Pittsburgh Pirates 2018 preview: Chad Kuhl

At the beginning of the 2016 season, Chad Kuhl was seen by the Pittsburgh Pirates as a depth piece.  He was probably not going to contribute to the club if all went right.  Other young pitchers such as Tyler Glasnow, Stephen Brault, and Trevor Williams were all ahead of him.  As it turns out, not much went right.

That year, Kuhl came out of nowhere and amazed at AAA.  He was called up to the Pittsburgh  in late June and hasn’t looked back since.  Kuhl is now a staple in the starting rotation.  What can we expect from him in 2018?

Quick 2017 Summary

Last season, Kuhl tossed 157.1 innings with a 4.35 ERA and 4.61 xFIP.  He struck out batters at a rate of 20.9 percent but walked them at a rate of 10.6 percent.  His ground ball rate of 41.9 percent was slightly lower than the MLB average of 44.2 percent.  He surrendered hard contact at a rate of 36.1 percent, slightly higher than the league average of 31.8 percent.

With an fWAR of 1.9, Kuhl was an average pitcher in 2017.  That said, his season can be separated by two phases.  Pre and post curveball.  Kuhl didn’t start throwing the hook until May 31.  In the 44.1 innings before he started throwing the curveball, Kuhl had an ERA of 6.29 and xFIP of 5.19.  After adding the pitch, Kuhl had an ERA of 3.58 and xFIP of 4.39.  Adding the curveball specifically helped Kuhl get lefties out.  Pre curveball, lefties hit .336 off of him.  They hit .255 off of him after he started throwing the pitch.

How he can improve

Kuhl’s 20.9 percent K rate is slightly below the MLB average of 21.6 percent.  His BB rate of 10.6 percent is higher than the league rate of 8.5 percent.  He needs to walk less, yes.  Specifically though, Kuhl needs to command his sinker better.  The pitch was only thrown in the strike zone 50.6 percent of the time in 2017.  Even Tyler Glasnow threw his fastball in the strike zone at a higher rate (54.6 percent).

Kuhl’s sinker has a lot of movement which is great.  That movement obviously makes the pitch harder to control.  At an average of 95.4 mph in 2017, Kuhl’s sinker now very well may be the fastest pitch among Pirates’ starters.  He got swinging strikes on that pitch 5.8 percent of the time in 2017.  Just for reference, Trevor Williams got swinging strikes on his fastball at a rate of 7.3 percent in 2017.  His fastball averaged 92.8 mph in 2017 with less movement.  So how Williams get more swings and misses with his less explosive fastball than Kuhl?

Command.  Kuhl needs to be more like Williams.  Williams’ fastball stayed in the strike zone 59 percent of the time in 2017, almost nine percent higher than Kuhl.  Interestingly enough, Kuhl’s overall strike zone percentage was 45.7 percent and Williams’ was 45.3 percent.  Because Williams throws the fastball for more strikes, it allows him to nibble with secondary pitches forcing hitters to make soft contact.  Kuhl gets behind with his fastball, putting himself in a position where he can’t throw as many secondary pitches.  When he gets behind in the count, his fastball either gets torched or the batter ends up with a walk.  At the end of the day, fastball command is a major key to success on the mound.  This is where Kuhl’s game lacks.

Final Thoughts

With his current stuff, Kuhl has a pretty high ceiling, especially with the emergence of his curveball.  I truly believe he can be a legitimate number two starter in this league.

If he can better command his sinker, Kuhl will take a huge step forward in becoming more than an average starting pitcher.  If he fails to take that step, expect a 2017-like output again in 2018.

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