One of the best stories in the early part of the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league season has been the Altoona rotation. Strong production was expected from top prospect Tyler Glasnow, but the rest of the rotation generally flies under the prospect radar. They’re starting to get noticed, after going 5+ innings with two or fewer runs in almost every outing this year.
One of the guys who probably should get more attention is Chad Kuhl. The Pirates drafted Kuhl in the 9th round of the 2013 draft, and he has gotten a bit of an aggressive push since then. He went to Bradenton in his first full season in pro ball and was a big part of a strong rotation that led the Marauders to the post season. Now he’s joining several members of that pitching staff in Altoona to give the Curve the best pitching staff in the Eastern League so far.
Kuhl is your typical sinkerball pitcher, which is a pitcher that is very common in the Pirates’ system. He works primarily off the fastball, with a focus on getting quick ground ball outs. That focus has worked well so far, with a 60% ground ball rate, and a 1.30 GO/AO ratio after his start today. He gave up two runs in six innings this afternoon, giving him a 1.64 ERA in 22 innings this season over four starts.
The upside for Kuhl is a back of the rotation starter or a strong reliever. In the Pirates’ system, he is more likely to be used as depth, much like Casey Sadler is currently being used. He throws his fastball in the 91-95 MPH range, with the four seam fastball at the upper end, and the sinker in the lower part.
The thing Kuhl needs to work on this year is improving his slider. I saw him on his April 18th start, which featured two long innings in the third and fifth. He ended up going five shutout innings, but probably could have gone deeper in the game if he had an out pitch to put guys away.
“That was a big goal of mine going into the season,” Kuhl said of improving the slider. “It’s a work in progress. It’s not going to be perfect now, but it’s getting a lot better.”
Altoona pitching coach Justin Meccage said that Kuhl needs to learn when to throw the slider, and that he might be throwing it too often at times, leading to hitters getting used to when it is coming.
“Ideally you’d like to get through the lineup [the first time] without having to use it much,” Meccage said. “Maybe showing it first pitch to the four hole or something.”
An improved slider will make it more likely that Kuhl can be a starter in the majors one day, even if that’s just in a depth role. But his main focus is always going to be heavy usage of the fastball, with a focus on getting quick ground ball outs. That’s similar to guys ahead of him like Sadler, Brandon Cumpton, Jared Hughes, and other sinkerball heavy pitchers. Kuhl’s fastball has been good enough to get him this far, and should be good enough to give him a strong chance to be the next in line to join that group.