuroda)

Al Bello

I had a revelation while staring at Kuroda's pitch movement graphs this morning. Kuroda is fairly unique among starters, but he's eerily similar to my favorite Ray of all time, Dan Wheeler. And where they diverge, the differences are instructive. Consider the graphs.

Hiroki Kuroda in 2014:

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via pitchfx.texasleaguers.com

Dan Wheeler in 2009:

2350952009010120100101aaaaamovement_medium

via pitchfx.texasleaguers.com

Their repertoire of a fastball, a splitter, and two horizontally sweeping breaking balls is nearly identical, but for two differences:

  1. Kuroda throws harder. His fastball now averages 92 mph while Wheeler's averaged 89 mph. This, along with his better control, makes Kuroda the better pitcher, and is a part of why he was able to succeed as a starter while Wheeler had to find his way in the league as a reliever.
  2. Kuroda leans on a two-seam fastball (or a sinker if you prefer), while Wheeler worked his pitches off a rising four-seam fastball. This one difference is the single biggest reason that Kuroda is considered a groundball pitcher while Wheeler was a flyball pitcher. Take a look at the career groundball rates for each of their pitches (from Brooks Baseball). I've discarded Kuroda's four-seam, since he no longer throws it often.
Pitch Kuroda Wheeler
Fastball 56% 29%
Splitter 61% 55%
Slider 40% 35%
Curve 36% 44%

This is a situation I always find fascinating. We talk about pitchers as being groundball or flyball pitchers, but what actually happens on the diamond is much more granular. Sometimes a flyball pitcher throws a groundball pitch, or the other way round.

Another aspect of Dan Wheeler that Rays fans will remember was his unusually wide right-handed split. That's not a surprise for a pitcher with horizontally breaking stuff, and it's also the case for Kuroda. The fact that Kuroda also throws a sinker probably adds to the effect, as sinkers generally have a wider split than do four-seam fastballs. Kuroda's career FIP against righties is a dominating 3.09, but against lefties it's only 4.11.

Reposting a graphic from the series preview:

Bedardkuroda_medium

That's not to say that left-handed hitters should be expected to hammer Kuroda like they did against Wheeler (career 5.00 FIP vs. lefties), but it's likely to be a long day for Longoria, Jennings, and Co.