Pittsburgh Pirates: Chad Kuhl and His Fastball Problem

Sep 24, 2020; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Chad Kuhl (39) delivers a pitch against the Chicago Cubs during the first inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 24, 2020; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Chad Kuhl (39) delivers a pitch against the Chicago Cubs during the first inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /
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Despite being a power pitch, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Chad Kuhl had a lot of problems with his fastball during the 2020 season.

For a lot of reasons, the 2020 MLB season was an unforgettable one. Msot of these reasons, however, were negative ones. For one member of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff the 2020 season was an unforgettable one for a memorable reason. This pitcher is righty Chad Kuhl.

When Kuhl made his first appearance of the season on July 27th, it was the first time he had toed the rubber in a MLB game in over two calendar years. After missing most of the 2018 season and all of the 2019 season due to Tommy John Surgery, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kuhl were both thrilled he was back on the mound.

Kuhl went on to pitch in 11 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2020, with nine of them being starts. Kuhl logged 46.1 innings and posted a 4.27 ERA, 5.48 FIP and a 5.10 DRA. While his 22.3% strikout rate was a new career high, his 14.2% walk rate and 1.55 HR/9 were both career highs and both were numbers, especially the walk rate, that need to come down substantially in 2021.

Even though Kuhl issued too many walks and his FIP and DRA were not pretty, he did a good job of run prevention in 2020 as evident by his 4.27 ERA. Most importantly, he got on a MLB mound and stayed healthy.

As was the case for Kuhl pre-injury in 2017 and 2018, he possessed a power fastball in 2020. His fastball velocity sat in the 63rd percentile of baseball, checking in at an average of 93.9 MPH. On the surface this sounds like a great pitch for Kuhl. However, that was not the case in 2020. In fact, Kuhl had a major fastball problem this past season.

Opposing batters slugged .667 off of Kuhl’s fastball in 2020. Overall, opposing batters were 18-for-63 with four doubles off of his fastball. Six of the eight home runs he allowed came off the fastball. The pitch also generated a whiff rate of just 8.3%.

Struggling with his power fastball is not anything new ofr Kuhl, either. In 2018 opposing batters slugged .600 off the pitch, and they slugged .531 off the pitch in 2017. So, clearly, despite the high velocity of the pitch it is a pitch that has long given Kuhl problems.

While Kuhl’s fastball caused problems in 2020, this was not the case for his slider or change up. Opposing batters hit just .194 with a .254 slugging percentage off of his slider. It limited opposing batters to an average exit velocity of just 86.8 MPH, which is 3 MPH below the league average exit velocity, and it generated a 39.7% whiff rate.

This came on the heels of the pitch having a .295 slugging percentage against it, 85.1 MPH exit velocity and a 41.1% whiff rate in 2018. In 2017, his slider saw opposing batters slug .265 off the pitch, to go with a 86.6 MPH exit velocity and a 42.5% whiff rate.

As for Kuhl’s curveball, the pitch ranked in the 80th percentile in baseball in spin rate in 2020. Throwing the pitch 4% more than he did in 2018 and 11% more than he did in 2017, opposing batters were just 2-for-28 off the pitch this past season to go with a 38.5% whiff rate.

When looking at Kuhl’s pitch breakdown, depsite his sturggles with the fastball, it is still the pitch he has thrown most. It was thrown 43.7% of the time in 2020, 58.7% of the time in 2018 and 64.1% of the time in 2017. It would appear that chaning up pitch usage could be a positive for Kuhl.

2020 saw Kuhl’s slider and curveball usage both hit all-time highs. He threw his slider 34.5% of the time and his curveball 17.6% of the time. This came after throwing the pitches at 19.8% and 13.1% rates in 2018, and 19.8% and just a 6.3% rate in 2017.

Next. Breaking Down Joe Musgrove's 2020 Season. dark

Moving forward, Kuhl should look to throw his fastball a bit less. While he needs to imrpove his contorl of the pitch and the quality of strikes he throw with it, with his slider and curveball being the far superior pitches, he should look to throw them more often in 2021 and beyond.

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