Kuroda's look outside nets improvement

U.S. Presswire/Kevin Jairaj

Hiroki Kuroda has been among the best pitchers in the AL the last two months.

The pitcher to watch in the Sunday Night Baseball matchup is not who you might think it would be. Let’s take a snapshot look at that and other things to keep an eye on heading into tonight’s series-deciding clash.

The new-look Hiroki Kuroda

Hiroki Kuroda has found an unusual amount of success making the conversion from the National League to the American League.

Hiroki Kuroda Past 2 Seasons

He’s tied with Felix Hernandez for the major-league lead in scoreless starts of at least seven innings this season with six, including a two-hit shutout of the Texas Rangers in his last appearance.

The strategy you’ll see from Kuroda tonight will likely involve keeping the ball away from opposing hitters.

Of the hitters Kuroda has retired this season, 52 percent have gone down on a pitch away. That’s the ninth-highest rate among the 101 pitchers who have currently qualified for the ERA title.

Kuroda has worked inside and outside with his fastball, slider, and splitter. He’s established himself as the best in baseball at keeping the ball away from a hitter’s sweet spot.

Only 18 percent of his pitches (in other words, about 18 to 20 per game) are over the middle-third of the plate, width-wise. That’s the lowest rate in the majors (an average pitcher throws about 24 of 100 pitches to that area).

Beckett’s fastball

Josh Beckett’s plummeting fastball velocity has been a storyline throughout this season. The pitch that averaged 94 miles-per-hour in 2009 now clocks at 91 to 92 regularly.

In turn, opponents have hit it. They’ve gone from missing at a rate of about once every 5.5 swings to once every nine swings. When they do make contact, they do a lot of damage. They’ve raised their batting average against it from .230 in 2011 to .297 in 2012, and their slugging percentage has jumped from .356 to .459.

The one thing that Beckett has done to compensate appears to be keeping the ball down. Nearly 30 percent of his fastballs have been in the lower-third of the strike zone or below this season, a jump from 18 percent in 2011.

The Yankees touched Josh Beckett for six runs in five innings earlier this season. Keeping the fastball down didn’t help. He yielded four baserunners and got just three outs with that pitch in that area.

The Yankees approach vs Dustin Pedroia

Why are Dustin Pedroia’s slashline numbers (.280/.336/.428) all career-lows this season?

Dustin Pedroia
vs Pitches on Inner Half

One reason is a decline in success against inside pitches.

The chart on the right shows how Pedroia has fared against pitches on the inner-half of the plate, or closer to him.

The Yankees seem to have taken notice. They’ve increased the percentage of inside pitches to him from 21 percent last season to 31 percent this year.

The fill-ins are working out fine

Just as the Red Sox didn’t expect to use Pedro Ciriaco as much as they have, the Yankees certainly didn’t expect to need Eric Chavez, Casey McGehee and Jayson Nix to play as much as they have. But Alex Rodriguez’s injury necessitated that.

Rodriguez is hitting .276 with a .449 slugging percentage this season. The Yankees third-base trio listed above is hitting .370 with a .713 slugging percentage since July 25.

Chavez, who should start tonight, is 15-for-27 with four home runs against right-handed pitching the last two weeks. Much of that damage (eight hits, two home runs) has come against offspeed pitches.