With a Sinker That Hits Upper 90s, Chad Kuhl Has Become a Pitcher to Watch

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.

  • Tim … I meant to ask this yesterday, but you stated in regards to the slider that he learned “where to start it in order to get it to end up in the right spot.” That got me to thinking:
    – Does the catcher place his mitt where he wants the ball to end up? This would put the burden on the pitcher to understand where to release
    – Or does the catcher place his mitt in the rough area of the pitcher’s release target. This would place the burden on the catcher to understand the movement of each pitcher’s pitches

    • From watching baseball it has always seemed like catchers put there gloves where they want the baseball to end up. I’m not sure though

  • This kid has some serious S%*#! Nice to have an arm like that in the system and not even be considered to be one of the top two pitchers.

  • Wow, that sounds exciting.
    Buy those Indy tickets now.
    They should have a great first half.

  • 3 potential #3 or higher at aaa plus king ham on his way back…auto correct made it King Ham. I’m leaving it

  • I think a little of Kevin brown when I see his body type and the hard sinker.

  • “The break, the spin rate was up.” – Kuhl

    Wait, do the Pirates have Statcast-type systems in their minor league parks and review that data with their prospects? Because that would be awesome.

    Also, everyone loves to see the radar gun lit up, but has there been any explanation as to why the results haven’t translated? Sequencing? Command? At least by publicly available data, there seems to be very little sign of the supposed improvement in fastball and slider quality actually resulting in more swings and misses.

    It’s extremely rare for a guy that misses as few bats as Kuhl in the minors to actually carve out a successful big league career, very fringy profile.

    • If the slider isn’t quite there yet as an out pitch, that might be enough to explain the lack of whiffs. Even the hardest sinkers are still, in general, pitches to induce contact, so if that’s the only pitch which has reached its potential, I can see why he wouldn’t be missing many bats, but also why he gets so darn many ground balls.

      If the slider becomes a plus pitch, and if the changeup comes along, there’s a decent chance he starts missing bats. If they don’t we have our own version of Jim Johnson for the bullpen.

      • Essentially why I can’t get very excited about Kuhl.

        There’s a hundred arms – hell, probably more – floating around the minors right now who could make a jump “if the slider becomes a plus pitch”. Any breaking ball, actually. In reality, it’s extremely rare for this to actually happen. Call me old school on this one, but I’ve always heard baseball guys say that a plus big league breaking ball can’t be “taught”. There’s something inherent in a guy’s musculature/hand/wrist that allows them to get the necessary spin and tilt.

        Now Dan Warthen obviously would beg to differ (http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/the-mets-are-throwing-the-dan-warthen-slider/), but then again, there’s a reason he’s famous and that’s because nobody else has successfully taught a slider like he has.

        • It’s also why I can get excited about him. Forget the what-if, he’s a solid bet to be a good mid- to late-inning reliever at least, even without the slider becoming a plus pitch. There’s a decent floor on him, and there’s upside.

          If the Pirates can get a steady flow of guys like Kuhl to keep their bullpen stocked and solid, they won’t need to spend the kind of money on it they are this year, and those dollars can be allocated elsewhere.

          I guess I’m just inclined to get excited about internal options to become role players, because really they’re just so darned overpriced on the market. Obviously, you want to get stars, but I think the value of solid bench and bullpen guys coming through the system is undersold.

          • Now *that* is a damning indictment of the Pirates drafting and development if I’ve ever heard one!

            We’ll know we’ve truly made it out of the dark ages when it takes more than middle reliever floor to get us worked up. 😉

    • I don’t think he was talking about it in such a technical way. They do have PitchF/X in each park, so he should be able to get a read on the movement of the pitch. But I think he was referring to just the look and feel of the pitch.

      As for improvements, there have been some that have shown in the last year.

      2014 – 58.5% GB, 15.34% strikeout
      2015 1st Half – 53.9% GB, 15.28% strikeout
      2015 2nd Half – 63.2% GB, 16.8% strikeout

      That’s a big increase in grounders, and while it’s not a huge increase in strikeouts, Kuhl isn’t a guy who will get many strikeouts. He pounds the zone with a very difficult sinker that leads to a lot of ground balls, and as a result, he doesn’t get into many strikeout situations.

      • Thanks, Tim. Appreciate the explanation. It wouldn’t have surprised me at all if the Pirates were in fact pushing into this territory. Kuhl sounds like the kind of guy who could handle that sort of conversation.

        Fringy profile prospects like Kuhl are a lot of fun to think about.. How far can the contact approach really be pushed, is the question. Not meant to be an exhaustive study, but while the current high contact/GB big league starters have K rates around that of Kuhl’s, they all posted rates into the 20s as prospects. Would Kuhl see a similar drop, and can even the best ground ball pitchers survive an 85%ish contact rate? Or is Kuhl more or less at the limit, and could maintain the same K rates as he has now at the highest level?

        We’ll all learn something regardless of what happens.

        • I would think a guy like this has a good chance at outperforming norms for a pitcher with this profile when factoring in the aid he gets from the pirates shifting tendencies, particularly with the defense hopefully being improved this year. As for pitchers who didn’t get a ton of strike outs but we’re still successful, Derek Lowe of red sox lore had a career 5.8 k/9 and still had an above average career

          • Hell, Mike Leake just made himself eighty million bucks with a lower K rate!

            It can certainly be done, I’m just hedging my bet.

        • if he can continue growth from his second half he will be more than fine. He has a good 4 seam, a plus 2 seam/sinker, the best slider in the bucs system and the makings of a change up. Anyone comparing to Hughes is down on prospects or maybe i am just high on what we have coming. 🙂

          • I don’t mean any disrespect in this what so ever, but this time last year there was also a pitching prospect coming off a strong second half that PP was far and away higher on than any other outlet; his name was Adrian Sampson, and we know how that went.

            There’s simply so many eyes from different outlets out there right now – eyes that are good enough to repeatedly get gobbled up by big league teams – that it’s incredibly rare for someone to get very little attention and yet turn out special.

            *If* Kuhl can develop a plus slider then we’re talking. And regardless, I’ll take what he is right now in a bullpen out of a 9th round pick any day!

            • Sampson brought in JAHapp. What was short in value with that?

              • Oh please!

                Sampson acquired the JA Happ that was losing his rotation spot in Seattle off of an ERA pushing 5, not the JA Happ that put in 12 sub-2 ERA starts for the Pirates.

                • i agree… nobody saw anything in JA Happ… all pirates sites were on fire similar to how it is today with the pirates not adding more of anything to the 98 win team from last year. Regarding Sampson i believe they were much different perspectives. I don’t recall Sampson ever winning breakout player of the year, having a plus pitch or ever having a ceiling higher than a 4 or 5 starter. I haven’t seen Kuhl’s slider but there was reference to it being the best in the pirates system… A large number of people will look at what he has done and say “eh, maybe a backend reliever” without giving the benefit of the doubt of considering maybe his second half last year was real and that his growth will continue. I, personally wouldn’t be excited if all he turned out to be was Hughes part 2. A needed part for sure but nothing to get excited about.

      • This should lead then to longer outings if he’s effective – so that’s what I’ll be looking for from him.
        I was thinking the ranking at #16 was low as well. There just isn’t many pitchers who have a 97 mph sinker… so that would seem to be a quality talent.

  • I’m really hopeful these reports are all accurate as the current group of major league starters, at least at the back end of the rotation, leaves me weak. I think the change up is generally the last pitch that develops with most young pitchers, but I’m not a scout and that’s just a broad statement. (I also have no delusions of grandeur that Searage can work miracles with Locke, which is why I’m really looking for help in the rotations.)

  • Loving this thread. Was just talking about this with Kozy a week or so ago… Here’s what I wrote then:

    “The other guy that I’m pulling for is Chad Kuhl. Extreme ground ball pitcher with a 4 seam that hits upper 90s. Working on a good out pitch, his second half at Altoona was lights out last year.

    From the guide: “His second half was amazing, with a 1.83 ERA from mid-June to the end of the year, with even better results in July, when he only allowed four extra base hits all month.”

    I think his write up was the one that jumped out at me from the top 50 prospect pages. Tantalizing. I always like to look for that guy who might break out in a big way and – while P2 lists him as a possible mid-rotation guy – there is nothing not to like about his recent success.”

    Glad to see the love from the P2 guys. I built the bandwagon. Y’all can jump on.

    ———————————————
    “Dragons is so stupid.”
    -Wabbit

  • I’m glad this article came out. I have never seen him pitch but the kid keeps winning, putting up innings, and advancing without a hitch. Reading PP’s articles about his sinker, his velocity, and his slider made me wonder what was holding him back from more prospect love.

    I would even go out on a limb and say of the rookies, he would be my first pick for a call up prior to June – even if his change up isn’t ready. The sinker alone would eat up innings and keep him in games until TG or JT are ready.

  • Is it possible that NH and staff have a lot of confidence that one of Taillon, Glasgow or Kuhl will be ready by mid-May and that is why they didn’t invest more in another starter? Maybe they’re assuming Locke will have his usual good first half and hoping they can coax 50 to 60 innings of 4.50 ERA out of Vogelsang.
    On another note, did anyone expect Latos to sign for only 3 mil? Either everyone thinks there’s no bounce back in the arm, or he really is as big of a jackass as rumored, or both. He really signed for chump change.

  • Hmmm, if the Pirates can’t scout, luck must explain finding Kuhl.

  • I had no idea he was that good- good article Tim- eye opening

  • Talked to Justin Meccage last week and he told me he thought Kuhl had a chance to be in the majors this year. Meccage was Kuhl’s pitching coach last year at Altoona.

  • *regimen

  • Is there even a comp for this kind of pitcher? I’ve never heard of a guy who throws a sinker that hard…I had good version charlie morton in my head but the more I hear about him, the more perplexity he seems

  • Quick thought…with as clogged as the rotation may be with Cole, Liriano, Glasnow, Taillon, Kingham, Brault, Williams, plus perhaps another veteran so the Pirates aren’t starting three guys with a half-season or less MLB experience…

    …though he’s being called as strong back of the rotation arm…it also sounds like Kuhl has the makings a very strong reliever and, perhaps, closer.

    • I keep saying this could be his actual future.

      He could not develop the 3rd pitch enough to get batters out 3 times through the order, but with 2 solid or better pitches he’d fill in fine in the 8th. Upper 90s sinker with a slider to keep hitters off balance. Throw in whatever the change up becomes, even if its not more than a show me pitch, and he’s fine.

      • I’d hate to relegate a guy who’s 22 and already throwing a 150+ innings/year to the pen, but…yeah…with explanation of his stuff and the stronger arms in front of him…I’d have to think there’s no shame in the BP job.

        With how he’s projected, he could be in the majors in summer and setting up Watson next spring after Melancon leaves.

        • or vice versa……you can make fun of me for this if you want because I have nothing to back it up, but…..i think watson would be an awful closer

          • Could be…he’s just most likely to get the first shot, I’d think.

            Although I secretly am holding out hope that Arquimedes takes a solid step forward this season.

        • I certainly wouldnt move him from SP at all right now. He’s a SP and should stick there for now. His value as a SP is much higher than relief and he’s coming off a fine season.

          But it wouldnt shock me if he is up and down in AAA and the eventual leaving of Melancon has him just primed for a late inning role along with Watson and Caminero. Particularly if guys like Taillon and Glasnow are even “only” capable back end type quality by the end of this season.

          • These kind of guys never last in the back end of bullpens, though. Contact eventually catches up with all of them.

            • Eh, you give me a guy in the 8th with his sinker and a good-not-great slider and i think he’s fine.

              But i would also just a quickly have him in the 7th with Caminero-Watson on the back end. Kuhl wont K a ton of guys, but he’s perfectly suited for a team with good defense that loves shifts.

              • Didn’t you just describe Jared Hughes?

                Not that Hughes is a bad result, just that I’m not sure many see him as a back end arm.

                • If Hughes was popping upper 90s, he’d be able to do more in terms of effectiveness. Hughes sitting 93-94, wouldnt shock me at all to see Kuhl as a relief arm sitting 97. 3-4 mph will do a lot for a sinker guy.

                  I think he’s a better version of Hughes, assuming the slider doesnt suck. If Hughes were a bit more consistent/better, him in the 7th suits me fine.

                  • Well 3-4 mph didn’t do anything more for Kuhl in AA than the lesser velo has done for Hughes in the show.

                    • Im certainly not arguing that right now Kuhl is that, but that he’s got the stuff to be there relatively soon.

                      His slider has to be consistent and more than a show me pitch. Keep working on the slider and throwing it with consistent success. At that point, im confident results follow when he’s purely using his stuff to get hitters out.

      • If he never develops a third pitch he could be another Jared Hughes or a slightly better version.

        • I think he’d be much better, assuming the slider settles in as a consistent and useful option. His velo on sinker makes him more “woah” than Hughes for him.

    • So dreaming the impossible dream of most scenarios working out — 2017 could see a rotation of the following:
      #1 Cole cheap team control
      #2 Liriano 13 million, cheap as a #2
      #3 Taillon/Glasnow cheap rookie deals
      #4 Glasnow/Taillon cheap rookie deals
      #5 Locke/Kuhl/Kingham/Somone else (2nd year arb getting expensive, cheap rookie deals x2/who knows)

      That looks to be a pretty decent rotation if everyone worked out with some depth still in AA and AAA. More importantly, it is a dirt cheap rotation (<20 million for 5 starts?)

  • This guy sounds like the third best pitcher in our system.

    • I had a long conversation with someone who saw a lot of Kuhl and Glasnow this year, and Taillon in the past. He said that he wouldn’t be surprised if Kuhl ends up having the best career of the three. Of course we got a lot of information on him recently that made him look even better, but I agree with what Tim wrote. If we were doing the book right now, I would also grade him higher, so he would be ranked higher.

      The reports were very good before and then I watched his playoff start for Indianapolis and was very impressed. Combined with the new report I got, and the information Tim got which is posted above, Kuhl could really turn some heads this season.

      • Well…that makes what I posted above seem rather silly….

        🙂

        • Not really because very few RP’s/Closers that were not SP’s early in their careers. That said, 24-10 in Hi A and AA with decent ERA numbers over 300 IP makes him one helluva SP prospect. To do this well after being a 9th Round pick, after an average at best college career, says a lot for the scouting and developmental system in place for the Pirates.

  • I remember reading in the prospect guide that Khul had the best slider in the system. So with the Sinker being a + pitch and the Slider’s improvements is the changeup the only thing holding back from being a ML Starter?

    • Having the best slider in the system isn’t the highest praise. The best breaking pitches in the system are all curveballs. That’s not to say Kuhl’s slider is bad, but if you lined up the best breaking pitches, his slider would fall behind a lot of curveballs (Taillon, Glasnow, Kingham, Holdzkom to name a few). He still needs to continue improvements with that pitch, and improve the changeup.

      • I’m curious about the slider issue. Does that mean the Pirates don’t teach (or maybe encourage use of) the slider? I understood it can be hard on the arm, Is that so?

        • They teach the slider to some players. It really depends on the arm slot and what is most comfortable for a guy. It just so happens that the best breaking balls right now are curveballs. Meanwhile, some of the best prospects are learning the slider to improve their secondary stuff (Kuhl, Brault, Yeudy), but because the pitch is still in development, you don’t see a slider yet that matches the curve from Taillon, Glasnow, etc.

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