In the last Mound Visit, we took a look at Gerrit Cole and Tyler Glasnow and the (possible) lesson the Pirates learned from seeing other teams tap into their potential.Learning a lesson is not exactly ample compensation for trading two top of the line starters, but there was a noticeable shift in how they treated Mitch Keller in his rookie season compared to the two pitchers who got away.
Keller is their top pitching prospect, and he arguably has the highest upside of anyone on staff, too. He went through some rookie growing pains in 2019, but he also missed a ton of bats and had a very healthy strikeout total. That was his stuff at work: High velocity fastballs and high spin breaking balls.
That is why Cole has been so successful in Houston, too. His fastball has eye-popping speed, but his curveball also has an elite spin rate. The heater is the sexier pitch if you are radar gun chasing, which is why Cole went six years without being told his curve is actually superior.
Nonpareil velocity and spin is a rare combo. You do not necessarily need either one to be a solid big league starter, but almost all of the game's bluechip aces have both. This is where the Pirates have a problem. They have some pitchers who can rev it up in the high 90s and others who can reach high spin rates, but Keller was the only starter from last year who showed he could offer both. Not just in the majors, but the minors, too.
None of the major league starters the Pirates have can approach the peripherals of Cole, Glasnow or Keller. Younger prospects could mature into a little more fastball velocity or spin, but unless Cody Bolton or Steve Jennings can pick up a couple more mph or Tahnaj Thomas' breaking ball gets a little nastier, that combo is nowhere to be found in the farm system. What good is it to learn a lesson about how to handle high spin/velocity guys if you jettisoned almost all of your high spin/velocity guys?
But the Pirates do have another guy who can flirt with triple digit velocities and spin it as a starter. He just did not pitch last year. Chad Kuhl.
Now I am not saying Kuhl is as good as Cole or his ceiling is as high. Rather, I think Kuhl has untapped potential that could be reached if he makes the same adjustments Cole did in Houston.
The two have similar pitch makeups. Obviously there is a risk of losing some zip after undergoing Tommy John surgery, but for the sake of argument, let's assume Kuhl's stuff is about the same now as it was before he went under the knife. This year, Cole's curveball averaged a spin rate of 2,901 RPM. In 2018, Kuhl's curveball matched that spin down to the rotation per minute: 2,901 RPM. Kuhl's slider also has above average vertical and horizontal movement. If he was an Astro, they would make him into a breaking ball pitcher, especially when his results by pitch in 2018 looked like this:
And yet, Kuhl's most used pitch in 2018 was the sinker. His second most used pitch was the four-seamer. Almost 60% of his pitches in 2018 were fastballs, compared to just one-third breaking balls. He had the velocity of a power pitcher, but it was clear a fastball-heavy mindset was hurting him. However, if he was able to use that heat as a complement to make sure batters do not just sit breaking ball, it could be dangerous.
This proposal may not be too far fetched. He started to take the first step in 2018 by offering fewer sinkers as the season progressed, especially when compared to 2017:
And he was also throwing more curveballs:
Kuhl saw better results as the season progressed, too. Omitting his injury-shortened final appearance in 2018, six of his final nine outings were quality starts. It looked like he was putting something together in those final weeks before he landed on the injured list.
With all of that said, there is a strong possibility this exercise is for naught. He may never make another start with the Pirates. Joe Musgrove, Trevor Williams, Chris Archer and Keller have rotation spots locked down for next year. The Pirates could add another pitcher to bolster that rotation, but if they do not, Steven Brault would have the inside track for the fifth starter job. Kuhl wants to be a starter again, but barring a trade or injury, it seems more likely he will return as a reliever first in 2020.
And honestly, that might be for the best for him. He has struggled against lefty hitters throughout his career (.706 career OPS against right-handers, .877 against left-handers). In 2018, he recorded a 2.79 FIP and .693 OPS in his first inning of work, far better than the 6.21 FIP and .853 OPS allowed in his third time through the order. Moving to the bullpen may be better for his arm and his career.
But as a starter, Kuhl's profile is reminiscent of Cole and Charlie Morton: a sinkerballer who could be so much more. If he gets a chance to start again and throws his breaking stuff more instead of his heat, he could have another gear.
Rolling average charts courtesy of FanGraphs. Spin rates courtesy of Trackman for minor league players, as compiled by FanGraphs. Major league spin rates were taken from Baseball Savant, using that pitcher's better breaking pitch.
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