By Jason Shetler
After being taken by the Pirates in the ninth round of the 2013 MLB Draft, Chad Kuhl quietly emerged as one of the better pitching prospects in the system. His success in the minors was based on having excellent control of a power sinker and slider.
It was one year ago today that Kuhl made his debut for the Pirates, a game in which he outdueled Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. All told, he had himself a passable rookie season, putting up a 4.20 ERA, along with a Fielding Independent Pitching of 3.95 in 14 starts.
During Spring Training, Pirates GM Neal Huntington indicated that Kuhl had the inside track for the fourth spot in the rotation. The first two months had been rough for him, posting a combined 6.04 ERA in April and May. Run prevention has been a little better lately, allowing 12 earned runs in his last five starts. However, he has only gone five innings in each of those outings. Out of the 15 starts Kuhl has made this season, just twice has he pitched at least six innings. With that being said, is it time for the Pirates to use Kuhl as a reliever?
The arsenal is certainly there for Kuhl. His average fastball velocity is 95.5 mph, which is tied for fourth highest by a National League starter, while his sinker velocity of 94.1 mph is the best mark among all sinkerball pitchers in MLB. The slider is Kuhl’s main secondary offering, and it’s a good pitch according to FanGraphs’ Pitch Values. Although he has held right-handed batters in check with a .664 OPS, he has really struggled commanding those pitches to lefty hitters, as they’re posting an OPS of 1.090 off him. As I mentioned earlier, Kuhl has done a poor job of going deeper into games, which may indicate that he is having a difficult time in pacing himself inning by inning.
Boston Red Sox pitcher Joe Kelly went through what Kuhl is going through now. A right-handed starter who threw very hard, but lacked consistency. Kelly is now pitching exclusively in short relief for the Red Sox, hitting upper-90’s consistently and reaching triple digits with relative ease, and most importantly, having great success. The Pirates bullpen has definitely been a problem area, so it wouldn’t hurt to see what Kuhl could potentially provide as a reliever. Steven Brault is pitching extremely well this year with AAA Indianapolis, which should make it an easier decision to have him replace Kuhl in the rotation.