Pittsburgh Pirates: The Path to Success for Chad Kuhl

CLEARWATER, FLORIDA - MARCH 05: Chad Kuhl #39 of the Pittsburgh Pirates throws a pitch during the first inning against the Philadelphia Phillies during a spring training game at Phillies Spring Training Ball Park on March 05, 2021 in Clearwater, Florida. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
CLEARWATER, FLORIDA - MARCH 05: Chad Kuhl #39 of the Pittsburgh Pirates throws a pitch during the first inning against the Philadelphia Phillies during a spring training game at Phillies Spring Training Ball Park on March 05, 2021 in Clearwater, Florida. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images) /
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Opening Day starter Chad Kuhl will start 2021 healthy after returning to live action in 2020 with the Pittsburgh Pirates. To take it to the next level, Kuhl will need to rely more on his strengths and limit his weaknesses.

Last season Chad Kuhl returned to the Pittsburgh Pirates after missing the entirety of the 2019 season due to Tommy John surgery. In 2020, his comeback season, Kuhl showed promising signs that still pointed to the possibility of Kuhl being an starting pitcher for years to come. Now, Kuhl will be the Opening Day starter for the Pittsburgh Pirates to kick off the 2021 season.

Before his season ended early in 2018, Kuhl was beginning to emerge as a legit MLB starting pitcher. In 2017, league average for ERA and FIP was 4.36. For his first and only full season at the MLB level, Kuhl posted a 4.24 FIP to go with a 4.35 ERA in 157.1 innings across 31 starts, adding up to a 2.2 fWAR. While he struggled with the long ball in 2018, Kuhl was poised to at least repeat those numbers.

In 2021 a big factor that will contribute to Kuhl’s success this season will be the utilization of his arsenal. Kuhl throws a sinker, slider, curveball and changeup. He also throws a fastball, but has pretty much replaced it with his sinker. In fact his usage of breaking ball soared in ’20, throwing his slider and curveball over 52% of the time. That’s up from 33% in ’18.

That will be key to Kuhl’s success. Kuhl’s slider and curve are plus-pitches that have the potential to be big putout pitches. His slider had a 39.1% whiff rate while his curveball had a 38.5% whiff rate, and both pitches put batters away at least 25% of the time. His curveball spin rate ranked within the top 89% percentile in 2020, according to Baseball Savant.

His sinker, on the other hand, got crushed to the tune of a .477 wOBA, with only an 8.3% whiff rate. His spin rate was among the worst in the league with just a 2008 RPM, compared to Charlie Morton’s sinker which spins at 2157 RPM. His fastball wasn’t any better, which led to Kuhl dropping it this past season in favor of more sinkers and breaking pitches.

The plan of attack for Kuhl and the Pittsburgh Pirates is simple: more breaking pitches. That’s it. He’s already increased his usage of the breaking ball by almost 20%. In spring training, Kuhl’s sinker ticked between 92-95 consistently, but its hard to tell how improved it is. On the other hand Kuhl’s breaking pitches looked just as good as ever. The secret to his success will be relying on the junk, while improving his command of the sinker.

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Projections point to Kuhl remaining a league-average or worse as a starter across 24+ starts this season, but changes in his pitch selection should take him to the next level.  Kuhl has had success in the past, but by relying on his breaking pitches Kuhl will be able limit his weaknesses and maximize his potential. If Kuhl finds any success with his sinker he can potentially become a staple in the rotation for the next couple seasons while the Pirates groom the rotation of the future.

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