Pittsburgh Pirates Chad Kuhl has been a polarizing pitcher since being called up in 2016. With a fastball topping out at 100 mph, a sharp slider and a burgeoning curveball, Kuhl has always had the stuff to be successful.
Although he has been a starter for the Pittsburgh Pirates for the past season and a half, some still think he would be better suited in the bullpen.
In his career, Kuhl has tallied 228 innings pitched over 45 starts with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He has a 4.30 ERA and 4.59 xFIP with 195 strikeouts and 92 walks. His fastball has averaged 94.9 mph, but he has topped out at 100mph on occasion.
Just by watching him pitch, Kuhl reminds me of another pitcher. We’ll call him Player X. I did not have any stats to back my assumption, just the good old fashioned eye test. So I did some research.
In his first taste of big league action after his 2016 callup to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Kuhl pitched 70.2 innings with an fWAR of 1.0.
Player X pitched 56 innings in his first taste of big league action and ended with an fWAR of 1.1.
In his first full season last year, Kuhl tossed 157.1 innings and had an fWAR of 1.9. His strike out rate was 20.9 percent. His walk rate was 10.6 percent.
Player X threw 170.1 innings in his first full season with an fWAR of 2.9. His K rate was 23.5 percent and walk rate 8.5 percent.
Player X was slightly better up to this point but not by a ton. Both of these pitchers started with a three pitch mix of fastball, slider, and changeup. Kuhl added a curveball last season and had success with it. Player X waited until his fifth full season to add the curve and it took him new heights. His fWAR jumped from 4.4 to 6.1 in the year that he added the hook. That mark hasn’t dropped beneath 5.2 in the years since.
Both pitchers have a mid-nineties fastball with 2-seam action. They are both right-handed, 6’3 and around 215 pounds.
Chad Kuhl’s ground ball rate in his first full season was 41.9 percent. Player X’s was 41.8 percent.
Here’s Kuhl’s heat map in his first full season.
and Player X…
Both like to pound righties in and stay away from lefties. Kuhl was out of the strike zone more.
What makes player X better…
The biggest difference is command. Kuhl throws less strikes and gets hit harder as a result. He got hit hard 36.1 percent of the time in his first full season. Player X only got hit hard 27.7 percent. Batters hit .264/.352/.441 against Kuhl last year. They hit .249/.325/.426 against Player X. Note the difference in on base percentage.
Fastball command is the key difference between these two pitchers. Batters hit .300/.396/.483 against Kuhl’s heater is his first full season. They hit .247/.341/.422 against the heat of Player X.
Kuhl needs to control his fastball better. Plain and simple. I’ve been hammering this lately. Sure, adding the curveball this early in his career was a great move. The pitch was successful for Kuhl last year as hitters had a wRC+ of -22 against it. It is a great weapon. Fastball command will only make it a better weapon. For more on Kuhl’s curveball, I can’t recommend this article by Alex Stumpf enough.
As for Player X, well, he’s has had a great career. It took him a few seasons to emerge as the ace that he is today. He was better than Kuhl early on in his career but only slightly. Both pitchers have a similar pedigree.
Player X has risen to his current status through command of his pitches and sequencing. He drills the strike zone and gives up his fare share of home runs. But it doesn’t matter because, generally, he is so tough to hit. Like Kuhl, he was pretty raw early on is his career. He eventually matured and kept refining his craft.
Player X is Max Scherzer.
Kuhl is obviously not Scherzer. The Pittsburgh Pirates would be over the moon if he turned out to be half the pitcher Scherzer is.
But, he’s got the stuff to turn into a Scherzer-lite type of pitcher . It took a couple of years for Scherzer to harness his stuff to the point where he could become, well, Max Scherzer.
The point is, sometimes you can’t tell right away.
But from a pure stuff and ability standpoint, Kuhl has the makings of a solid starting pitcher. To think otherwise is folly.
Photo credit – Daniel Decker