My discovery of Chad Kuhl came during one of many instances where I find myself exploring and perusing Baseball Savant. It’s one of the most insightful, awe-inspiring things and humbling things a baseball enthusiast can do. Each player we think we know so well still offers undiscovered data and information, intricacies. Much of this data many of those players may do not know themselves. What I consider to be as much fun is discovering a player I’ve never heard of. A week or so ago I discovered Chad Kuhl. What intrigued me most was the stark contrast between his expected statistics and his measured, process-oriented statistics.
Chad Kuhl missed all of 2019 due to Tommy John surgery after feeling discomfort in his elbow midway through the 2018 season. As a Pirates starter, Kuhl contributed in quantity rather than quality. However, for teams like the fourth-place Pirates team, finishing three games below .500, quantities of starting pitching often is the definition of quality starting pitching. Given the Pirates similar finishes to each of the two seasons prior, the two other seasons Kuhl’s played in, it’s fair to say he’s been a reliable donor to the Pirates effort. All this the culmination of his three and a half year minor league journey that began after his name was called in the ninth round of the 2013 draft.
In 2018, much of Kuhl’s expected metrics are not below average, but worse. While his strikeout rate and whiff rate were about average, his expected earned run average, weighted on-base average, batting average, and slugging percentage all fell below the eighth percentile. In fact, only his xSLG finished above the first percentile. No one is calling Chad Kuhl Cy Young but for a player who has accumulated over 310 innings at the major league level across essentially two seasons, you might expect to see slightly better expected numbers. It’s not like he was ravaged by hitters. He earned a 4.55 ERA, 1.44 WHIP and threw 85 innings over 16 starts.
His fastball lacks a surplus of spin (a little over 2,000 rpm) but sits at a respectable 95 mph which he couples with a sinker of similar speed and spin. This combo is the bulk of his arsenal and has been the root of all evil for Chad Kuhl. Consider the batting average and slugging percentages he’s achieved on his third and fourth most frequent pitches in 2018:
Not bad. I mentioned Kuhl’s contradicting numbers, and the most prominent stat I was referring to was his curveball’s spin rate. His success with the pitch is largely driven by this spin, at 2,900 rpm it ranks in the 96th percentile. His slider is also effective, using it to limit batters to a .218 wOBA (only a few points away from his xwOBA). It was also his most efficient pitch, with a putaway rate of 33.3%. In addition, he also threw a changeup. While not as effective, he only threw it 8.4% of the time and used it against lefties much more. It made up 12% of offerings to lefties while only 4% against righties indicating he may consider it a specialty weapon. Thus, Kuhl’s growth is likely anchored by his four-seamer and sinker.
One takeaway from Kuhl’s four-seamer was its horizontal movement. It boasts 53% more horizontal movement than the average four-seamer in its class. He gets good run. At 95 mph with movement, it may not be the characteristics of the pitch at all that burden Kuhl. I explored some of Chad Kuhl’s 3D pitch visualizations and noticed he was a little inconsistent with his release point and delivery. It’s not night and day, Kuhl has pitched elite games with sporadic release points and been hit hard on days when the spread of his release points was relatively tight. However, I’m confident in saying that Chad Kuhl could become a much better pitcher if he refined his mechanical consistency.
Take a look at some of Kuhl’s successful sinkers and four-seamers:
After watching all different kinds of footage of Chad Kuhl it appears as though Kuhl is slightly more composed and less flamboyant on the mound in some of the more successful circumstances. When he’s having less success I notice his follow-through swiftly drifts away from the rubber or he’s spun around, sometimes his pitching hand extends as far back as it normally would – ending his follow-through more abruptly. If he’s finishing his delivery in very different ways, he’s likely not delivering the pitch consistently either. There are exceptions. If he’s not striking a batter out, he’s sure to finish in a manner that allows him to prepare for a batted ball up the middle (as he should), or if he knows he’s made a mistake he may react more passionately.
I mentioned 3D pitch visualizations and while not all examples provide evidence for my point, I believe they serve as a sufficient way to communicate my point. Take an example from May 6, 2018, against the Brewers. Notice how the release points of the four-seam fastball and sinker are slightly more stratified than the elite slider and curveball. This could happen for a variety of reasons, perhaps Chad Kuhl is more focused on velocity than his control and spin of those pitches, which isn’t always a bad thing. From the above videos, I would assert that he’s better when he’s throwing with a little extra cheese. It’s when he becomes, for lack of a better word, lazy, that he gets hit hard. Maybe his arm angle becomes less consistent, his extension changes, or all of the above.
He’s another example of some visualizations from April 13 against Miami. The only pitch I’m interested in is the green changeup that goes astray. It might have been a pitchout, but still serves as an example. Kuhl pulls it. Here’s the video of that pitch. Here’s the video of the pitch that follows it, a normal curveball for a strike. Most interesting is the contrast in deliveries. They almost look like they’re from different pitchers.
This is an extreme example, no doubt. But I believe that Kuhl faces inconsistency similar to what can be seen with this changeup, pitchout, much more frequently with his four-seam fastball and sinker. This contributes to a lack of command with Kuhl’s two primary weapons. It leads to first-pitch strike and 0-2 count rates that were both 5% below the league averages of 60% and 25% respectively. It’s why a pitcher who’s got a plus curveball, a strikeout weapon with a putaway rate higher than Gerrit Cole’s fastball in 2018, had just a 20% strikeout rate.
Whether he makes adjustments or not, Chad Kuhl figures to make contributions to the Pirates’ rotation in 2020 and beyond. He’ll be an interesting player to track. His recovery from Tommy John surgery may have offered him the opportunity to refine and polish his delivery to become more consistent. Either way, he’ll be a fascinating player to track as the Pirates continue to seek a return to the postseason.
All data sourced from baseball-reference.com and baseballsavant.mlb.com.