Going into the season, one of the the Pittsburgh Pirates’ biggest question marks was the back end of the starting rotation. With Trevor Williams and Chad Kuhl, that question has been answered.
Since the beginning of July, Williams is 2-1 with a 3.12 ERA in 40.1 innings pitched. He has 28 strikeouts and 14 walks in that span. Kuhl on the other hand is 3-1 with a 2.93 ERA in 46 innings pitched. He has 37 strikeouts and 19 walks in that span. These two have solidified their respective spots in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ starting rotation and have provided a real shot in the arm to the pitching staff as a whole.
The key to Williams’ success this year has been the combination of of limiting base runners and inducing soft contact. With a walk rate of 6.9 percent, Williams has done a good job of limiting free passes.
Williams’ ground ball rate of 50 percent has also been nice. He’s inducing soft contact 25.1 percent of the time and surrendering hard contact just 29.9 percent of the time. Williams’ ability to limit hard contact while keeping the ball grounded has been a big reason why he’s only given up 0.77 home runs per nine innings.
Out of all the young Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers, Williams does not have the best stuff. He doesn’t have the high 90s fastball like Kuhl. His breaking pitches aren’t quite as sharp as the likes of Jameson Taillon or Tyler Glasnow. That being said, Williams has been the best “pitcher” of the group this year. He locates. He reads swings. The command of Williams has been phenomenal this season. If he can keep his command sharp, Williams will have a successful major league career with his current repertoire of pitches.
For most of the year, Kuhl has been a fastball, slider, changeup guy.
Recently, he has added a curveball to the mix.
The curveball has played extremely well in it’s short time being thrown. So far this year, opponents are hitting .133 against that pitch. He’s gotten five strikeouts with it. Kuhl has only thrown 88 curveballs this season but we have seen the pitch more and more recently.
Kuhl already has a great slider. This year, opponents are hitting .204 against that pitch. Better yet, he’s gotten 43 of his 96 strikeouts from it. Adding another breaking pitch like a curveball would just add difficulty for opposing hitters.
Sort of like Glasnow, but to a lesser extreme, command is often an issue for Kuhl. This year he is walking 3.67 hitters per nine innings. That mark is not terribly high, but you would like to see it a bit lower. Going a step further, the first pitch of an at bat is key for Kuhl’s success. When Kuhl throws a first pitch strike, batters are hitting .220/.270/.344 against him with 68 strikeouts and 15 walks. When he throws a first pitch ball, batters are hitting .316/.431/.506 with 28 strikeouts and 32 walks. The difference is K to BB ratio is extreme. First pitch strikes often make or break Kuhl in an at bat.
This is not the back end of the starting rotation I foresaw in Spring Training. I expected to see Glasnow emerge as a force and Kuhl to take a step back. I thought Williams would’ve had the season Steven Brault has had. To me, Kuhl and Williams provided depth, not production. That being said, I’m glad to be wrong.
With Glasnow struggling in majors this year and Taillon battling through health issues, a door was opened for Williams and Kuhl to lock down their spots. They have done just that. As the season has progressed, Williams and Kuhl continue to improve. Both of their ERAs have lowered each month this season. They continue to look more comfortable as the season goes on.
If the Pittsburgh Pirates make a late season run, expect these two to factor in a huge part.
Image credit – Daniel Decker Photography