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.