This season is shaping up to be a bit of a disaster. The Pirates are now 14-22, and dead last in the NL Central. They are without Marte until at least July 19th, which would mean he will miss another 60 games. They are also without Jung-ho Kang and Jameson Taillon. Both of which do not have a timetable to return. Below is a graph of how many games Fangraphs projects the Pirates to win.
Well, that’s not good. The Pirates are projected to win just as many as the Brewers, just two more than the Reds, 17 less than the Cubs, and 5 games under .500. But keep faith, Pirate fans, as they still have an estimated 5.8% chance of making the playoffs, so there is still a chance!
The Pirates pitching hasn’t been much of an issue this year. Cole is back to being an ace, Taillon has been great, and Nova looks like a terrific signing. The bullpen has had it’s issues, but overall they are an average bullpen by just about any metric. Hudson has been a disappointing signing, but I’m hopeful that he can turn it around. The rotation actually has the 7th best FIP in the league, which is pretty shocking considering just how bad Glasnow has been. Regardless, it’s tough to put much blame on the pitching when the hitters are putting up 3.56 R/G which puts them at 28th in the league.
On the offensive side, Harrison is starting to look like 2014 Josh Harrison. Josh Bell is looking much better than he did in the first week of the season. And now, the Pirates are healthy again and can put Frazier and Freese in the lineup instead of Jaso and Ngoepe. I am optimistic, obviously way more optimistic than most, that this team will be at least average offensively.
With all that said, there hasn’t been much to be excited about. Even if things click for the Pirates, are they good enough to win 90 games? If they plan on winning 90 games this year, they will need to go 76-50 (.603) the rest of the season. That seems like a long shot.
But, one thing to be excited about is… the man with the 5.81 ERA.
Yes, Chad Kuhl has also been miserable. He has a 5.81 ERA. Out of 116 starting pitchers who have thrown at least 30 innings, Chad Kuhl has the 15th worst ERA. He is 1-3 on the season. Lefties are batting .414 against him to go along with a .493 on base percentage.
In one game this year, he even managed to give up 9 runs in less than 2 innings.
Chad Kuhl is no Taillon, Nova, or Cole. But, he is not a 5.81 ERA type of pitcher either.
In fact, I think Chad Kuhl is poised to have a breakout season.
Over the years, the Pirates have generated a ton of hype around their top prospects, with good reason. Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, and Tyler Glasnow were all at one point top 30 prospects in all of baseball. Cole made his major league debut at 22 years old, Taillon had his at 24, and Glasnow had his at 22. Chad Kuhl had his at 23. He is only 24. There are only 20 pitchers under 25 this year who have thrown 20 innings. Being a major league pitcher at that age is very difficult. His career 4.69 ERA is probably the reason he doesn’t get as much hype as the other guys, but I think it’s time he gets some hype. He can throw upper 90s and has a good slider. Not many pitchers can say that.
Chad Kuhls season thus far has been weird. In 3 out of his 7 starts he has failed to pitch more than 4 innings.
Four starts ago was one example of Kuhl not making it 4 innings. In fact, he didn’t even make it 2. The Cubs destroyed him. He gave up 9 earned runs in under two innings of work against the Cubs. Some of this can be blamed on poor defense. There were some plays in that game that could have been made that weren’t counted as errors and effected his ERA. However, it’s damn hard to do that poorly, and most of the blame should fall back on Kuhls shoulders.
Fun Fact: Kuhl has a career 15.75 ERA against the Cubs. Against everyone else he has a 3.21 ERA in 89.2 IP.
But then in another start, he took a comebacker off the knee and was forced to leave the game. He likely only had an inning or two left in him, but he was pitching very well against the Marlins.
And THEN, he pitched 3 innings against Milwaukee. He gave up 2 hits, struckout 2 guys, and looked like he was about to have the best start of his season. However following his 3rd inning, a 2 hour rain delay occurred which resulted in him being removed from the game. Bummer.
This past start was his first ‘normal’ start in 3 weeks. He looked so good. He started the game striking out the first two batters. But not just any two batters. Two righty mashing, left handed sluggers. Everything looked great. And then he proceeded to walk Justin Turner, and then give up a home run to Cody Bellinger. The inning ended with Kuhl giving up 3 earned runs. However, he kept it together and only gave up one run after that. His final line was ultimately a disappointing 5 IP, 2 BB, 4 K, 4 ER.
So why am I excited about a guy with the 15th worst ERA out of starting pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched?
Because Chad Kuhl is a 24 year old that has the 4th fastest sinker and the 14th fastest four seam fastball out of 117 starting pitchers that have thrown at least 30 innings this year. His velocity is also up this year about one mph compared to last year.
The increase in velocity has helped him get swinging strikes 11.4% of the time on his fastball (both 4 seam and sinker). That ranks him 12th in the league, out of 111 starting pitchers who have thrown fastballs at least 300 times this year. That has him ranked ahead of guys like Yu Darvish, Max Scherzer, and even Gerrit Cole.
Note that different sources categorize pitches differently. For example, the chart below only shows sinker, changeup, and slider. It clumps in his four seam with his sinker. While it does change the numbers a bit, it does not diminish what I am trying to show.
Compared to last year, Kuhl has seen an increase in his whiff rate (whiff rate is the same as swinging strikes %) with every pitch he has. This is not an insignificant bump. Kuhl has the fourth largest whiff rate increase from last year. He is behind Danny Salazar, Chris Sale, and Jacob deGrom. He is just ahead of Zach Grienke, Kenta Maeda, and Gerrit Cole. Obviously, very good company to be in.
I’m sure everyone knows at this point lefties are what really hurt Kuhl. However, his whiff rate against lefties is now almost the same as his whiff rate against righties.
Why are whiffs so important? A pitcher throws the ball, a batter tries to hit it, and fails. It’s easy to comprehend that a good whiff rate should mean that a pitcher has good stuff. Good stuff usually means that a pitcher will get more strikeouts. Strikeouts are always outs, so more strikeouts are better. Thus, whiffs equals good.
So with Kuhls increased whiff rate, he should be getting more strikeouts. However, Kuhl hasn’t gotten more strikeouts this season. His strikeout percentage has risen .3% over last year. Not nearly the improvement you’d expect after such a large increase in his whiff rate.
Why has it risen just .3%? There could be a couple reasons, all of which I am purely speculating on.
The first reason could be the least fun reason. Simply a small sample size. The whiffs are there, and the strikeouts should come over a larger sample.
Reason two could be poor sequencing. I will use Kuhls past start against the Dodgers as an example. In the Bellinger at bat in which he hit a homerun, Kuhl started the at bat with a changeup for a ball. He then threw 4 straight fastballs, the fourth resulting in a homerun. In Utley’s first at bat, he received a fastball, followed by 3 sinkers, then followed by a slider, and then finally a sinker that Utley hit hard to left field. And then in the last at bat in which Kuhl gave up an RBI, it was again against Utley. He threw him 7 straight fastballs.
Personally, I side with the small sample theory. I expect more strikeouts to come sooner rather than later. If you disagree, I’d be more than happy to hear why in the comments.
What’s interesting, though, is despite the increase in swinging strikes, lefties are still hitting the ball hard against Kuhl. To me it seems like a pitch selection issue. Lefties are crushing Kuhl’s four seam fastball this year. Left handed hitters have a .865 wOBA and a .587 xwOBA against his four seam fastball (I touched on xwOBA briefly here). His sinker has an xwOBA of .304, his change has an xwOBA of .507, and his slider has an xwOBA of .116.
Obviously, Kuhls slider has been great, but he doesn’t have another offering to get out lefties. Gerrit Cole (pre 2017 Gerrit Cole, that is) barely threw his changeup. Last year he did poorly against lefties, mainly because his slider deteriorated. In 2015, however, his slider was his out pitch against lefties. Kuhl should throw his slider more, and use it as an out pitch against lefties. Kuhls changeup is getting swinging strikes against lefties, but it is getting hit hard. Again I am not sure why this is. Maybe he’s being too predictable, maybe he has poor command, maybe it’s just a small sample. If Kuhl manages to develop his changeup, great. But if he doesn’t, and decides to throw his slider 30% of the time, he will breakout.
I’m not saying Kuhl is going to be an ace. But I am willing to say that he will be a very good pitcher this year. He is not a Jeff Locke, blah, bottom of the rotation guy. He is a 24 year old who can reach upper 90s, has a good slider, and is possibly one tweak away from being another Ray Searage success story.