Lost in the middle of a 14 inning, rain delay loss Wednesday was a solid start by Chad Kuhl. He was lifted after five frames because the Pirates needed a pinch-hitter, but with only two runs and three hits on his ledger, it was an encouraging sight in what has been a trying season.
Kuhl has a 6.02 ERA over his first 11 outings, averaging just 4.5 innings a start. He’s been fine against righties, holding them to a .694 OPS, but he has struggled with lefties. Entering play Wednesday, they had a .337/.406/.660 slash line against him. The Mets took advantage of that massive split this past Friday, stacking the lineup with eight lefties. He was chased in the fifth after five runs and eight hits. Other teams will likely follow suit.
The Pirates had a similar problem with Juan Nicasio last year. As a starter, lefties slashed .320/.378/.629. This year, as a reliever, he’s held them to a .231/.310/.289 line. Nicasio abandoned his changeup when he went into the bullpen and Clint Hurdle usually tries to avoid using him when a pack of players with the hand advantage, but the split is negligible now.
Some scouting reports had Kuhl as a potential reliever before he reached the majors last year, and that still might happen. The Pirates would obviously prefer for him to be a starter. Getting lefties under control is the best way to do that. Wednesday was only his 25th career start, so growing pains are expected. He still has a chance to prove he’s worth one of five coveted spots, but his leash may be tightening.
Jameson Taillon is pitching in Indianapolis Friday for his second rehab start, so his return from the disabled list after battling testicular cancer appears to be coming soon. Considering the strides rookie Tyler Glasnow has made since the start of the season, the most likely candidates for Taillon to replace in the rotation are Kuhl or Trevor Williams. Even if Williams is the one who gets sent back to the bullpen or optioned, Steven Brault is having a terrific year in AAA, and Neal Huntington said Nick Kingham “can and will help” the Pirates in 2017 during his weekly presser this past Sunday. There are internal options the Pirates could go to if they want. They have also had success in recent years plucking afterthoughts at the trade deadline and turning them into frontline starters. They do not need to run Kuhl out there every five days out of necessity.
At first glance, Kuhl did not fare much better against the batters with the hand advantage Wednesday. Arizona’s four southpaw swingers (Gregor Blanco, David Peralta, Jake Lamb and Daniel Descalso) combined to go 3-6 with a double, triple and a pair of walks. That does not tell the whole story of his outing. The fourth inning triple would have been a single if McCutchen did not take an unwise dive at it. The single was a seeing eye grounder. The hardest contact he allowed to a lefty was to leadoff hitter Gregor Blanco. The 96.1 MPH knock dropped in for a double despite having only a 35 percent chance of being a hit, according to Statcast. It’s tough to call a game where five of eight batters reached base a good, but it was not bad.
He did this by completely abandoning the inner part of the plate. Compare his pitch location Wednesday (top) to his previous start against the Mets (bottom). He clearly wanted to work away.
Kuhl said avoiding the inner third was part of the game plan because Blanco and Lamb excell there. Overall, it worked fairly well, limiting the hard contact. It did come at the cost of him not utilizing his best pitch this season: the slider.
Kuhl’s slider has been his best weapon overall (weighted at 2.4 runs above average according to Pitchf/x), and his most effective option against lefties. It’s generating the most whiffs and and ground balls out of anything in his arsenal while also yielding the fewest line drives. It’s a pitch he should probably be going to more often. The changeup, on the other hand, should probably be avoided.
Kuhl’s problems with lefties is partially because he effectively only has a two pitch mix- fastball/sinker and a slider. There is not a big enough velocity gap between his heater and changeup for it to be used as often as it has been. His four seamer averaged 95.2 MPH against lefties Wednesday, while his changeup was 89.1. That is in line with his season averages. His change was a plus pitch for him in 2016, but it’s coming in 3.1 MPH faster than last year (88.2 compared to 85.1). As a result, it’s gone from being worth 2.8 runs to -5.7 (entering play Wednesday, according to Pitchf/x).
So to add some variety to his velocity, Kuhl peppered in some curveballs Wednesday. He said it’s something he’s been working on in bullpen sessions and an option he has confidence in going forward. He threw it 15 times Wednesday- including seven reps to lefties- after only going to it once through the first two month. Against southpaws, he got a whiff for a strike three and a groundout with it. It just might be what he needs.
Kuhl has hit 99.5 MPH on the radar gun this year, but he has his best swing and miss stuff when he dials it back a little. Creating a velocity disparity between his heater and breaking stuff will make up for that drop. If this new hook is a viable major league pitch and he ramps up his slider usage, he might be able to solve his lefty problem without going to the bullpen.