Why All the Hate for Chad Kuhl?

I hate to break it to you and this apparently may come as a surprise to some, but Chad Kuhl will be in the Pirates 2017 rotation. Even if they were to sign Ivan Nova or another starting pitcher from this awful free agent market this offseason, Kuhl is still a shoo-in for the rotation. And why shouldn’t he be?

Kuhl, a 24-year-old righty from Delaware, flew through the minor leagues to arrive in Pittsburgh this past June and all he did was toss 14 solid starts in his rookie season. Kuhl posted a 2.37 ERA in 16 starts at Triple-A and parlayed that into a Major League audition when the Pirates rotation fell to shambles by midseason. Kuhl used the chance to put together a 4.20 ERA (National League average was 4.16) and a 3.95 FIP. He struck out 6.8 per nine innings, walked just 20 in 70.2 innings and gave up 9.3 H/9. He accounted for a 1.1 WAR in just 14 starts, and three of his 14 starts were against the Cubs lineup, which knocked around many good pitchers last season.

Pitching 14 starts to the tune of a 3.95 FIP and league average ERA in your rookie season is going to give you a shot at sticking in the rotation full time. And Kuhl will have that opportunity in 2017. I’m perfectly okay with that. I want to see what else the kid can do if he improves on his numbers.

2016 23 PIT 5 4 4.20 14 14 70.2 73 34 33 7 20 53 100 3.95 1.316 9.3 0.9 2.5 6.8
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/15/2016.

The knock on Kuhl from around baseball is that he’s not a swing-and-miss pitcher and struggles against lefties. Both accounts are true if you look at his 2016 season. He struck out just under seven per nine innings and while he limited righties to a .676 OPS, lefties recorded an .854 OPS off him in the Majors. Looking into his numbers at Indianapolis last season, you see more of the same—righties had a .645 OPS while lefties hit .834 OPS. But is that a trend throughout his whole career or a one-year aberration?

Let’s break down his minor league numbers. From 2013-15, lefthanders versus Kuhl never had an OPS above .688. In fact, in his first professional season, he had much more success against LHH than RHH. But that was shortseason A-ball so that’s not out of the ordinary, but in High-A and Double-A, he had no problem getting lefties out. It certainly could be that as the level of talent increased, Kuhl’s struggles against lefties came to light or it could be a one-year blip. We just don’t know enough yet. With that in mind, I’m not ready to write Kuhl off as a rotation arm based off one poor season against lefties. Especially, even with the .800+ OPS against lefties in Triple-A and in Pittsburgh this season, he still produced outs at an effective rate.

Now let’s take a look at his low strike out rate in the Majors of 6.8 SO/9. Sure, it’s low. Only three starters in 2016 had a 2.5 WAR with a SO/9 rate lower than 7.0—Bartolo Colon, Tyler Chatwood and Kendall Graveman. But strikeouts have never been a major part of Kuhl’s career to which his ML 6.8 SO/9 was actually higher than his minor league average of 6.1 SO/9. He relies on his sinker pitch, which he threw 56.8% of the time in Pittsburgh to induce a good amount (19.6%) of soft contact and 44.3% of groundballs, both numbers are right at league average. That’s Kuhl’s game, and the Pirates sure love their groundball pitchers.

I’ve seen a lot of negative things said about Kuhl online and the horror if the Pirates actually had to rely on him in next year’s rotation. If you’re not up for a 1.1 WAR pitcher through 14 starts in your rotation, you might not like most teams around baseball because almost every ML team would take a 1-2 WAR SP. Here’s the full list of 2016 teams that had five starting pitchers at 1.0 WAR or higher with a minimum of 14 games started—Indians and Cubs. That’s it. And two of them went down for the Indians before the postseason.

If anything, Chad Kuhl was an average, middle-of-the-road pitcher…in his rookie season. Perhaps nothing sums it up more than ERA+, which adjusts a pitcher’s ERA to the pitcher’s ballpark and league average where 100 is average and anything above 100 is above average and everything below 100 is below league average. Kuhl’s ERA+ in 2016? 100: average. To compare,

Jeff Locke: 77 ERA+
Jon Niese: 76 ERA+
Edinson Volquez: 81 ERA+
Derek Holland: 91 ERA+
Andrew Cashner 77 ERA+

He’s a lot better than the alternatives. In Kuhl’s first shot at getting Major Leaguers out on the big stage, he was simply average and got the job done. And that will get you a spot in a Major League rotation, and that’s why he’ll be a part of the Pirates rotation next April.

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