PITTSBURGH — There are plenty of similarities between Chad Kuhl and Trevor Williams.
The pair of Pirates starters are both tall right-handers, with Williams an inch taller at 6-foot-3. They were both born in 1992 with Williams turning 25 in April and Kuhl set to do so in September. They both played collegiately, with Kuhl at Delaware and Williams at Arizona State, and they were also both drafted in 2013.
The other thing they share is at the beginning of this season, each player’s first full season in Major League Baseball, they stunk.
On May 8, Williams made his first start of the season after spending the first five weeks of the season in the bullpen and got shellacked, giving up eight runs in three innings to the Los Angeles Dodgers to spike his ERA to 7.98.
On May 26, Kuhl gave up a pair of homers as the New York Mets piled on for five runs in 4.1 innings to balloon his ERA to 6.29.
In mid-May, Pirates were floundering, with Jameson Taillon on the disabled list while battling testicular cancer and fellow young starter Tyler Glasnow having even more trouble on the mound. Daniel Hudson had been going through a rough patch that would be the portent of bigger issues for the bullpen and the offense was still reeling from the unexpected losses of Jung Ho Kang and Starling Marte.
The Pirates came into the season knowing that they’d rely on Kuhl and at least one other young pitcher in the starting rotation, but there wasn’t much of a mandate to stick with the ones in the majors, especially with Steven Brault performing well with Triple-A Indianapolis and the fact that Drew Hutchison, the most expensive of all of the team’s back-end pitching options, had yet to contribute at all despite $2.3 million salary.
If Kuhl and Williams were going to stick around, there needed to be some changes made going forward. Manager Clint Hurdle, pitching coach Ray Searage and company got to work on diagnosing what was going on with their young righties and what they could do to go about fixing things before the season got out of hand.
PITCHER IN TRANSITION
Williams came into Spring Training in a four-way battle with Brault, Hutchison and Glasnow for the team’s fifth starter spot. He made less money than Hutchison and was less heralded than Glasnow as a prospect, while Brault had the advantage of being the lone lefty of the bunch.
In fact, Williams, who was not drafted by the Pirates, was probably most well-known at that time for once being traded for pitching guru Jim Benedict and having a hilarious Twitter account.
It wasn’t a surprise that Williams bowed out at the end of the competition, but he made enough of an impact to secure a roster spot in the team’s bullpen. That move seemed to make sense. Williams had experience as a reliever at Arizona State and he seemed to get a good bit more out of his fastball in shorter outings.
The experiment never really got a chance to get off the ground, however, because just six appearances into the season, he was hauled back into the starting rotation. It wasn’t because things weren’t working out as a reliever. Taillon’s cancer diagnosis had opened at least a temporary spot and Williams was chosen to get plugged into that role.
The first time out — May 8 in Los Angeles — he got hammered. Right away, Williams recognized that some of the changes that he had made in his adjustment to the bullpen just weren’t going to fly as a starting pitcher.
“At the beginning of the year, I was getting away from who I was as a pitcher,” Williams said. “As a reliever, I was trying to throw it 95 MPH every pitch and have a wipeout slider. That’s not the pitcher that got to the big leagues. I got punched in the face early in the year starting like that. Then, I had to take a step back.”
PROBLEM WITH PREDICTABILITY
Kuhl pitched well all through the spring, and even though he wasn’t officially named the team’s No. 4 starter until late in the Grapefruit League schedule, it was seen nearly a sure thing for the final month or so.
He carried that straight into the start of the season, posting three straight solid outings to begin the year by doing what Williams had failed to do: being the pitcher that had gotten him to the big leagues.
Kuhl leaned heavily on the combination of his two-seam fastball and slider to get quick outs with ground balls and Kuhl was pretty good at it. He was hammering the bottom of the zone and getting results. But things started to come unraveled on May 10, just two days after Williams’ blowup and still early in a season-worst six-game losing streak for the Pirates.
The Dodgers threw out a lineup chock full of left-handers and knocked Kuhl around for four runs on six hits in five innings. The next start, the Washington Nationals did the same with even better results, pushing across six runs on 10 hits in four frames on May 16. By the time the Mets were done routing him on May 26, Searage was already developing a game plan for what needed to happen next with Kuhl.
Teams had adjusted to his sinker-heavy approach that was focused on the low, outside corner and his changeup wasn’t doing the trick in keeping lefties from sitting on his fastball. Instead of the back-to-basics approach applied to Williams, the Pirates’ master tinkerer had a big overhaul in store.
‘MOVING THE CHAINS’
Though prone to joking around in the clubhouse and in the dugout on his off days, Williams is a serious student of his craft, with both Hurdle and Searage commending his coachability and willingness to learn, along with the maturity and self-awareness to help his own cause. When it came to getting back to what he did best, the primary focus for Williams was on his fastball. It wasn’t that it wasn’t good enough. He just needed to trust that it was.
“I had to take a step back,” he said. “Sometimes I get too amped up. Sometimes I try to do too much. But the Pirates called up Trevor Williams. They didn’t call up a different style of Trevor Williams. So I had to really take a step back to square one about what makes me a great pitcher and every start, recognizing early if I’m getting away from that.”
In an attempt to overcome a deficiency that didn’t truly exist, Williams was overthrowing his fastball. The key then was to trust his stuff and take the foot off the gas in exchange for more fine control of his arsenal.
“I keep on telling the young kids, it doesn’t matter how hard you throw it, it’s where you throw it,” Searage said. “They’re getting the grasp of it and the way the season has gone and the way they’re progressing, it’s pretty exciting.”
That realization has led to a dramatic increase in Williams’ confidence in his arsenal. It’s a change that catcher Francisco Cervelli was pretty quick to pick up on.
“You see a lot of pitchers in baseball that always throw 95, 97. Williams doesn’t care what he has, he just goes after people,” Cervelli said. “You go inside, you’re going to have to success. That’s what good pitchers do all the time. But if you cannot command the fastball, it’s a problem. … When you’re able to hit the corners down, it’s going to be hard to hit it.”
Since Williams has started backing off the heater, hitters have been squaring it up less and less frequently. On both his four-seam and two-seam fastball, there has been a steady decrease in velocity as the season has gone on, from an average of over 94 MPH for the four-seamer in the early going to just over 92 MPH in August.
But while his pitches were getting slower, they were also getting much harder to hit. In April, opponents were hitting .500 off his flattened-out two-seamer. In August, that’s decreased all the way to .150 and he’s thrown 74 four-seamers this month without a single one going for a hit.
There wasn’t one day or one week or even one month when Williams made a dramatic swing from one extreme to the other. Instead, it’s been a long, slow, meticulous process of minute adjustments and constant self-evaluation.
“It’s just sticking with it, reassessing after every game and reassessing during the five-day rotation what’s working, what’s giving you success and what’s not giving you success,” Williams said.
He also has had to deal with getting stretched back out to a full starter’s role after starting out in the bullpen. He’s pitched seven innings just three times and never more than that.
“For him, it was endurance as much as anything,” Hurdle said. “It was building his pitch count up, moving that forward. … I’ve got to give him some chances to continue to go out there and move the chains and continue to grow and pitch in those situations that are tight.”
‘AN A-HA MOMENT’
Kuhl is a natural competitor. On the mound, he’s as intense as it gets, with fist pumps and even occasional shouts punctuating his successful moments. Even off the field, Kuhl has a nervous energy about him and a motor that never seems to completely turn off. But that was at odds with what he was trying to do on the mound, when he needed a bit of Zen to keep from overthrowing and flattening out his sinker, a problem that happened a lot early in his career as he battles the nerves of a rookie season.
But something changed during the first part of 2017 that thew all of that out the window. Kuhl started throwing harder. A lot harder. In his rookie season in 2016, he started out at the big-league level with an average fastball near 95 MPH and finished out in October around 92. This is also where he had been during his time in the minors the previous two years.
That’s where he started out again this spring, but as the season went on, Kuhl kept throwing harder. By the time his season reached its critical point, he was averaging 96 with radar gun readings of 98 and above not uncommon.
“There was an a-ha moment for Kuhl and us when he started throwing 98, 99,” Hurdle said. “You’re going, ‘Hey, wait a minute, the gun’s broke. No, it’s stuck. No, it’s not. He’s throwing really hard. Where’d this come from?’”
Kuhl started mixing in more of his four-seam fastball and throwing it as a power pitch. With velocities in the upper 90s, the sink that he was trying to keep calm to achieve became less and less important. Kuhl could use the four-seam fastball to elevate and still turn back to the sinker when he needed a ground ball. But what his new high-speed offering was desperately missing was something way off the pace to turn it into a true swing-and-miss pitch.
On May 31 against the Arizona Diamondbacks, for the first time since high school — about seven years — Kuhl threw a curveball. The effect was not immediate and massive. Unsurprisingly, Kuhl’s curveball wasn’t exactly crisp. But the game plan was not to use it as a primary offering. Instead, Kuhl’s curve was meant to be a literal change of pace and get him out of the predictable patterns he’d developed with his slider and fastball.
“Curveballs are hard pitches to hit, especially when it’s coming off velocity that’s super 90’s,” Hurdle said. “You throw it at the same eye level with the depth and the tilt late. It can be a weapon for him.”
In his last start, Kuhl used the curve to record three swinging strikeouts, a couple of them on silly looking swings as hitters geared up to fight off nearly 100 MPH.
“It’s obviously a good feeling and it’s something that I didn’t have going through the early part of the season,” Kuhl said. “I started off OK, then I hit that rough patch where it was fastball, slider. The addition of the curveball has been huge and then I’ve kept working on the changeup.”
The result is a five-pitch mix and while his secondary offerings don’t have spectacular individual results, they’ve accomplished their primary purpose of keeping hitters from sitting on Kuhl’s fastball. Since he’s debuted the curve, there’s been a steady drop in the amount of hard-hit heaters.
“It’s just being able to mix and match,” Kuhl explained. “In the past, I just had the slider. The curveball is another weapon. I’m just going along with the game plan with Cervy and rolling with it.”
STAYING THE COURSE
Williams’ progress through his development at the major-league level was not quick and easy. Kuhl’s changes were dramatic. Both went through struggles even after they began to make adjustments. But the Pirates were steadfast in keeping both men in the rotation as they worked things out.
That move seems to have paid off.
Williams’ ERA is down to 4.17 and he’s allowed just three runs in his last three starts. His best of the season came this week, when he one-hit the Detroit Tigers over seven innings. Kuhl has shown similar progress, dropping is earned-run mark to 4.53 and posting a seven-inning, four-hit shutout performance on August 3 against the Reds.
“I also think we’ve showed some patience with them this year, which has helped,” Hurdle said. “There were some growing pains. We may have to go through them again. … There were times when we looked at this rotation and where we felt it could go, we knew were going to have to show some patience that we may not have had in place before.”
Williams said that there was a tangible benefit to the knowledge that the coaching staff and management trusted him enough to let him work things out in the majors.
“It’s the confidence,” he said. “Every fifth day, you continue to gain confidence. I think being up here longer gives you that confidence. Experience is the biggest confidence builder. If I’m going out there every fifth day and I’m getting the ball every fifth day, it’s given me confidence. When I see I can get guys out without my greatest stuff, it’s given me confidence that I can go to it when I don’t have it that day.”
“It feels like we’re just sticking with the process, as Gerrit (Cole) likes to say,” Kuhl added. “We’re just going with the changes that I’ve made and just keep rolling.”
Cervelli is the first one to notice when something goes well or it doesn’t. He’s seen both pitchers grow mostly from what they’ve learned in game action.
“You don’t get better on the bench or at home,” Cervelli said. “You get better on the mound, playing, making mistakes. That’s the only way you learn.”
Hurdle said that it was a matter of handing out some trust to the young pitchers before they had really earned it, which he was able to do by having faith that they would respond in the proper fashion.
“The rotation, to build this year, for us to get where we think we can go, we believed that we had to give them some outings that were going to be learning experiments a lot of times,” Hurdle said. “I think it’s showing the benefits of it now.”
CHANGES IN ATTITUDE
There’s little question that despite the improvements from Kuhl and Williams, they remain behind Cole, Ivan Nova, and Taillon when it comes to the rotation’s pecking order. But it’s just as clear that no matter what the Triple-A group of Brault, Glasnow and Hutchison do, it’s going to be a long climb to unseat a current member of the starting five.
Brault is the International League’s ERA leader at 2.06, which is a title he holds only because Glasnow (1.61 ERA) hasn’t thrown enough innings to qualify. The emergence of Kuhl and Williams has caused general manager Neal Huntington to re-evaluate the way he sees his future rotation.
Starting pitching was the only position that remained untouched as Huntington made moves at the trade deadline and just beyond. But if the Pirates see their rotation as set, that provides opportunities to move other pitchers to the bullpen or trade them to upgrade at other spots.
They’ve also sparked the team’s recent run back towards the top of the NL Central. Kuhl and Williams both provided strong starts in a pair of back-to-back victories over the Detroit Tigers this week while Nova struggled against them. The script has been flipped 180 degrees from the beginning of the season. Now the youngsters are carrying the older pitchers forward.
“We have a young club and a club that’s learning,” Kuhl said. “It’s a young starting rotation. We’re all going to fight. We’re all going to try to get better.”
Searage, one of the most easygoing figures in the Pirates clubhouse, gets fired up when he starts to talk about the future potential of the staff he’s assembled.
“When you get up in the morning, you just can’t wait to get to the ballpark,” he beamed. “How much better can they get today? Who knows how much he’s improved and learned from the last time. It comes out in the pens, but in between the white lines, in the heat of the moment, that’s when you see it. You take a step and say, ‘that’s a major step, right there.’”
Hurdle also appreciates the way that Searage and the pitchers have taken an individualized approach. Two pitchers, seemingly so very similar, took vastly different paths to get from early-season struggles to August success.
“It speaks to the persistence, the resiliency and the coachability of the men,” Hurdle said. “I think it also speaks to the teaching and the tutelage of the minor-league system, our player development coaches, the pitching coaches that are involved. They’ve been touched by our entire player-development program. We do a lot of things on the field, we do a lot of things off the field to help build mental toughness, build physical toughness, build cohesion, camaraderie. All those things play in.
“Each guy has his own story to tell. Each guy has his own path to blaze. That’s what’s kind of really cool about it and fun. … I’m enjoying the ride.”