First Pitch: We Still Haven’t Seen the Best Version of Chad Kuhl

When Chad Kuhl first arrived in the majors, he had some good results for a rookie, with five earned runs in 11 innings over his first two starts. The advanced metrics didn’t suggest he would continue with those results, and that quickly came true, as he gave up four runs in 2.1 innings in his third start. But as I said many times during those first three outings, we weren’t really seeing the real Chad Kuhl.

The real Chad Kuhl is a guy who relies heavily on soft contact and ground balls. He has an above average slider that can be an out pitch, and can get strikeouts, but his focus is getting the batter out early in the count.

We’re starting to see that version of Kuhl. Ed Giles wrote today about how Kuhl worked to get his sinker down in the zone, and with more movement to get ground balls. Since that change, he has a 45.7% ground ball rate, and has shown the ability to go higher, with a rate above 50% in two of his four starts. He has a 2.25 ERA in those four starts, although the advanced metrics still suggest he won’t keep that up. However, the 4.29 xFIP is an encouraging sign that he won’t slip too far.

I still don’t think we’ve seen the best version of Kuhl. I think we could easily see a higher ground ball rate on a more consistent basis. He didn’t get a strikeout in his most recent outing, but had a 6.0-7.5 K/9 the previous three, and I could see him in that range going forward, with his slider already looking effective in the majors. And that approach to pitch to contact has given him the chance to go six innings in each of the last four starts, showing some good reliability so far.

When I say that we haven’t seen the best version of Kuhl, I’m not talking about the obvious, where players settle in and improve after a year or two in the majors. I’m talking about this year, and the version of Kuhl who is just making his MLB debut. I think that the debut version of Kuhl could be better than we’ve seen, and slightly better than what we’ve seen in the last four starts (going off the xFIP, not the ERA). If that does play out, then the Pirates will have a good starter for their rotation down the stretch, and a guy who could lock down a spot in the rotation for the 2017 season as well.

As usual, each Sunday we recap the biggest stories of the week. Here were all of the big prospect features:

10. I just wrapped up two-plus weeks on the road, covering the lower level teams. This trip always gives me my first look at most of the 2016 draft picks, plus an additional look at some of the youngest players at each level who are in their second or third years. At the end of my trip, I wrote up my biggest surprises and disappointments from each level. One of the big surprises was Stephen Alemais, who was just promoted this weekend.

9. Two players I didn’t get a chance to see were 2016 fifth rounder Blake Cederlind and 7th rounder Brent Gibbs. Both were injured when I was in Bristol, and neither are expected to return for the final few weeks. I did get some input on their injuries and their seasons, and hope that I’ll see one or both during instructs.

8. Frank Duncan has been a great story this year, going from a Double-A long reliever to a guy with some of the best numbers in the Triple-A rotation. Brian Peloza wrote about the success he’s having on the field, while also focusing on the person he is off the field.

7. Jacob Taylor pitched two innings last year, after getting an over-slot deal in the fourth round. He then had Tommy John surgery, and this week he made his third rehab start. I covered the start, and talked with him afterward about the progress he has been making in his recovery.

6. Another player rehabbing in the GCL right now is Ke’Bryan Hayes, who has been out for over a month with a back injury. I talked with Hayes on Saturday about his injury, and he said that he’s feeling better after getting down to Bradenton and undergoing new stretches and treatments with the rehab trainers.

5. Chad Kuhl has seen much better results lately, and more ground balls in the process, which isn’t a coincidence. After his first few starts in the majors, he worked to get his sinker back down in the zone, and with better movement. Ed Giles broke it down, with a detailed look at the results lately. Also on the MLB side of things, Neal Huntington discussed how the Pirates brought Josh Bell up to play, and previewed some of the September roster expansion decisions.

4. Brandon Waddell was a big story the first month of the year, getting an aggressive promotion to Altoona after dominating in Bradenton. He has cooled a bit in Altoona, although Sean McCool looked at his progression, and how he’s doing well working off the two-seamer and the slider.

3. Elias Diaz has missed most of the year with elbow surgery. Since his return, he has been good defensively, but the offense was slow to come around. That is starting to pick up, and Brian Peloza wrote about how this is basically Spring Training for Diaz.

2. Gage Hinsz has seen his stuff improve this year, and could be challenging for a spot in the top ten in the system this off-season. I wrote about how his stuff has improved, and how he gives just another high upside arm in the lower levels.

1. I got to see Taylor Hearn pitch last week, and was impressed with his stuff. We also had a few conversations about what he is currently working on, and so far his work to improve his control is showing some encouraging signs. I wrote this week about how he could make the Mark Melancon trade look like a steal for years.

  • Kevin Brown 2.0, been saying it for months. Mainly b/c its fun to be optimistic but hey, shoot for the stars dang it!!!!

  • Maybe the front office knew that they would punt on this season in order to open up spots for those ready in the minors to take them next year or during this year. How else can you understand the miserable offseason and in season moves that they made. Lets be clear if the trade for Hutchinson was done to get a starter for next year, then I think they are being very hopeful. He has not shown that he is a very good or even a good starter in the majors, so they will turn his career around, while they let Locke languish. You can not win by hoping for improvements, you must demand improvement of the players and do everything possible to have them achieve it.

  • If we haven’t seen the best of Kuhl, then that “back-end celling” projection is flat wrong. I remember during the off-season when Tim was giving #’s of 4 and 5 starters, trying to justify Locke, and Kuhl has much higher upside then those projections.

    • piraterican21
      August 22, 2016 12:47 pm

      I’m not Tim, but I do believe his ceiling is a 3-4. An innings eating three, or a good four. For him to be higher he needs to do what Phelps did on Saturday, sink the ball in and cutter ( in his case slider) out with precision.

  • The Pirates pitching has been a work-in-progress all year, but that has allowed guys like Taillon, Kuhl, Brault, and Glasnow the opportunity to get some innings in at the MLB Level. Although the Pirate hitting has been inconsistent all year, we have what were considered “placeholders” playing out the string in hopes we can get to the playoffs this year. Whether that is right or wrong, their presence has impeded the ability of bringing up younger players to get much-needed experience at the MLB level. Maybe we can attempt transition again in 2017. If we play our cards right, we can talk about June call-ups again next year.

    With a decision coming up this year with Melancon, one of the guys I thought the Pirates would draft in the first round was Zach Burdi, an accomplished college Closer with a triple-digit FB. However, he was drafted by the CWS a few picks after the Pirates picked Will Craig. Burdi is doing well and after 2 or 3 aggressive promotions since June, he is now pitching for Charlotte in AAA. He is getting hit more than he is used to, but his K/W numbers are excellent, and he already has 1 Save at AAA.