Color me surprised that Hiroki Kuroda enjoyed such a strong first season with the Yankees. Pleased, but definitely surprised. Ordinarily, pitchers that make the transition from the friendly environment of generally weaker NL lineups to the AL do not fare very well. In fact, some turn out to be unmitigated disasters. God, Javier Vazquez is awful.

Kuroda, on the other hand, enjoyed one of his best all around seasons in the majors. Was he lucky? A quick glance at his xFIP, which was only 0.35 higher than his actual ERA would seem to indicate that he was not exorbitantly lucky. So we can assume that Kuroda was actually doing something to generate his own success. That something? Pounding the strike zone with his sinker and splitter and not using his fastball. We just got done talking about a pitcher that uses his fastball a lot.

In contrast, it’s really quite remarkable how little Kuroda utilized his fastball in 2012 as he went to the pitch only 10% of the time, the third lowest usage percentage in the American League in 2012. While Kuroda has hardly been a fastball junkie during his career, his use of the pitch in 2012 was still 20% less than his career average. Instead, Kuroda relied on his sinker and split finger, utilizing both pitches over 50% of the time.

However, it’s not just that he utilized those pitches, it’s that he did so with superior command. Consider the following heat maps for his sinker (utilized approximately 40% of the time) in 2012:

 

As you can see, Kuroda essentially pounded both lefty and righty batters away (and low and away) in the strike zone. Not only did Kuroda pull an anti-Hughes with his location and command, he was extremely efficient, getting a strike with the pitch 70% of the time versus a league average of close to 60%. This data reaffirms his “skill-based” success. If Kuroda can demonstrate the same superior command in 2013 he will likely be well worth the raise he earned in the offseason.

(Data from Fangraphs & Texas Leaguers)