Chad Kuhl will make his MLB debut tonight, going up against the Los Angeles Dodgers and Clayton Kershaw. We’ve written about Kuhl a lot recently. Alan Saunders talked to him recently, and wrote about him today, focusing on his two-seam fastball history. Brian Peloza talked with Indianapolis Indians Manager Dean Treanor about his recent struggles at the level. I talked with Jacob Stallings about the same thing.
As usual, when a prospect comes up for his debut, we give you an introduction to that prospect, with everything you need to know about the newest Pirates player. Here is The Book on Chad Kuhl.
Where Did Kuhl Come From?
The Pirates drafted Kuhl in the 9th round of the 2013 draft out of the University of Delaware. He signed for the slot amount of $145,200 right away, and started his career in Jamestown, posting some solid numbers. Kuhl then got the aggressive push to Bradenton, skipping over High-A. The Pirates rarely take this approach with mid-round college starting pitchers, and only do that with the most advanced guys. Kuhl didn’t have the greatest results, but showed a lot of promise.
In 2015, Kuhl had his breakout in Altoona, posting a 2.48 ERA in 152.2 innings, with a 101:41 K/BB ratio. The strikeouts are low because Kuhl is a pitch-to-contact guy, and started generating a lot of weak contact with his two-seam fastball. He always had the ability to hit 96 MPH or higher with the sinker, but started seeing that velocity more consistently, ticking up to hit 97 or 98 at times. It was during this season that I started noticing scouts showing a lot more interest in Kuhl. The Pirates even turned down trade offers for him at the deadline last year, instead opting to trade guys like Adrian Sampson and JaCoby Jones, with the latter being rated higher than Kuhl by a lot of outlets.
Kuhl entered the 2016 season pitching for Indianapolis. He has looked great in most of his time at the level, posting a very low walk total, and getting a lot of his usual soft contact, while seeing a slight uptick in strikeouts. He has struggled in his recent outings, with his fastball up in the zone, and his changeup still a work in progress. However, the Pirates need him for a spot start tonight, which leads us to his MLB debut.
When Kuhl was drafted, there were mixed reports about whether he threw a four seam fastball or a two seam fastball. As it turned out, he threw a four-seamer which had some downward movement, with the promise of eventually throwing a two-seamer. After Kuhl was drafted, I asked Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington whether Kuhl was a sinkerball pitcher. His response turned out to be pretty prophetic for Kuhl’s future.
“Jared Hughes signed as a four-seam/curveball guy, and he got in the big leagues based on the power sinker,” Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington said. “What they come in with, our development system is going to maximize what they come in with. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether a guy is a four seam and two seam. Sometimes it’s hard to tell from behind home plate. We’ve had conversations, we’ve gotten up on [Kuhl]. The reality is we’ll take the weapons that he comes in with, sharpen them, and look to get him on the path to the big leagues. Sometimes it means wholesale changes, much like it was with Jared Hughes, or a dropped arm slot like Tony Watson to allow him to attack left-handers and his velocity spiked after we dropped his arm slot.”
As Alan Saunders wrote this morning, Kuhl came in and the Pirates almost immediately got him throwing the two-seam fastball. He spent most of his time in the lower levels figuring out how often to use the pitch, until finally he got to the point where it was his primary fastball, and the four seamer was more a situational pitch.
The sinker has some velocity, sitting 93-95 MPH and touching as high as 97-98. It has a lot of late movement, and Kuhl can generate a lot of swings and misses with the pitch, just pitching off his fastball. He’s not a big strikeout pitcher though, as he tries pitching to contact, getting batters to swing over top of the pitch and drive it into the ground early in the counts. This approach allows Kuhl to pitch deeper into games on a lower pitch count.
The four-seam fastball is used if Kuhl wants to hit a certain spot — like inside against lefties — or if he wants to elevate the fastball. But the two-seamer is what you should expect to see more of in his MLB debut.
Looking at the stats, you wouldn’t think Kuhl has a strikeout pitch. He currently has a career high strikeout rate in Indianapolis, at just 6.9 K/9. If you’re scouting the stat line, then Kuhl looks like a guy who will see a serious regression when he jumps to the majors, due to relying solely on BABIP and not having a weapon to get guys out other than putting the ball on the ground. But Kuhl does have a good slider, grading out as above-average.
The slider can be used in a few different ways. When he needs it as a strikeout pitch, it’s a wipeout slider that starts in the zone against right-handers and sweeps toward the left-handed batter’s box. He can also throw it harder and make it more cutter-ish, and the traditional slider works well as a complement to his sinker, looking similar out of the hand but breaking the opposite direction. Kuhl has been confident with the slider his whole career, but he’s been learning how it moves and the different actions for different situations in recent years. I talked to him last month about how much that has been a key for him in the upper levels.
“Being able to throw that slider, and throwing it for a strike, and having that strikeout breaking ball that I’ve needed has been huge,” Kuhl said. “You read about ‘Does he have a strikeout pitch?’ It’s just because I’m a pitch to contact kind of guy. 88 pitches through seven innings. That’s what I want. I want to be able to go long and have those outings, but it’s nice that we’re working on that strikeout pitch, so when we have those situations, I can get a strikeout.”
The biggest thing Kuhl has been working on this year is his changeup. He’s got a plus sinker and an above-average slider, but the changeup easily lags behind as the third pitch. At best, it could be an average offering, allowing him success against lefties, and making it more likely that he reaches his starting pitching upside. The changeup was looking good earlier in the year, with Kuhl learning when and how to use the pitch, while gaining confidence in the offering. He’s struggled lately, and his catcher, Jacob Stallings, noted that he might have been losing some confidence in the pitch. Kuhl will need to get back to where he was early in the season with the pitch in order to continue having consistent success as a starter.
One of the things Kuhl does best is attacking hitters. He commands the inner half of the plate, and isn’t a guy who gets fazed on the mound. That could really help him have success tonight in his debut, overcoming the spotlight of his MLB debut and going up against Clayton Kershaw. Last month, Indianapolis Manager Dean Treanor praised Kuhl’s fearless approach.
“Hitters don’t get very comfortable against him in the box,” Treanor said. “He’s the one guy on our staff who will pitch inside and knock you off the plate and tell you whose plate it is. That’s worked very well for him. … When a hitter feels that this guy is attacking, and will come in off the plate, nobody digs in, nobody has big swings. You can tell the difference when he pitches and somebody else pitches.”
Not only is Kuhl’s sinker a difficult pitch for hitters to square up on, but his fearless approach and tendency to pound the inside corner make him an even more difficult pitcher to go up against.
What is Kuhl’s Upside?
There has been a lot of debate about Kuhl’s upside on this site. I’ve said he could have the upside of a number four starter, and possibly higher than that if he can continue the improvements he’s seen with the changeup at times this year. I’ve also talked to a lot of scouts in the last year who see him as a starter. The Pirates are really high on him, and see him as a starter as well. But there are others who feel he will max out as a reliever.
Either way, the thing that makes Kuhl so good isn’t his upside, but his floor. Kuhl doesn’t have the upside of a Tyler Glasnow, but his floor is much higher, giving much less risk. He could absolutely be a relief pitcher right now, and be very good in the role, pitching off his sinker and slider. My guess is that the people who think he can only be a reliever are assuming his development is finished and that his changeup won’t improve to allow him to be a starter. That’s a weird approach to take, considering we’ve already seen Jameson Taillon’s changeup improve in the upper levels, and Glasnow needs his changeup to improve. Suggesting that Glasnow can be a top starter, but Kuhl can’t even pitch in the rotation is suggesting that there’s something which would prevent Kuhl from improving the changeup, but wouldn’t prevent Glasnow from doing the same thing. And that’s just not the case, as both could improve the pitch, just like Taillon did.
Kuhl might just be in the majors for one start. A month ago, I would have said (and did say) that he looked ready for the majors. His recent struggles, which might be due to fatigue, or leaving the ball up and struggling with the changeup (and those might not be mutually exclusive things) make it look like he’s got some more work to do in Indianapolis, and might not be able to help right now. But if he comes up and pitches a great outing, you’d have to consider keeping him in the big leagues, in order to see if his recent struggles are behind him. Long-term, he looks like he could be part of the Pirates’ rotation, providing a good back of the rotation arm behind Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow, and Jameson Taillon.