Returning from Tommy John Surgery, what role will pitcher Chad Kuhl play for the Pittsburgh Pirates during the 2020 season?
During the 2019 season the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff struggle. This was especially true for the starting rotation which was among the worst in all of baseball. These struggles played a role in long time pitching coach Ray Searage losing job when the season ended.
One pitcher the Pirate pitching staff was without during their tumultuous 2019 campaign was righty Chad Kuhl. This was due to Kuhl missing the season as he rehabbed from Tommy John Surgery. However, barring any sort of set back, Kuhl will be ready for Spring Training when pitchers and catchers report to Bradenton next month.
Prior to being cut down by a UCL tear in 2018 Kuhl had been maddeningly inconsistent. However, he had also flashed plenty of potential. This potential stemmed from his power fastball/wipe out slider/curveball combo.
Pre-injury, Kuhl’s fastball averaged 95.3 MPH in 2018. This ranked him in the 83rd percentile in baseball. Opposing batters slugged just .295 against Kuhl’s slider, while swinging and missing 41.1% of the time. As for his curveball, which held opposing batters to a .188 slugging percentage while generating a 33.8% swing-and-miss rate, was in the 96th percentile in spin rate.
During the 2018 season Kuhl also ranked in the bottom 2% of baseball in barrel rate (10.6%) and his 38.8% hard contact rate was below league average. So, outside of his home run issue, it is a bit confusing as to why Kuhl owned 4.55 ERA and a 4.70 FIP prior to going under the knife.
Overall in his MLB career Kuhl has pitched 313 innings in 61 games, all of which have been starts. He owns a 4.37 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 9.2% walk rate, and a 20.4% strikeout rate. He has also been a pitcher that has improved each season of his career. He made his MLB debut in 2016, and watched his strikeout rate and fastball velocity rise each season. While he walk rate rose from 2016 to 2017, it then dropped nearly 2% in 2018.
So, what will Kuhl’s role be in 2020?
Well, earlier in the off-season it was reported that general manager Ben Cherington was searching for starting pitching help. We are now less than a month away from the start of Spring Training and Cherington has yet to add any such help. This means the Pirate rotation currently has four arms – Chris Archer, Joe Musgrove, Mitch Keller, and Trevor Williams.
With those four in place, it leaves the Pirates in need of another starting pitcher. If no other starting pitcher is added before Opening Day, this fifth starter will likely be Kuhl. Plus, even the returning four starters for the Pirates are not without questions. In addition to each spending time on the injured list, Archer and Williams are each coming off the worst season of their MLB careers. As for Keller, while he flashed great potential in 2019 and he continues to look like a future top of the rotation starting pitcher, he certainly took his lumps in 2019.
A strong argument can be made to move Kuhl to the bullpen. With his stuff, Kuhl would be a dominant reliever. Hell, I myself have made this argument before. That said, even an average middle of the rotation starting pitcher carries more value than even the best relievers in baseball, and Kuhl’s stuff is more than good enough to be better than an average middle of the rotation arm. Combine this with a hole in the fifth spot in the Pirate rotation, and the Pirates, assuming he is healthy, should start the regular season with Kuhl in their starting rotation.
Kuhl’s potential is undoubtedly there. However, he needs to refine his control and throw quality strikes more often. Also, leaning on his slider and curveball more would benefit him. Hopefully, with new pitching coach Oscar Marin Pirate fans will see more of all of this from Kuhl in 2020.