First Pitch: Where Do Steven Brault and Chad Kuhl Factor Into the 2021 Pirates Rotation?

Where would Steven Brault and Chad Kuhl factor into your 2021 Pittsburgh Pirates’ rotation?

I think we all can agree that next year’s rotation will include Mitch Keller and Jameson Taillon. I would also add Joe Musgrove to the list as someone who will most likely get a rotation spot.

Wilbur Miller wrote about Brault yesterday, breaking down his numbers and arguing that he deserves a spot in the 2021 rotation for his performance this year. He’s made some adjustments to his arsenal this year, specifically relying on his changeup more often, and reducing the usage of his fastball. That’s a good switch to make, as Brault’s changeup has long been one of his best pitches.

Over his career, opponents have a .502 OPS against the changeup. That’s impacted by Brault’s success this year, featuring a .269 OPS, which is impressive since he’s using the pitch more often and getting better results. It doesn’t always happen that way, as increased pitch usage can lead to the pitch being exposed, or lead to batters expecting the pitch.

On the flip side, Brault’s four-seam fastball has struggled in the past, with a career .818 OPS against. This year his fastball is down to a .563 OPS. His sinker and slider are also seeing better results this year. I’d agree with Wilbur that Brault has earned a spot in the 2021 rotation.

Chad Kuhl has had a bit of a misleading season when you look at the overall numbers. His results were largely blown up by nine earned runs in 2.1 innings against Kansas City a few weeks ago. Since then he has allowed one earned run in 12 innings. Prior to that bad outing, he had a 3.38 ERA and a 5.07 xFIP.

Kuhl made an adjustment to his pitch usage in 2018, prior to going down with Tommy John surgery. He started relying on his slider more often, and reducing the usage of his sinker. The slider is still a dominant pitch, and the curveball has become an effective weapon. The downside is that Kuhl’s fastballs haven’t improved this year.

The sinker has a 1.058 OPS against, which is up from his career .921 mark. The four-seam is at 1.538, up from 1.238 in his career. Regardless of the off-speed stuff, you’re not going to have good long-term results when your fastball is struggling.

Brault has done well this year moving more to his best off-speed pitch, but that has also paired with better results from the fastball. Kuhl is seeing similar results from his slider, and better numbers from the curveball. At best, he’s just mitigating the damage from the fastballs by reducing their usage.

Kuhl might end up being a great barometer for Oscar Marin’s abilities as a pitching coach. If he can improve his fastball, he goes from a guy fighting for a number five rotation spot to a guy who belongs in the middle of the rotation.

Of course, Kuhl would be competing with JT Brubaker, who has a similar situation with a strong slider and a fastball that needs better results. There’s also the question of whether the Pirates should look to the outside for rotation help, although the only way I see that making sense for them is if they can get a guy who can be in the rotation beyond 2021, and I don’t see them making that kind of signing.

Today’s discussion question: Where would Brault and Kuhl factor into your 2021 rotation?

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