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A Refresher on Chad Kuhl

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Brett Barnett

Pittsburgh Pirates v New York Mets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

I’ve noticed that much has been made about Chad Kuhl’s return to action for the Pittsburgh Pirates, so I thought it might be time for a refresher covering what Kuhl’s done on the North Shore.

Kuhl was a 2013 draft pick (Round 9, Pick 13). At age 23, he made his debut in 2016. Prior to his injury, Kuhl had started 16 games in 2018 – a year after making 31 starts during the 2017 campaign. He would miss the 2019 season.

When he went down, Kuhl was failing to reach the pace of his previous year’s effort. To outline some of those shortcomings: Through approximately half as many innings, he had allowed only three fewer home runs; while his K% rose from 20.9 percent to 21.7 percent, and his BB% fell from 10.6 percent to 8.8 percent, other metrics rose.

For example, he posted good FIP- numbers during his first two seasons (96, 98, respectively). But in 2018, that number rose to 116 (with lower being better). His FIP also rose from 4.24 to 4.70, while he was on pace for about one win by fWAR, down from 2.2 the prior year.

More traditional numbers also painted him as “meh.” Kuhl was 5-5 in 2018, and carried along a 4.55 ERA, up from 4.35 the previous year.

FanGraphs ZiPS projections, unsurprisingly, have Kuhl remaining relatively steady and maintaining approximately the same quality of performance as what we’ve seen, which is to say, pretty average.

If you’ll recall, this is the same pitcher who bested Clayton Kershaw in his major league debut. But a lot has happened since then. Kuhl revamped his tactics once already, becoming a power pitcher before tearing his UCL. Now, before the start of an odd 60-game 5k, Kuhl’s revamped himself again, being non-committal about velocity, but assuring the fanbase that he’s ready to go – a common refrain among professional athletes.

As for this season, Kuhl’s true role is up for some discussion. Rob Biertempfel from The Athletic discussed how Pirates’ manager Derek Shelton might use Kuhl as one-half of a Steven Brault/Kuhl tandem, having one pitch a few innings and then the other coming in for a few innings in relief – a concept similar to an “opener,” a pitching staff philosophy that’s been more popularized over the last several years, but in this context is considered “piggyback” pitching.

We’ve also heard rumblings that Kuhl could make an effective back-of-the-bullpen type pitcher, given his velocity and ostensible mediocrity as a starter. Biertempfel wrote, “In the wake of his surgery, some evaluators believe Kuhl eventually could make better use of his power stuff as a late-inning reliever.” However, he goes on to conclude, “For now, though, he continues to be built up as a starter.” So be it. I’m sure organizations are reluctant to “demote” starters to the bullpen if they still feel as though that pitcher can be an effective starter.

Perhaps the jury’s still out on Kuhl’s ability as a starter. Personally, I’m unconvinced Kuhl can be a front-of-the-rotation starter in the traditional sense. It’s possible the piggyback role will fit him well, so it’ll be interesting to see how it shakes out. But I’d prefer to put the matter to a referendum with the fanbase.

So, is Kuhl going to be an effective pitcher for the Pirates? Time will tell. My vote: He’ll be okay.