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Pirates notebook: No quick answer for Chad Kuhl's velocity spike

Rob Biertempfel
| Monday, June 19, 2017, 8:30 p.m.
Pirates pitcher Chad Kuhl throws during the first inning against the Mets Friday, May 26, 2017, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Chad Kuhl throws during the first inning against the Mets Friday, May 26, 2017, at PNC Park.

MILWAUKEE — Manager Clint Hurdle was caught off guard by the extra giddy-up on Chad Kuhl's fastball this season.

“It caught our attention,” Hurdle said. “It's nothing we've ever seen (from him) until it happened. It jumped all of the sudden, then it happened again. Now, it's in a place where we're like, ‘OK, it's going to happen. This is what we've got.' ”

When he made his big league debut last June, according to Statcast, Kuhl's average fastball velocity was 93.32 mph. Now, it's 94.39 mph.

Two starts ago, on June 7 against the Baltimore Orioles, Kuhl touched 100 mph.

“I'm not trying to throw it harder. It's just coming out hotter,” Kuhl said. “I went through the first part of the season feeling good, and maybe now I'm catching a second wind.”

The average velocity of his four-seam fastball didn't top 95 mph in any single game until Kuhl's sixth start this season. Since then, it's been higher than 95 mph in six of his past seven outings.

“This is the first time I've had a player who's picked up 3 or 4 mph on his fastball seven or eight starts into the season,” Hurdle said.

Is there a special reason for the increase?

“Some guys talk about a different offseason program or a different in-season program,” Hurdle said. “I've never heard anybody talk about eating more vegetables or carbohydrates. But, in Chad's case, I don't have anything.”

Even Kuhl shrugged at the question.

“I'm not sure,” Kuhl said. “I feel like I've always had the ability to throw hard. I've always touched 97-98 mph before, but not 99 or 100 mph. I'm in pretty good shape and … well, I'm just throwing.”

Kuhl disputes the notion that his velocity has spiked over just the past few weeks. He considers it a progression.

“I've been steadily increasing since high school,” Kuhl said. “I threw 86 mph in high school. I went to college and it was 90, 91, 92 mph. I topped out maybe 93-94 mph my junior year. I started hitting 95 mph in (the minors), and it's kept going up. So I haven't really had a jump. It's more of a steady increase.”

Kuhl won't turn 25 until September. So if his fastball keeps ramping up, by the time he reaches 30 …

“Maybe 120? Yeah, that would be awesome,” Kuhl said with a laugh. “But I think where I'm at right now, it won't get much harder. If it does, though, it will be welcomed.”

The added velocity comes with a cost, though, as Kuhl's fastballs don't have as much movement as before. He's working to find a happy medium between the two qualities.

“I'm just curious as to how it's going to play out,” Hurdle said. “I'm watching from the sideline and cheering for him.”

The bounce test

Hurdle collects baseballs but not for sentimental reasons. He tries to gauge if there are any changes from one season to the next that could explain a surge in home runs.

Three years ago, MLB clubs averaged 0.86 home runs per game. Last season, the mark was 1.16 homers per game — the second-highest since 1.17 in 2000, during baseball's steroids era.

This year, the home run average has jumped to 1.24 per game. Is the reason a trend toward higher launch angles? Increased velocity by pitchers? Or are the balls juiced?

“The ball conspiracy theory is always interesting,” Hurdle said. “I've heard it every year.”

To test it, Hurdle uses a trick he learned from former St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog

“I usually take a ball from every year, keep it, then bounce it with a ball from the next year,” Hurdle said.

And the results? Hurdle smiled.

“My eye test and bounce test doesn't prove anything,” he said.

Tight race in division

With 40 percent of the season gone, the NL season remained tightly packed and, judging by the records, not very good.

The Pirates went into Monday's game in fourth place, six games behind the Milwaukee Brewers. The only other team in the division with a non-losing record was the second-place Chicago Cubs, who were at .500.

“It usually happens once a year in one of the divisions,” Hurdle said. “Remember the year the Cardinals finished two games over .500 (in 2011), won the division, then went on to win the World Series? The year we went (to the World Series) in Colorado, it was a three-team mix — San Diego, Arizona and us.

“A month from now, it might not be the same. It's part of the game. It's like a race when everybody starts off jumbled until somebody makes a break.”

The Pirates are at the start of what could be an important road trip, consisting of four games against the Brewers and three against the St. Louis Cardinals.

“I'm glad it's happening right now,” Hurdle said. “It's a great opportunity for us.”

Bullpen banter

Juan Nicasio recovered from the arm fatigue that kept him out of action Saturday. Hurdle said Nicasio was available Sunday but was not needed because the Pirates lost 7-1 against the Cubs.

Felipe Rivero has pitched more than one inning in each of his three saves. He worked 12⁄3 innings Saturday against the Cubs and got four outs apiece on June 10 and 11 against the Miami Marlins.

Rivero is the first Pirates pitcher to record three saves of more one inning since Joel Hanrahan in 2011. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the last Pirates pitcher to notch four saves of four outs or more in a single season was Julian Tavarez, who did it seven times in 2003.

Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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