PITTSBURGH — Chad Kuhl has struggled getting consistent sink on his fastball for most of the 2017 season. He’s had several starts where everything seemed to work well, like his last outing — a five-inning one-hitter. There have been other nights, like his start May 16 against the Washington Nationals, when he just couldn’t get the ball to sink. He gave up six runs in four innings in that one.
In other game, he’s done some things well but had trouble getting left-handers out, like on May 10 with the Los Angeles Dodgers’ lefty-heavy lineup jumped on him in the first inning.
In an 8-1 loss to the New York Mets Friday, Kuhl gave up five runs on eight hits in 4.1 innings. It wasn’t his shortest outing of the year or the most runs he’s allowed, but from a stuff standpoint, it might represent something of a worst-case scenario.
Kuhl again had trouble with the sink and arm angle on his two-seam fastball. He recorded just two ground outs compared to nine air outs and that’s not the way it should work for the sinker-heavy pitcher.
“That was a big part of the story that was told tonight,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “We weren’t able to establish angle and sink. Fastball didn’t have the normal sink or life to it. Velocity showed up, but it wasn’t velocity that was usable.”
Kuhl said it was “just one of those nights” when it comes to the fastball.
“It just felt like there wasn’t any life to the ball,” he added. “Hard but no life to it really.”
But in some ways, it was even worse than his fastball just not working right. The Mets stacked eight left-handed hitters in the lineup against Kuhl. It was tantamount to a dare for the second-year pitcher to respond — a “show us you can make us pay” kind of move. Kuhl wasn’t able to do that.
The eight lefties — including opposing starter Jacob deGrom — went 8 for 20 (.400) against him, and Neil Walker hit two home runs, the second of which knocked Kuhl out of the game in the fifth inning. Lefties were hitting .333 on the season against Kuhl coming into the game, and if he’s not able to come up with a solution, teams are going to continue to stack every southpaw bat available against him.
“Obviously, it’s a little bit of a pushback from the league,” Kuhl said. “I’ve just got to keep getting better and stay ahead of that.”
The fastball is part of that solution, clearly. Kuhl said after his start against the Phillies that when it’s on, all his other pitches work better. But especially against lefties, Kuhl needs all of his three-pitch arsenal to be working.
“A lot of pitches were elevated, and his off-speed stuff never really became a component, a weapon,” Hurdle said. “He didn’t have the weapons tonight to go against an all-left-handed lineup.”
Kuhl was tight-lipped about his off-speed pitches, just saying they were “inconsistent tonight and (the Mets) hit some good pitches.”
Catcher Francisco Cervelli was more enlightening.
“The changeup, it wasn’t there too much. But especially (tonight), we needed to pound the inside corner.”
That didn’t work out so well. Kuhl threw just five changeups against lefties and none were near the inside corner. One was taken for a ball, one swinging strike, a triple and the other two went for 95-plus mph line outs. The slider was slightly better, with a 25 percent whiff rate and 85 percent going for strikes, but he wasn’t able to use it as a put-away pitch, getting just two strikeouts.
Cervelli was also quick to point out that Kuhl suffered his share of bad luck. Before the first run, he induced a weak ground ball to shortstop, but Jordy Mercer was shifted up the middle and couldn’t get to it. Kuhl would have gotten out of the second inning unscathed, but he and Cervelli got crossed up on a strikeout of Jose Reyes, who reached on a wild pitch and scored on Walker’s two-run home run.
But simply put, Kuhl hasn’t shown that he’s able to get left-handers out with any regularity without all of his three pitches working, especially the change-up. After 10 starts, his ERA is 6.29. His FIP is 4.16 and his xFIP is 4.97, so his outcomes have been slightly worse than his underlying numbers would suggest.
Kuhl sits right in between Trevor Williams (5.93 ERA) and Tyler Glasnow (6.69 ERA) when it comes to the back-end of the staff right now and it seems that Jameson Taillon isn’t all that far from making a return, meaning a decision point may be nearing, meaning Kuhl may not have all that much longer to figure it out.
Gregory Polanco was 2 for 4 with a home run in his return from the disabled list. Josh Harrison also had two hits. Andrew McCutchen went 1 for 4 hitting No. 6 for the first time in his career. … Johnny Barbato gave up three runs over two innings and was hurt by three walks. Hurdle said he’s probably been overworked, pitching in three of the last four games. … Daniel Hudson pitched a perfect two innings on just 19 pitches. … Cervelli was removed from the game in the ninth inning because he wasn’t feeling well.