Every year when we finish the rankings for the Prospect Guide, there is always at least one player whose ranking I regret. The player usually bounced around in the rankings, moving up and down before we settled on a spot for the sole reason that the book needed to be published and we had to make a decision on said player.
This year, the player I find myself regretting the most was Chad Kuhl. We rated him 16th, which wasn’t bad, and ended up being higher than his Baseball America rating, along with a higher upside. And while we tend to go conservative with our rankings for most players, rather than pushing their likely upside close to their ceiling, Kuhl was a guy who probably deserved a much more aggressive grade.
In the book, we gave Kuhl a 4.5 Grade and Medium risk. That meant he was between a spot starter and a #3-5 starting pitcher, with small work needed to reach his upside. Reviewing his stuff, he’s more fitting to be in the 5.0 Grade range, putting him up there with Steven Brault and Nick Kingham in the third tier in the system, and at worst putting him just outside the top 10, but inside the top 15.
Kuhl really got a lot of attention at the end of last year from scouts we talked with. He did post a 1.38 ERA in 65 innings down the stretch in Altoona, along with a 43:13 K/BB ratio, and that certainly helped. It also helped that he had a great performance in the Triple-A playoffs. But it was his stuff that was opening eyes.
During his time in Bradenton, Kuhl was hitting 96 MPH with his fastball. However, he was sitting mid-90s and touching 97-98 on a regular basis in the second half this year. And that wasn’t the four seam fastball, as we had previously thought. He was throwing the sinker with that kind of velocity.
The pitch at that speed had different movement. It’s not as slow, and it doesn’t fade away as much as when he’s in the 90-93 MPH range, instead looking like an aggressive downhill fastball. Kuhl only turns to the four seam when he wants to throw inside or have pinpoint control.
“Most of those upper 90s are still me throwing some two seam and having some sink or some run,” Kuhl said. “When I’m throwing my four seamer, it’s really when I want to have pinpoint control of it. I’m not really worried about run. I just want to hit a spot, wherever that may be.”
Having a sinker that can sit in the mid-90s and touch upper 90s is pretty special. Kuhl credits the velocity increase to his arm getting stronger and getting used to pro ball.
“I just think it was a combination of getting on a nice regimen with my lifting, all of the mechanical changes that we’ve made — I think just being more consistent with all of those changes have really made all the difference there,” Kuhl said. “Also, my body is getting used to pro ball. It was only my second full year of pro ball. Going through a couple of ups and downs, figuring out what routine works best for me. I think all of that goes with the velocity, and then the consistent velocity.”
It wasn’t just the fastball velocity that opened eyes for rival scouts. It was also the improvement on the slider. Kuhl has thrown the pitch in the past, but started getting more aggressive with the pitch in 2015. He learned how to throw the pitch, knowing where to start it in order to get it to end up in the right spot, rather than guessing in the past. It has also gotten tighter with more depth, and when the pitch is on, it’s a cutter in the mid-to-upper 80s with downward bite.
“It’s getting to a point now where I was getting a lot more swing and misses on the pitch. The break, the spin rate was up. I’m really comfortable and excited about it as a viable strikeout pitch,” Kuhl said. “It’s not perfect, but it’s getting better.”
With the slider showing improvements, the changeup is the next focus for Kuhl. He should focus more on that this year, as he started getting more comfortable with the pitch at the end of the 2015 season. He was originally using the pitch against lefties, but started getting more comfortable throwing it in all counts, and was even using it against right-handers.
“We’ve worked a lot on it lately, and just like the slider, it’s progressing,” Kuhl said of the changeup.
Indianapolis will have two big arms to watch in Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon, but don’t sleep on Chad Kuhl. His velocity increase last year made his sinker a very difficult pitch to hit, leading to a 63% ground ball rate in the second half. His strikeouts also started to tick up with the improved slider. He could use continued improvements on that pitch, while also improving the changeup. But Kuhl is a guy who could also make it up to the majors at some point in 2016, with the potential to give the Pirates a very strong arm in the back of a rotation that would ideally be led by Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Glasnow, and Taillon.