Pittsburgh Pirates starter Chad Kuhl has been mostly solid in 2017, but if he wants to stay in the rotation in 2018, he must generate more two-strike counts.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have to be happy with what they have seen in Chad Kuhl to this point.
Not only has Kuhl been able to stick in the team’s rotation throughout the entire 2017 season, he has shown to be a capable major league pitcher. He has posted a 2.0 fWAR to date, to go along with a 7.82 K/9. He keeps the ball in the park with a 0.8 HR/9, and carries the best Swinging Strike percentage on the starting staff, with a 9.6 percent rate.
With a fastball that has good sinking action and can touch triple digits, it becomes quizzical to ponder how a pitcher with his profile can also carry an xFIP of 4.62, a BB/9 of 4.08, and a K/BB ratio of 1.92 — all serving as the worst among Pittsburgh Pirates starters with 100 innings pitched.
Of course, much of that can be contributed to Kuhl still learning how to pitch in the majors — as of this writing he has pitched just 205.1 innings — but a deeper look shows that Kuhl does himself no favors by seeing the fewest amount of two strike counts of any 2017 Pittsburgh Pirates starter.
Facts, figures and counts
Kuhl has thrown 28.1 percent of his pitches in two-strike counts. That is the second fewest among any Pittsburgh Pirates hurler — reliever or starter — with at least 30 innings pitched for the club. The fewest percentage both the starting unit and pitching staff overall belongs to Ivan Nova with 24.9 percent. Across MLB, likely American League Cy Young winner Chris Sale leads in this regard with a 34.57 percent clip.
Kuhl also carries the the third highest figure of pitches thrown while ahead in the count — in any fashion, not just with two strikes — on the Pittsburgh Pirates rotation with a 27.01 percent rate, nto far from the team-leading 30.22 percent clip from Gerrit Cole. Chris Sale once again leads the way with a 35.59 percent mark.
Here’s why this is important. Studies have shown that a two strike count overwhelmingly favors the pitcher. That’s not entirely a new thought, but the degree to which it is true can be startling. According to Statcast, hitters are only putting 24.2 percent of two-strike pitches in play in 2017, with just 7.1 percent of those falling for hits.
Other studies have shown that the 1-1 count is the most important count in baseball, serving as a bona-fide inflection point. The best pitchers can take a 1-1 count and turn it into a quick out. The best hitters can take the 1-1 and force the pitcher to give them a pitch to hit.
On a 1-1 count, hitters are slashing a robust .378/.378/.644 off of Kuhl. What is happening with Kuhl on this ultra-important moment in at bat?
Still need that third pitch
Our attempt to answer that question starts with a quest the Pittsburgh Pirates have had since the beginning of Spring Training: find Kuhl a consistent third pitch.
Kuhl heavily relies on his sinking fastball in a 1-1 count, with a 69.9 percent usage*. Despite conventional thinking, that is a not-so-nice figure when talking about a specific, important scenario.
* as an aside, it can be incredibly frustrating for journalists to write intelligently about pitch selection when three different resources show three different tabulations. The 69.9 percent figure referenced here is a combination of the various readings, including Statcast reading a sinker as a four seamer, with Brooks Baseball lumping it all together as a sinker. That’s what we’ll do here, and on the site in general, as well.
Of course, featuring a pitch in a certain count does not automatically draw a certain conclusion, but it is worth noting that hitters have struck these pitches for an average exit velocity of 90.1 mph, an entirely solid figure. There has been some luck involved in this count with a .378 BABIP, but the chance factor is diminished for this author when looking at exit velocity by zone:
That is a zone map that looks awfully hittable, even when the sinker does, in fact, sink. When left up the story gets much worse.
So, can just throwing in another pitch solve things? Maybe. Kuhl is throwing a changeup 24.6 percent of the time on 1-1 counts, but logic dictates that he may have to incorporate some type of breaking pitch into his arsenal, for deception’s sake alone. An obvious candidate would be the slider that the Pittsburgh Pirates wanted him to develop when they selected him in the 2013 draft. Used at a 19.78 percent clip overall, the hard-breaker has carried the second highest whiff rate for his repertoire at 12.5 percent.
An increasing reliance on a third pitch helps Kuhl in a myriad of ways. Not only will it stop teams from hunting his sinker, a bigger repertoire can lead to longer outings. As of this writing, Kuhl averages less than five innings per game. With a Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen that seems to get weaker by the day, squeezing another inning or so from Kuhl would do wonders.
The lack of a third pitch on 1-1 counts is unlikely to serve as the primary reason for Chad Kuhl’s lack of two-strike counts, but it would be a fine place to start.
Image credit – Keith Allison – Flickr Creative Commons