BRADENTON, Fla. — In more ways than one, Chad Kuhl was a completely different pitcher from the start of the 2017 season to the end of the 2017 season.
In the first half of the season, Kuhl made 18 starts, pitched 85.1 innings and had a 4.96 ERA. In the second half of the season, Kuhl made 13 starts, pitched 72 innings and had a 3.63 ERA.
Obviously, there’s a huge difference in outcomes there. Which pitcher are the Pirates likely to get in 2018? Well, it’s a complicated question. Let’s start with the numbers and what made the difference for Kuhl after the break in 2017.
When looking at Kuhl’s rate stats, one thing jumps out quickly. In the second half of the season, Kuhl allowed a lot less contact. His batting average against went down from .276 to .250. Kuhl’s success was built on replacing that contact with strikeouts.
Kuhl’s strikeout per nine innings went from 7.28 in the first half to 9.13 in the second half and his strikeout rate went from 18.8 percent to 23.4 percent. That’s a dramatic jump, and it’s the big reason for Kuhl’s second half turnaround.
Kuhl added a curveball and started throwing his four-seam fastball more, playing up the velocity and elevating it in the zone. The combination not only increased strikeouts, but the amount of hard contact off his two-seam fastball.
That makes projecting Kuhl’s 2018 a bit tough for statistical models. Which pitcher will he be? Steamer (8.06 K/9, 4.42 ERA) is a lot friendlier to Kuhl than ZiPS (7.57 K/9, 4.70 ERA). Kuhl seems to buying in to making the second half changes from 2017 stick.
“I really want to just follow up on the pitcher I was in that second half,” Kuhl said. “That’s when I felt really good and obviously, I had much better results. I’m really trying to focus in on where I was then and keep move forward.”
Of course, it might not be that simple. Pitchers and hitters play a cat-and-mouse game. Pitchers make a change. Hitters adjust. Pitchers then have to make another change. In order for Kuhl to repeat his second-half numbers over the course of a long season, he’s going to have to make continued refinements.
“Last year, at this time, I was just adding the changeup,” Kuhl said. “The curveball came later. It was more adding the changeup. Now, it’s being able to be comfortable to throw it any time, anywhere and have it be a weapon. Kind of like my slider has been and the curveball now, I feel comfortable throwing those at any time, so getting that changeup to where I feel comfortable throwing it any time is big.
“It’s that confidence. If you’d put down changeup a few years ago, I’d be iffy about it.”
Kuhl can become more effective in other ways, as well. With a mostly healthy season under his belt but just 157.1 innings pitched, Kuhl feels like he has more to give.
“Some of those games, I burned my pitches through five or got pulled, one or the other,” he said. “It’s just one of those things doing a better job of controlling what I can control.”
When it comes to going deeper into games, one of the things that is always going to come up is the third time through the order. In that regard, Kuhl’s numbers are interesting. He allowed an .853 OPS the first time through the order, and that was his highest. After that, it was .700 the second time and .851 the third time, but he made it to the third time through the order about half the time.
Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage attributed the ability to work the third time through the order to having a more varied arsenal that can be adjusted based on what happened the first two times.
“I like starters to have four pitches, because if one breaking ball doesn’t work, the other one you’ve got a better shot at that might be working,” Searage said. “With Kuhly, I don’t think he knows how good he can be. One of the biggest things with Kuhly is learning how to be aware of the situation and start to learn that way, read hitters’ swings.
“It’s ‘I don’t need to go with the slider; I can go with the curveball, I can go with my changeup.’ There’s still a lot of learning process that’s going to be going on. It’s not going to be done with kid gloves.”
Kuhl might not be able to make the dramatic improvement he showed in the second half of 2017 stick. But by showing that he can make effective changes and adjustments at the major-league level, he’s proven that he has the ability to be a successful MLB pitcher.
“There was one game he was a four-seam/curveball guy, then there was another game he was a two-seamer/slider guy,” Searage said. “I’m going, ‘All right, if we put these two together, oh my gosh!’”