DENVER – Chad Kuhl had a good idea who he was and – as important – who he wasn’t. Most important to the Rockies, who signed him during Spring Training, he had a thirst to become more.
After pitching a career-high 7 1/3 innings in the Rockies’ 4-3 victory over the Reds at Coors Field on Saturday night, Kuhl reflected on how all the experiments – advised and ill-advised, self-administered and coaching-directed changes – he experienced in five seasons with the Pirates put him in an enviable position. The Rockies would let Kuhl be himself, and Kuhl would accept information to become his more confident and better self.
In throwing strikes on 59 of his 83 pitches on Saturday, with home runs by Tyler Naquin on his first pitch and Aramis Garcia on his last, Kuhl illustrated how all his experience has led to a simple philosophy.
“There’s a lot of emphasis on execution of pitch, and for me, that’s what it comes down to,” said Kuhl, whose five runs allowed are the fewest through the first four starts of a season by a Rockies starter since Chad Bettis allowed four runs through his first four starts of 2018. “At what rate can I throw good pitches?
“I’m not worrying about all the extras. You can put emphasis on, ‘This 0-2 has to be nastier.’ Like we learned tonight [with Garcia], a 1-0 pitch can go out of the ballpark and that could be the difference. So it’s not really focusing on those 0-2 pitches having to be nastier or the 0-0 pitches having to be perfect – every pitch has the same weight as the next.”
Kuhl went 25-30 with a 4.44 ERA in 100 games (84 starts) for the Pirates, who selected him in the ninth round of the 2013 MLB Draft out of the University of Delaware. They had joys and sufferings through his evolution.
Originally a sinker-slider pitcher, Kuhl increased his velocity and joined the revolution of the four-seamer above the zone. The dance craze was good for some folks, but not Kuhl, who saw those pitches gravitate to the middle of the plate.
“I fell into that trap,” he said. “Sometime in ‘17, I started to throw harder and went from this sinkerballer guy to somebody that tried to do a lot of up in the zone. It was the sexy thing. It was something I could do, to mix in. For me to live up there, it didn’t make much sense.”
The experiment that drove Kuhl to Colorado was not one he condoned. After a bout with COVID-19 last year, Kuhl returned as a reliever. The Pirates liked his work.
“The Pirates were pretty dead set on having me come out of the bullpen,” Kuhl said. “I felt I had more value and more things to give to a team as a starter. That was a major tipping point for me.”
The Rockies researched Kuhl after the Pirates non-tendered him, and they eventually signed him for one year at $3 million.
“All players, regardless of their age, where they are in their careers, are always open for a new voice, another new lesson, another thought, and Chad fits into that category,” Rockies manager Bud Black said.
Kuhl took in feedback from the Rockies’ analytics team.
“One of the first conversations I had was ‘Coors-friendly stuff,’” he said. “I didn’t really know what that meant.”
Pitching coach Darryl Scott took a collaborative approach. The Rockies wanted Kuhl to attack the strike zone and felt they could help him with small mechanical tweaks, but before any of that, Scott had conversations with Kuhl about his thought process, the keys to his mechanics and how he liked to prepare. They were in sync.
“I just said, ‘Hey, man, I want you to go do you – I’m not gonna put any restrictions on you,’” Scott said. “‘I want you to pitch your game.’”
Kuhl recalled almost all of his fastballs being sinkers Saturday, with the exception being a top-of-the-zone pitch to Joey Votto. He didn’t locate well on three of the hits he allowed and faced loaded bases in the fifth, but Kuhl forced Garcia into a double play and kept rolling with a pitch mix that works at Coors, but also travels.
“I believe in myself to pitch anywhere, nothing Coors-specific,” Kuhl said. “This was an opportunity, and I jumped at it.”