PITTSBURGH — What started this spring as a strategy for dealing with left-handed pitchers has turned into a near-complete evolution of Pirates starter Chad Kuhl.
Kuhl came up through the system as a classic right-handed mid-90s sinkerballer that also featured a slider. It’s a fairly common 1-2 punch for pitchers of that profile.
The weakness of that combination is left-handed hitters and most pitchers that use it also feature a changeup. Kuhl did, too. But his changeup is not as evolved as his other two primary pitches.
As Kuhl’s rookie season went along and teams started to get more knowledge about his game and how he attacked hitters, the Pirates saw some signs that he might need a new approach against left-handers.
This spring, Kuhl started throwing his four-seam fastball. With Kuhl’s steady stream of sinkers away, a four-seamer up around the hands could be a big weapon to change the eye level of hitters and keep them off the two-seamer.
It didn’t play out that way at first, as Kuhl still struggled with left-handers through the first part of the season. Teams picked up on it and started loading up lefties against him. The New York Mets found eight lefties to run out there against him in a game.
But a funny thing happened — Kuhl found some velocity. His average fastball velocity is up over two mph from 2016, and it’s peak is up to 100 mph for the first time regularly. Kuhl hit 98.7 in his five-inning start in a 5-1 loss to the Rockies Wednesday and averaged 95.4.
But the velocity wasn’t always a good thing. Kuhl was throwing through the sink on his two-seamer and flattening it out, causing it to be hit and hit hard. So he made some efforts to scale it back, but that put the pitch in conflict with his low-90s slider, which he felt was the best of his three offerings.
That prompted to Kuhl to introduce a curveball at the bottom of his arsenal, to slow pitchers down even more.
With the curveball in play, Kuhl and the Pirates decided to take that process one step further and de-emphasize the two-seamer. It’s not that he’s not going to throw it — he threw 32 on Wednesday, the most of any pitch — it’s that it’s not going to be the bread-and-butter of his approach like it was.
Instead of relying on the sinker to get ground balls, Kuhl is just going to throw and see what happens, utilizing a new mix of pitches unlike anything he’s featured as a professional. It’s a strange new world and not an easy process to have play out at the major-league level, but Kuhl is excited about it so far.
“I’ve never really had this uptick in velocity and we’re going to see how it works: mix in the four-seam more and see how it plays and see how it goes,” Kuhl said. “It’s cool to have the success with the life on the heater. It’s also kind of challenging. You don’t want to be stuck between being two different pitchers. It’s really about figuring out who I am as a pitcher and what makes me the best.”
Kuhl said that the extra heat on his heater was an unexpected development even for him and was the driving factor in the changes he’s made.
“It’s kinda surprising,” he said. “I always topped out harder, but was never really this consistent with it. I can pitch at the bottom of the zone, I can pitch at the top of the zone now, too. We’ll see where it goes.”
Wednesday, Kuhl said he felt like he had the two-seamer/four-seamer combination working well.
“If you can pitch to both sides of the plate, then the off-speed will come right along with it,” he said. “Having that established fastball is huge. … I threw a couple (four-seamers) that went for ground balls. It’s just all about the angle and executing. It’s big to throw that thing arm-side and glove side. I threw a couple, went for ground balls. It was a good pitch.”
TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE
There’s bound to be hiccups with Kuhl’s massive changes and Wednesday was no exception. He threw his curveball just three times and with good reason — the third one was hung to Ian Desmond and ended up in the seats.
“I feel like for just starting to throw it, I have a pretty good feel for it coming out of the gate with it,” he said. “One of them was just too much plate. The other was a fine pitch, over the plate but it was down and got the ground ball. It’s something to keep on working on, but I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of it.”
IN THE WORKSHOP
It’s notable that in the midst of all of these change, the Pirates sent a different starting pitcher — Tyler Glasnow — to Indianapolis.
“It’s obviously a boost in confidence that they have the confidence in me and I have the confidence in myself, especially after the last few games,” Kuhl said. “I feel a lot better. I had a rough stretch there in the last month, but the past three or four starts have really been feeling good.”
Kuhl’s ERA sits at 5.61 after Wednesday’s three-run, five-inning outing. It’s currently the highest on the team’s five-man staff and though Glasnow was just exchanged for Jameson Taillon, Steven Brault remains pitching extremely well in Indianapolis just a phone call away. With so much going on with Kuhl’s game, it would be understandable if manager Clint Hurdle asked him to work things out in the minors. But that won’t be the case.
“I look forward to giving him the ball in a regular turn and seeing where he can take us next time out,” Hurdle said.
Francisco Cervelli returned to the lineup, going 1 for 4 and also threw out a runner. … Elias Diaz was used as a pinch hitter in the ninth and struck out. …The Pirates had runners in scoring position in the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings, but mustered just one run on a double-play ball off the bat of Gregory Polanco.