Giles: Looking at the Effectiveness of Chad Kuhl’s Fastball

PITTSBURGH – As you already know, Chad Kuhl made his major league debut Sunday night, and earned his first victory. Kuhl’s rise to the major leagues has been chronicled extensively on this site, for good reason, but I wanted to look a little deeper at what has made — and hopefully will continue to make — him a successful starting pitcher.

Tim wrote last week about Kuhl’s repertoire, and how it has progressed during his time in the Pirates organization. While the continuing work on his slider and changeup are both critical if he is to become a full-time member of the Pirates’ rotation, I want to focus on that heavy two-seam fastball that featured so prominently in Sunday’s outing.

As you can see from the chart below, Kuhl’s velocity was consistent throughout his five innings, touching 96 MPH more than a few times while sitting comfortably in the 93-95 range.

Kuhl Velocity Chart

Where Kuhl did seem to struggle slightly, though, was with his command. He was guilty of leaving some pitches up in the zone, particularly the fastball, including the one that Justin Turner sent into the left field seats.

It should be noted that this pitch — left up, but off the plate and tailing in toward Turner — was not unusually bad. You can see Chris Stewart set up for the pitch at the low-and-inside corner of the strike zone, but the ball ends up a little more inside and several inches higher than the target.

Executing that low-and-inside fastball more consistently is critical for Kuhl, and this particular example is a useful demonstration of the precision necessary to be consistently successful at the major league level.

Given that the heavy two-seam fastball is Kuhl’s best pitch, I decided to look at the Statcast data to learn a little more about it, since we do not have such detailed information at the minor league levels.

It is certainly not news to any of our readers that the Pirates promote the two-seam fastball, particularly for the purpose of getting ground balls and other soft contact. You can see from the chart below that the velocity and spin rate on Kuhl’s fastball compares easily to some of the other right-handed pitchers currently with the team:

Pirates Comparables

Before we dig more deeply into this, it’s worth noting that Statcast classified Kuhl’s fastball as being of the four-seam variety, which we know is inaccurate. Brooks Baseball has it classified as a sinker, which is more appropriate.

Perhaps not surprisingly, among Pirates’ right-handers, the pitch with which Kuhl’s fastball compares most favorably is Jameson Taillon’s two-seam. The velocity, spin rate, break length and break angle are all quite close to each other.

After his start against the Mariners, Taillon’s ground ball rate is up to 51.8%, well above the league average of 45.5%. It’s reasonable to expect that Kuhl will see some swift regression toward that GB% as he learns to execute better in the lower reaches of the strike zone. Kuhl was doing this throughout his season in Indianapolis, up until his recent struggles before his promotion.

A.J. Schugel’s two-seam and Jared Hughes’s sinker also appear here, though they are thrown at slightly less velocity than Kuhl’s fastball. It’s worth mentioning that while Hughes’ sinker actually moves at a slightly shallower angle, the greater break he gets on the pitch would seem to be the more influential factor in generating ground balls.

Having quality movement on a pitch is one part of the equation, as are keeping the pitch in the strike zone (control), and delivering it to its target (command). Having quality off-speed and breaking pitches are obviously helpful as well.

One persistent advantage of having a two-seam fastball with the kind of break Kuhl’s has, it seems, is the ability to generate ground balls. We see this again in the chart below, which includes right-handed starters with a two-seam fastball or sinker with qualities similar to Kuhl’s:

MLB Comparables

The only pitcher with a 2016 GB% below the league average is Joe Ross, who was above-average in that regard last season. The others are comfortably above, and some — especially Ivan Nova and Tanner Roark — are outliers relative to their peers.

Where they diverge, though, is in overall results. Roark (3.40 FIP), Bauer (3.44), and Ross (3.57) are significantly above the league average, and Nelson (4.94) is essentially a back-end starter. Nova (5.08), Pelfrey (5.39), and Simon (7.23, currently on the DL) are at or well below replacement level.

This is where the other aspects of effective pitching that I mentioned before start to come into play. Lacking control, command, or useful secondary pitches can often make the difference between success and failure as a starter, regardless of how good the fastball may be, and how many ground balls it might generate.

The fastball has always been Kuhl’s best pitch, and as we’ve seen from comparable pitches this season, it should continue to help him generate the ground balls the Pirates so often seek. Where the rubber meets the road in his progression as a starting pitcher will be learning to repeatedly execute that pitch down in the zone, and continuing to develop his secondary pitches as effective weapons.

Making that progress is obviously easier said than done, but Kuhl has shown improvement at each level of his professional career, including the development of that heavy two-seam fastball, and it’s reasonable to expect that he can continue to improve as he gets his first opportunities in the major leagues.

  • Milb

  • What does “length of a FB” mean?

    • Darkstone42
      June 30, 2016 6:22 pm

      Maybe it’s different for a pro, but for me it’s how close it gets to the plate before it runs out of gas and falls to the ground.

      The length of mine is about 60 feet, for example. So close.

      • With a lot of umps lately that would be a strike if you were pitching against the Bucs.

    • I think that refers to the break of the pitch?

  • Darkstone42
    June 30, 2016 6:10 pm

    If Kuhl develops otherworldly control, he could get by without much of a slider or change. But I mean truly otherworldly. Like Bartolo Colon levels. That’s pretty uncommon. Bartolo’s just about one of a kind.

    • At worst, his floor is as a good late inn reliever?

    • But he has a slider and developing a change. Pitchers DO continue to develop and improve as they get more experience in MLB. If he develops even a show me change and continues with that slider development…he’ll have a chance to be a darn good #4.

      • Bartolo throws something that isn’t a fastball, too, but I’d call him a one-pitch guy, honestly. But it’s just because his command is so pinpoint.

        The one-pitch pitcher exists, and his name is Bartolo.

        Kuhl definitely needs the secondary pitches to come along, though. Bartolo is a beautiful exception.

  • Lacking control, command, or useful secondary pitches can often make the difference between success and failure as a starter,

    Hmmm…what prospect does that bring to mind? The name escapes me at the moment.

  • Like Tim said….his upside is that of a #4 starter. I’d take a Tanner Roark or Joe Ross like pitcher.

  • Darkstone42
    June 30, 2016 3:58 pm

    It’d be pretty Kuhl if Chad became a solid starter on the merit of that fastball.

  • Nice, clear piece – Thanks. Assuming he gets a few more starts, a follow-up to see how the numbers fall once he’s accumulated a little more data would be warranted.