Tim Benz: Staying Kuhl through six has been huge for Pirates
There have been very few positives for the Pirates lately. Thursday's 8-7 loss to Los Angeles was their 14th in 19 games.
One of the few points of optimism of late as has been Chad Kuhl. He pitches the series opener against the Cubs on Friday.
Kuhl's ERA has dropped from 5.01 on May 1 all the way down to 3.86 entering Friday afternoon's start in Chicago.
The right-hander has had six starts since that date. Five of them have been "quality starts," meaning the pitcher goes six innings or more and allows three runs or fewer.
The 25-year-old's trend of finishing the sixth inning and occasionally getting beyond is a significant hurdle for him to leap.
Kuhl's ability to work deep into games last year was a major problem. Between April 24 and July 17, Kuhl managed to finish the sixth inning only twice during a 16-start stretch.
According to Kuhl, last year's issues weren't necessarily about fending off fatigue as the game inched along. He insists getting weary wasn't the problem.
Rather, by Kuhl's explanation, it was a failure to keep opposing hitters off balance because he was going too deep into counts, and he wasn't executing "put-away pitches" in the middle part of innings and games.
"It was command and not getting ahead of hitters," Kuhl explained Thursday morning. "Last year, if I threw 100 pitches, I wasn't tired. I just burned too many bullets. A lot of that was falling into bad counts."
To hear Kuhl describe his problems last year, it was more an issue of quality off the mound rather than stamina on it.
"It was a lot of wasted pitches. Non-competitive pitches out of the zone," Kuhl continued. "This year it's been a lot better. That fast ball up — to get a chase out of the zone — is now just a few inches off the plate. It's not a foot over the head and a waste."
The numbers back up Kuhl's assessment of his inefficient 2017. Twelve times between May 13 and Sept. 1, Kuhl threw 85 pitches before having to leave the game short of completing the sixth inning.
The value of pushing through the sixth isn't just an ego number, either. It's not just about accumulating quality starts for the back of your baseball card. It's about taking a strain off the bullpen.
Every five days when Kuhl started last year, Clint Hurdle and Ray Searage knew they were likely going to need at least four innings out of their bullpen. That had to impact how they managed their relievers the night before and how they had to surf through their available guys out of the pen the next day.
"Being able to take the pressure off (the bullpen), game in and game out, that's where you really find the value," Kuhl said.
Now Kuhl's next box to check off the list is keeping the opposing team in the ballpark more often. He's yielded a team-high 12 home runs.
But staying on the mound longer has manifested in other strides statistically beyond just innings pitched. If Kuhl goes six more again Friday, he'll lead the Pirates in that category. He's got the best ERA among the starters and needs just four strikeouts to catch Jameson Taillon for the team lead in that regard, as well.
"The last few games it's been my slider that's really been my weapon. It has been ever since middle school," Kuhl said, smiling. "Throwing it like a fastball. Loose arm action. Loose wrist. Not too crazy movement. Just being able to locate it a little bit better."
Other Pirates have had strong stretches on the mound this year. Trevor Williams was outstanding in April. He's gotten a win in just one start since May 1, and his ERA is now 4.18.
Taillon had an ERA of 0.89 over his first three starts. The team walked away a loser in six of his next eight outings.
Now, much like his in-game performance, it's up to Kuhl to extend this hot streak deeper than he has in his career.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.