When the Pittsburgh Pirates and Mark Appel broke off negotiations prior to the 2012 draft deadline, the Pirates were left with a lot of bonus money to spend. They went with signability picks in rounds 6-10, saving bonus pool money to try to go over-slot for the first rounder. After the negotiations broke down, the Pirates gave that money to three middle round picks. One of those picks was a right-handed pitcher out of Ohio State named John Kuchno.
You’ve probably heard of Kuchno if you’ve been following the site. He’s been in our top 50 prospects list the last two years, and almost cracked the top 30 heading into this season. He’s a tall pitcher who does one thing exceptionally well — he gets ground balls.
Even in a system that prioritizes ground ball pitchers, Kuchno is well above the rest. He had a 62% ground ball ratio last year, getting a ton of grounders with his heavy sinker. The only player in the organization who could top that with any significant amount of innings last year was Jared Hughes, which is fitting, since that’s the type of upside Kuchno has.
If you didn’t know about Kuchno before, you probably noticed him this week. He made an appearance in the Major League game against the Tigers on Tuesday, and went three no-hit innings. It would have been three perfect innings had it not been for an error in the first frame by Corey Hart.
Kuchno’s big strength showed up in the form of six ground ball outs, plus the error to Hart at first. The most impressive inning came in his second frame when he got Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera, and Victor Martinez to ground out back-to-back-to-back. Those were three of the best hitters in the American League last year. They combined for a 14.5 WAR, which would have been like going through Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Neil Walker in 2014. That kind opposition would have had any pitcher nervous, especially a guy who has never pitched above A-ball.
“You don’t really think about who’s coming up to the plate,” Kuchno said. “In that situation I’m just trying to accomplish what I’m trying to accomplish, which is get ground balls. No matter who is standing in the box, it’s just another hitter, you try to think about it that way.”
Wait, really? It’s just a normal situation, even with two of the best hitters surrounding a two-time MVP? Kuchno doubled down.
“Yeah, he’s one of the best in the game. My job is to get him out, and that’s what I’m focused on.”
That’s definitely what he did. You don’t want to make too much of one outing. Kuchno doesn’t shoot up the prospect rankings because of that appearance. But it was impressive. And maybe it opened a few eyes to a guy who could be a future Major Leaguer.
One thing Kuchno is going to have to work on will be his strikeout rate. He struck out just 10.3% of batters last year, while walking 9.7% of hitters. He works primarily off his fastball, but will need to improve his curveball in certain situations, especially if he wants to avoid relying too much on his infield defense.
“When you get guys with two strikes, obviously you want to put them away,” Kuchno said. “That’s an important thing, especially when you’ve got runners on. It’s something I could improve at a little bit, and [something] I’m working towards.”
The Pirates will send Kuchno to Altoona this year, where he will pitch out of the bullpen for the first time in his pro career. Their focus in the lower levels was getting him as many innings as possible, which is the approach they take with a lot of their top arms. He profiles best as a reliever in the future, and it looks like he’ll be making that transition early. His fastball sat in the low 90s as a starter, but has touched 95 in the past. If his stuff plays up in the bullpen, and he can routinely hit 95 with heavy sinking action, then he’ll definitely have a future in the Majors as a reliever in the Hughes mold.