Has Chad Kuhl Earned a Spot in the 2017 Pirates Rotation?

BRADENTON, Fla. – The 2016 season wasn’t a typical year for Chad Kuhl. The right-hander made the jump to the majors around the middle of the season, and finished the year in the rotation. He’s not exactly a fixture with a guaranteed spot like Jameson Taillon, but Kuhl will enter the 2017 season with an inside track for one of the remaining spots behind Gerrit Cole, Ivan Nova, and Taillon.

Despite all of this, Kuhl went about his offseason in normal fashion. He took two weeks off from lifting and running after the season ended, worked out at the University of Delaware, and started throwing off the mound this week.

Even with the normal routine, Kuhl realizes that things are different this offseason, and all it takes is a review of the 2016 season to provide a reminder for him.

“I looked back, it felt like I was [in the majors] for a week, but I had 14 starts,” Kuhl said. “I had a decent amount of starts last year in the big leagues. Just having that base, just knowing that I’ve been there, I’ve done it. It helps me kind of stay focused and really nail down the things I need to nail down for myself to be successful.”

Kuhl didn’t have a flawless jump to the big leagues. His first few starts were a bit rough, and the extreme ground ball rates that he was used to in the minors did not carry over to the majors. After his first few outings, he went back down to the minors and made an adjustment to his mechanics. He returned and saw the high ground ball rate return with him.

“It was really just a mechanical thing, being more on top of the ball, as opposed to rotational,” Kuhl said. “When I get rotational, the ball flattens out, and gets squared up at a higher rate. When I really do the things that I’m capable of — keep my glove arm high, get on top of the ball — that’s when you see the better life and the better results for ground balls.”

Normally, Kuhl throws from a high three-quarters arm slot, which is pretty standard for a sinkerball pitcher. He wasn’t keeping his glove arm high, and was letting his throwing arm drop down a bit, which was throwing off the spin of his pitch. He had the problem at times in Indianapolis last year before his promotion, and saw the issue creep up again in the final few starts. The result was that he’d still hit 93-94 MPH, but the pitch would come in flatter, instead of downward.

There were times when Kuhl was on his game, and he showed what type of starter he could be in the majors. He’s never really had an issue with his mechanics in the past, so that shouldn’t be a concern going forward. The bigger focus would be on the continuation of the development of his secondary stuff from last year, along with his pitching approach.

Kuhl noted that last year he focused on things like right-on-right changeups and pitching up in the zone at times, rather than always being down. His focus in 2017 will be to continue to carry those approaches to the big leagues. The changeup is especially important, as sinkerball pitchers need that to go after left-handers and remain a starter.

“Just throwing it now feels comfortable,” Kuhl said. “I like where it’s at. I liked where it was at, at the end of last year. Get some swings and misses. Get some really weak contact. That will be a big pitch for me.”

The slider has been an out pitch at times, although Kuhl primarily focuses on quick outs via contact with his sinker. Last year he focused on doing different things with the slider. When he wanted to throw it for a strike, it would be a normal slider. When he wanted to throw one inside to a right-hander, he’d add a bit more velocity and turn it into more of a cutter. And when he went for a strikeout, he’d turn it into a wipeout slider with sweeping movement. The focus in 2017 will be continuing to use each version of the pitch in the proper scenario.

“It’s something we’re going to continue to work on, and it will hopefully be a really good pitch for me, as it has been,” Kuhl said.

Despite some inconsistencies with the ground balls, Kuhl showed he belonged in the majors last year. He had a 4.20 ERA and a 3.95 FIP in 70.2 innings, and looked like a legit back of the rotation starter once he makes the necessary adjustments with his consistency. If the Pirates don’t make another move for their rotation, you can probably just pencil him in for one of the final two rotation spots. If they do make another move, he’d still have the inside track for the final spot.

  • Kuhl will be better than Nova.

  • Tim if you are reading this, on your projected future salary chart of the 40 man roster, Glasnow and Kuhl both have 3 years of pre arbitration salary before arbitration in 2020. You are only giving them both 2 years of pre arbitration…FYI

  • I’m not as high on Kuhl as a lot of people here. Personally, I think he starts in the rotation, but he’s far from a lock. I think both of the final two rotation spots are up for grabs. Brault, Kuhl, Hutchinson, Glasnow and Williams all have a serious shot to make the roster out of spring training IMO.

    I’d like to see one more addition to the rotation in the form of a trade or Jason Hammel or another FA with some upside.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    January 19, 2017 10:34 pm

    Unless he gets hurt or blows up in ST, Kuhl is a lock for the rotation in 2017.

    BTW – this just in….Brady Dragmire was just DFA’d by Texas!

  • Love the bulldog type of attitude. Agree with others, he is easy to root for. Looking forward to a big year from Kuhl.

    • There’s a huge difference with his “attitude” on the mound compared to Cupcake Locke & Buttercup Morton

      • I hope he’s successful as that type of attitude can be contagious when it aligns with success. Kind of like Jay hay’s breakout year and his Zoltan fun on the bases, only more firey.

  • I think Kuhl has definitely earned a spot in the rotation, I just also think there’s some hefty downside risk to him being there.

    The sinker/slider combo from the 3/4 slot predictably resulted in hefty platoon splits, and we know from the Charlie Morton experience that it’s only a matter of time until team’s stack their lineups and force Kuhl to beat lefties.

    He also posted a below average HR/FB rate despite getting demolished on balls in the air to the tune of about 95 mph exit velocity. No real reason to expect him to continue suppressing home runs based on that, and his xFIP (normalizing HR/FB) was an ugly 4.53.

    I buy the projections showing a guy who should put up a FIP between 4-4.60 moving forward.

    • I think that’s a fair assessment. But a 4.30ish FIP is acceptable for a back of the rotation guy.

      If he stays heathy, eats innings, and pitches like a #4/5…I’ll be very happy. If he improves, I’ll be ecstatic.

    • I think the HR/FB rate will normalize a bit (was below 10%), but I also think he’ll go back to giving up softer contact by fixing his arm slot. When you’re throwing flat fastballs, they’re going to get hit pretty hard. He was known for soft contact in the minors, and didn’t show that consistently in his first run through the majors.

      That said, I’d expect a 4-4.30 range for his ERA.

      • My concern is that he *did* give up soft contact, but only when it was on the ground. Hitters that were able to elevate the ball did so with great authority, which could speak to his problem – really, any 3/4 sinkerballer’s problem – with the pitch flattening up in the zone.

        As long as he’s a Pittsburgh Pirate, we know he’ll be throwing up and in. I think whether or not he’s able to improve his command to the point where he can do so without missing over the plate will really determine how true that soft contact profile plays.

  • BREAKING: PIRATES TO MAKE MOVE WITHIN NEXT FEW DAYS AS BRADY GETS DRAGMIRED BY RANGERS AGAIN!!!!

  • good piece

  • I like him. I presume the league will do some adjusting to him and we’ll see how he responds this year. Easy guy to root for.

  • piraterican21
    January 19, 2017 3:42 pm

    Tim, or anyone that knows how to read statcast. To me, his sinker looks like a two seamer, for reference, Hughes’ skier darts down and in, Kuhl tails in but I down see much downward movement, how wrong am I?

    • You’re not.

      For all the hype, Kuhl’s sinker (sinker, two-seamer, it doesn’t really matter) isn’t really distinguished in terms of movement. He throws it hard, and it’s a solid pitch, but absolutely must be at the knees.

    • A sinker is a two seamer. The reason his has less downward movement likely has to do with how hard he throws it and the grip he uses.

      • piraterican21
        January 19, 2017 6:10 pm

        I get that the two seamer and sinker are related, but I don’t think they are the same pitch, I guess I’m thinking two seamer in the vein of Maddux, or even Kluber which Kuhl resembles. IMO his pitch has lateral movement not so much sink. I get that the grip and how is thrown makes a difference, it makes a difference on any type of pitch and that is why I’m confused about his pitch getting labeled a sinker.

    • He had better downward movement in the minors. His issue in the majors was that he wasn’t getting the usual downward movement he saw in the past.

  • A large part of Kuhl’s jump as a prospect last year had to do with some pinpoint control he was flashing in AAA. He didn’t quite show the same at promotion. I don’t see Kuhl ever striking out more than 7 per 9, which means he is going to need to provide a high ground ball rate and a fairly low walk rate (ie. floating around 2w/9) if he is going to see a consistent xFip below 4. He had a 4.53 xFip last year and projections, fwiw, predict he’ll have the 8th best ERA/xFip of any would be starters on this team. If he was Jeff Locke people would be howling.

    That being said, I think he has more to offer than he necessarily showed at the ML level last year. I expect the 44% GB rate to go over 50 and I think he may show some better control (2.55 w/9 isnt bad, but its not the 1.7 he had in AAA and its probably not enough for him as a starter without some more swing and miss to his game.) So no, I definitely wouldn’t pencil him in as a starter, but he should get the same chance to compete as everyone else, although I think both Glasnow and Hutchinson win any ‘tie-breakers’ coming out of Spring Training. IMO don’t be surprised if he ends up in AAA or in the pen.

    • You are correct about what he needs to show to be competetive at the MLB level. I did want to let you know that when I watched him in AA his control and command was much better, which should be encouraging as that ability is there.

  • He makes for a good to very good #5 SP. I’m fairly certain Pirates brass wants to see him in rotation to start the season. Time will tell for how long though. Both Glasnow and Kingham have higher ceilings than Kuhl.

    • I could agree with you that he could be a good to very good #5 SP, but I would expand that to a #4/5 SP. First exposure to MLB and he made 14 starts and was 5-4, 4.20 ERA. More importantly, he gave us innings – of the 14 starts, he had 8 Quality Starts where he went 6 IP and another 3 starts where he went 5 innings. Definitely somebody who has earned his spot in the Rotation and deserves to stay until somebody bumps him out.

      • Hope you’re right. Just worried he relies too much on producing ground ball outs and not enough on strikeouts.

        • Absolutely correct. But he has never relied on Strikeouts -. in the year he was drafted he had a 10 – 2 record at Delaware, but only 70+ K in 100+ IP. Delaware plays in the Colonial Conference and he was never even selected as an All Conference pitcher.

          He did not come out of college with a big head, relying entirely on pitch location and mental toughness. Guys like him from a small college without gaudy numbers have a very limited shelf-life in professional baseball. After only 2 full years in the minors he beat the overwhelming odds against him succeeding and earned a promotion to the majors. Based on his accomplishments so far, I like his chances to get even better.

  • In a bleak year Kuhl was a relative bright spot. Barring a move I’d assume he is our #4 pitcher going into the season.

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