Happy offseason, everyone. That was a…season, huh? At least there’s a lot to talk about this offseason. So let’s kick off these six Pirate-less months by talking about Chad Kuhl.
Kuhl is going into the offseason without a lot of fanfare, which is probably good news for him. While there’s some hype around him now, he was not very popular four months ago. He wasn’t going deep into games. He wasn’t fooling batters. His emotions were getting the better of him when he was on the mound. But the most glaring problem was his struggles against lefties.
Batters with the hand advantage had a stupefying .439 wOBA and 9.89 ERA against through the first two months of the season. Teams were taking advantage of this too, stacking six or seven lefties in every lineup he faced. It’s the same problem that forced the Pirates to move Juan Nicasio out of the rotation. A lot of scouts predicted a similar fate for Kuhl some point down the road while he was still a minor leaguer, and he looked on pace to prove them right.
Then something started to click in the second half. He was getting more whiffs, was going deeper into games and was getting better results. The league adjusted to him, and he adjusted back.
The most obvious difference was brushing off a curveball that the Pirates, as he described it, “put on the back burner” when he entered the farm system. To his surprise, throwing a hook is like riding a bike, and he increased its usage every month this season.
“It’s nice to have something that can change eye level, can change speeds, as simple as it may be,” Kuhl said in an interview with TPOP. “It’s another weapon, and I think that enhances everything else that I throw.”
All of a sudden, lefties were no longer a problem, or at the very least less of a problem. Southpaws recorded a .342 wOBA in those last four months, which resulted in a 3.75 ERA. And it was not just the curveball that was throwing lefties off. All of his pitches were more effective against them. Like he said, the pitch “enhances everything else.”
Kuhl looked destined for either the minors or the bullpen before the addition of his curve. Now it looks like he is going to reach his potential and be a major league starter for years to come.
So that’s taken care of. Surely the Pirates don’t have another farm system produced pitcher who looks destined for either the minors or the bullpen after a disastrous April and May.
Oh wait. Tyler Glasnow. Yeah, he probably has a kink or two to work out, huh?
Glasnow had plenty of growing pains this year, but it doesn’t look like he had the growth to match it. There are a trio of quality starts to hang onto from this season, but for the most part, it seems as though he’s hit a wall. He can’t be hit in AAA and can’t get outs in the majors. With plenty of quality pitching in the majors already and more coming through the farm system right behind him, he needs to show something in his third big league season.
Like Kuhl, Glasnow has one overarching problem that has plagued him for years: walks. That does not necessarily mean it’s a control problem, though. According to Fangraphs, he was in the zone 45 percent of the time this year, which is EXACTLY the league average. The difference is that he is getting 22 percent fewer whiffs than the league average (8.2 percent compared to 10.5). Batters aren’t doing him any favors either, only going out of the zone in 24.9 percent of the time compared to the 29.9 percent league average.
So Glasnow needs to find a way to get more swings and misses, preferably out of the zone. Curveballs are good for that, and he throws that pitch well. What he doesn’t have is a slider, which was the most dominant pitch league wide in 2017.
TPOP True Believers may remember my post about why the bullpen should throw more sliders. I called it the “Jhan Marinez Theory”. This is different because Glasnow is adding a slider, not just throwing one more. Let’s call this the “Clayton Kershaw Theory.”
This idea comes from an anecdote from Molly Knight’s fantastic book “The Best Team Money Can Buy.” It’s hard to believe, but Kershaw was once a struggling youngster like Glasnow. There was talk of the Dodgers optioning him back to AAA in May of 2009. During said talks, Dodgers bullpen coach Mike Borzello convinced him into throwing some sliders during a bullpen session. It’s a good thing he did, because the new pitch took immediately. Catcher A.J. Ellis caught the bullpen that turned Kershaw’s career around, telling Knight he was thinking, “Well, no one’s ever going to talk about you going to the minors again.”
Now Kershaw’s slider is one of the best pitches in baseball, and it’s amazing that it was so good so fast. I’m not suggesting that a potential Glasnow slider is going to be that good, but it could do for Glasnow what it did to Kuhl. It can change a batter’s eye level, which is especially important for him because he currently does not have a pitch that truly breaks horizontally. It’s a whole lot easier for a batter to make contact when the ball is only going to travel on one axis. He’s going to keep batters guessing, which will make his other stuff far more dangerous.
Kuhl finished 2016 as a sinker/slider guy who could be a backend starter. He finished 2017 as a more complete pitcher. He isn’t just a one trick pony.
With almost one year of service time on the books, Glasnow’s pony is still looking for its first trick. The unbelievable talent is apparent. His problems may or may not be mental, but the best way to fix him is to do what Kuhl and Kershaw did: adapt.