On an Altoona team that has four starters in the top eight in Eastern League ERA, it has been extremely difficult to separate out from the pack of strong pitching prospects in their lineup. Each pitcher has brought something different to the table, including Chad Kuhl.
The 22-year-old Kuhl is doing the same thing this season as he’s pretty much done in both years in the Pirates system before this: Get results. He was drafted in 2013 in the 9th round by the Pirates, and he reported to Jamestown, turning in a 2.11 ERA in 55.1 innings. He was aggressively pushed to Bradenton last year where he flourished with a 3.46 ERA in 153.1 innings.
So far this year, Kuhl has a 2.75 ERA in 55 innings after another aggressive push to Double-A Altoona at the beginning of the year. The jump to Double-A is typically one of the most difficult for a young prospect, and Kuhl hasn’t blinked twice at the opportunity. That doesn’t mean he has had to work through some difficulties, though.
I’ve recently been able to watch Kuhl pitch on May 16th and June 2nd in Altoona, with Kuhl giving up 0 and 2 earned runs, respectively, in at least six innings. In the May 16th start, Kuhl found himself in trouble with players on base all game, but he always seemed to find a way out of trouble. During his June 2nd start, he let up both runs on a hit that is normally caught in the first inning. He battled through the early runs to shut it down the rest of the game.
Kuhl has found himself working deep in counts often this year, in turn inflating his pitch count and not being able to go too far into his starts. He has consistently gone six innings for the majority of his starts, but his pitch count has been in the high 80s and 90s, not allowing him to go deeper in the game.
It seems as though Kuhl will sometimes try to pinpoint what he is throwing, rather than just going out there and throwing his best stuff. I say this from what I saw in his most recent start in the 2nd. During that first inning, Kuhl had two outs with the opposing batter only hitting .225 with a .275 slugging percentage. Rather than attack a batter who hasn’t had a strong year, Kuhl missed with his fastball low four times for the walk. In that instance, it was obvious that Kuhl was trying extremely hard to get a strikeout or an easy groundball. Instead, he ended up walking the batter and two runs scored against him in the next at-bat.
I don’t fault Kuhl for attacking the batter low in the zone, which is something that is preached to these pitchers daily – locate and command your fastball low in the zone for groundball outs. However, it can show a lack of confidence in your stuff when you try to pinpoint your pitches. Kuhl did a fantastic job recovering in that start and didn’t allow a run the rest of the game, but those two runs could have been avoided.
After a promotion or call-up, pitchers will try to pinpoint their pitches and locate too much rather than just “pitch”.
“When they start getting more confident in their stuff, you begin to see more groundouts and strikeouts,” Pitching Coach Justin Meccage said. “They just need to go out there and pitch.”
Kuhl is still a very young pitcher for the Double-A level, and he is continuing to get more comfortable. The most important part to his development would be control of both his slider and changeup. From the beginning of the year until now, he has become more aggressive throwing his slider, using it as a wipeout pitch more recently.
“The slider is my best put away pitch currently,” Kuhl said. “I’m more and more comfortable throwing it to both lefties and righties. I have to continue to be more aggressive throwing it. That’s what will get the swings and misses. I’ve struggled with my mechanics and throwing it differently in situations in the past. I’ve really worked on cleaning up the mechanics of that pitch.”
What I’ve recently seen from Kuhl is a pitcher who still had a lot of work left to do to continue his progression; however, his poise and determination were off the charts for a young pitcher. This was confirmed when I talked to Meccage about what Kuhl had recently been working on.
“This biggest thing for him is that he is an ultra competitive guy,” Meccage said. “Sometimes that is a great thing, but other times he can get in some situations and the emotions take over. [Kuhl] has grown up a bunch already this year.”
Aside from those few great starts that I’ve seen from Kuhl, he has mixed in a couple rough starts where he has let up four and five earned runs. I don’t look at those starts as the norm, knowing that he has been working on controlling his emotions and efficiency from the mound. What makes those tough starts more impressive is the fact that he was still able to give his team at least six innings, showing a lot of maturity and ability to power through hard situations.
His walks are slightly up right now, and his ground ball percentage is slightly down, but those numbers can be accentuated by working on the slider and changeup. It is not only learning the pitches but also learning when the best time to throw them is. Being so young for the level, the first half of 2015 has been one of adjusting to the level, but the second half of this year will be important for Kuhl to see where exactly his development is.