BRADENTON, Fla. – This time last year, Chad Kuhl was one of the first cuts from big league camp. He had no chance to make the Pirates out of Spring Training, and was hoping to get to the point during the 2016 season where he could emerge as an option for the rotation. One year later, he finds himself with a rotation spot pretty much locked down.
The Pirates haven’t made anything official with Kuhl, but all signs point to him being the number four starter. Everyone from Neal Huntington to Clint Hurdle has said Kuhl has an inside track over the other starters in the mix for a rotation spot. When they talk about the rotation battle, they talk about four guys battling it out for one spot, and Kuhl isn’t in that mix. And let’s not forget that the Pirates have been asked many times about Kuhl in trade talks, and refused to deal him.
But you could really get a feel for Kuhl’s status earlier this week when he went over to Pirate City for a start in minor league camp. That’s not usually an assignment given to a player who is competing for a roster spot. Those guys go up against big league teams in official Spring Training games, or in B-games, like with Trevor Williams yesterday. The guys who typically go to Pirate City are guys who have a spot locked down and who are just getting work in against the minor leaguers. Kuhl was joined this week by Gerrit Cole, Ivan Nova, and Tony Watson as others who got time in minor league camp.
The change for Kuhl, and the added roster security, has definitely been noticed.
“I would just say it’s more comfortable,” Kuhl said of his status this year. “You know everybody in the clubhouse. You have a good feeling about where you are in terms of where they see you, where you fit in. And that’s a really good feeling. It’s nice to just go out there and really dedicate yourself to getting your work done. Working on the things you need to accomplish, and cleaning up the things you need to clean up, and not focusing on wanting to get to the big leagues, wanting to do all of these things to impress. Now it’s just about executing pitches, and being the best version of me that I can be.”
The debut for Kuhl last year was a good one. He had a 4.20 ERA and a 3.95 FIP. His xFIP was 4.53 due to a lower HR/FB ratio. Those are good numbers for a back of the rotation starter, which is what Kuhl’s upside would be. But there’s reason to believe that he could put up better results than he showed last year.
While the debut was a good one, Kuhl wasn’t the most consistent pitcher. In his first few starts, he struggled to put the ball on the ground, which wasn’t an issue for him in the minors. He was struggling before he arrived in the majors, so the issues can’t be fully attributed to pitching in the big leagues. After a few starts, he made an adjustment, and started looking like the pitcher he was in the minors.
That approach kind of fell apart at the end of the season, at which point he had a few outings where he was hit around, with a lot of fly balls. Kuhl is looking to get back to being the guy he was in the minors, aiming for six or seven quality innings most nights out.
“You want to be that consistent guy,” Kuhl said. “That’s the biggest thing, just staying out there and being the guy you can count on. That’s kind of what I pride myself on. Going through the minor leagues, being that guy who is going to go six, seven strong for you. Being the guy that you know what you’re going to get every time out. That’s my focus.”
One of Kuhl’s biggest issues last year was his production against left-handed hitters. He had an .854 OPS against and a .363 wOBA against lefties in the majors. He is a sinkerball pitcher, and one of the common issues with that approach is that the sinker cuts back into the barrel of a lefty bat. Having a changeup is a necessity for someone who throws his sinker as often as Kuhl does, since it gives a pitch that can be used against lefties.
Kuhl worked on his changeup a lot last year, making adjustments to his grip and the way he threw the pitch. He added a new grip this year which matched his other pitches, and made throwing the changeup much more comfortable.
“I had that full circle, and I was like ‘I don’t throw any other pitch like this. That doesn’t make any sense,'” Kuhl said. “I kind of mimicked how I hold my two-seam around the front. It’s kind of a looser grip, but it’s unique to me. Having it more in my fingers and just throwing it like my two-seam and getting that same run, with the MPH difference.”
Kuhl said the biggest difference in the new grip and the old grip is the comfort level. He would throw a changeup last year, and said it wouldn’t have much conviction or comfort behind the pitch. It was just throwing a changeup to just throw a changeup. Now he’s finding more confidence, more movement, and more consistency.
“I don’t think it’s been hit hard yet,” Kuhl said of the pitch after his outing earlier this week. “Especially later today, we threw a bunch in that third or fourth inning. It was a pitch that was down and had some late movement and I was throwing just like my fastball. That’s really all you can ask for from it. It’s in a spot where I feel really comfortable throwing it.”
Clint Hurdle said that Kuhl has some things to improve upon from his 2016 debut, but that the Pirates love a lot of things about his game.
“There’s different parts of his game that can be pushed forward,” Hurdle said. “Pitching with emotion, not pitching emotionally. There’s an adrenaline flow within him that’s real. I believe with the experience from last season, he’ll be able to throttle that professionally. We love the energy on the mound. We love the athleticism on the mound. His changeup plays. He actually had sequences where his breaking ball played extremely well. … He’s got room for improvement. However, the work that was done lets him know that he can compete at this level, and he can pitch successfully.”
Kuhl doesn’t have a spot officially locked down, but it’s hard to imagine him opening the year outside of the rotation. If he can improve on his 2016 debut, he will provide the Pirates with a nice fourth starter option at the start of the year, and a really good option for the fifth spot if someone with higher upside joins the rotation during the season (SEE: Glasnow, Tyler).