James Karinchak Is Living Up To His Hype

It is uncommon for a player who has only pitched in relief to land within sniffing distance of a preseason top-100 prospect list. In his 2020 rankings, Eric Longenhagen identified a total of 43 pitchers, 42 of which have spent most if not all of their minor league careers as starters. Typically, just the threat that a pitcher could need to transition to the bullpen in the majors necessitates a substantial drop in his stock. Dodgers right-hander Brusdar Graterol, for example, dropped nearly 50 spots on Longenhagen’s list in the span of a year, partially due to the increased likelihood his big league career would be spent as a reliever.

All of which is to say that Cleveland’s James Karinchak is an anomaly. He was No. 115 on Longenhagen’s prospect list before the season started, two spots behind Graterol. Where he differs from Graterol — as well as others like Rays right-hander Shane Baz, who was ranked one spot behind Karinchak — is that there hasn’t been any real effort to have him start in some time. He appeared in 82 minor league games from 2017-19 and started just six, all of which came back in his first professional season. There is little precedent for someone inspiring such promise as a full-time reliever in the minors. Fittingly, there is also little precedent for the numbers Karinchak posted in his minor league career.

Karinchak made the Cleveland prospect list only in the “Other Prospects of Note” section before the 2019 season. At the time he was coming off a season in which he’d thrown 48.2 innings across three levels of the minors and allowed just nine runs while striking out 81 and walking 36. An injured hamstring delayed his first appearance last year, but when he finally got back on the mound, his numbers were something you couldn’t expect to replicate in a video game.

He started in rookie ball, where he struck out eight of the 11 hitters he faced. He moved right on to Double-A, where he struck out 24 of 36 hitters. Then he was promoted to Triple-A, where he struck out 42 of 76. Put it all together, and Karinchak struck out 59.2% of batters to face him in the minors last season. That was more than 11 points ahead of Josh Hader’s 47.8% strikeout rate that led the majors, and it earned the then-23-year-old a 5.1-inning cup of coffee in Cleveland in the fall. It also made him one of the most exciting relievers to watch for in the 2020 season.

Karinchak has made 11 appearances in 2020, and if anything, he’s only exceeded the potential he showed during his minor league career. In 13.2 innings, he’s struck out 26 batters while walking just six, allowing one run on four hits. If we set a minimum inning requirement to 10 innings — look, sample sizes for relievers are going to be a crapshoot for most of the year, just bear with me — Karinchak’s 52% strikeout rate leads all pitchers, as does his 0.68 FIP.

The admittedly small number of innings he’s thrown in the big leagues have served to reinforce Karinchak’s reputation as a next-level strikeout arm, so let’s talk about why the former ninth-round pick is able to do this. In his write-up on Karinchak before the season, Longenhagen gave the right-hander’s fastball an 80/80 in his tool grades and had this to say to back it up:

Karinchak is a plug-and-play impact reliever right now, and he’s the sort of backend bullpen arm some teams are willing to pay a premium for. His fastball — 96-98 with plenty of spin, and a near perfect backspinning axis that creates elite vertical movement — generated a nearly 27% swinging strike rate in the minors last year.

It can be difficult to analyze the weapons of minor league pitchers because we don’t have the same assortment of publicly available data we have on big leaguers. This can be frustrating when attempting to explain the cause of someone’s performance. When Jeff Sullivan pointed out Colin Poche’s brilliance against minor league hitters in 2018, he did all he could to provide context for the numbers Poche was producing but was left guessing when it came to the reason he could do it. With a handful of videos and some basic batted ball data, Sullivan theorized that Poche’s delivery had some Yusmeiro Petit-like deception and that his fastball produced an inordinate amount of “rise.” That was still just an educated guess though, until Poche finally pitched in the majors surrounded by pitch-tracking equipment — and sure enough, he was measured as having the most perceived rise of any fastball in baseball.

Now that Karinchak is in the majors, we can dig into his data the same way. As Longenhagen alluded to, Karinchak is able to get top-tier vertical movement on his four-seamer, similar to Poche. According to Baseball Savant, only Cam Bedrosian and Walker Buehler have generated more perceived rise above average on fastballs this year. That movement, when combined with the extreme over-the-top arm angle the pitch is delivered from, makes it a nearly unhittable offering. Look at poor Colin Moran missing a pitch right down the middle almost as badly as he misses one at his eyes:

 

Or Bryan Reynolds, a good hitter who can’t pull the trigger until the catcher already has the ball in his glove.

Or Gregory Polanco, who looks like he’s leisurely taking practice cuts in the on-deck circle instead of attempting to execute a competitive at-bat:

 

That near-27% swinging strike rate against the fastball Longenhagen mentioned him having in the minors? That’s up to 37.9% this season against big league hitters. Karinchak has allowed just a .132 wOBA in plate appearances ending with the four-seamers, easily making it one of the best-performing fastballs in the majors.

Karinchak could probably lean hard on that fastball and be just fine. Sean Doolittle has had a perfectly good career in the back of the bullpen simply by dialing up hard four-seamers one right after another, and Zack Britton and Kenley Jansen have dominated as one-pitch guys as well. But Karinchak doesn’t throw his fastball 90% of the time. He doesn’t even throw it 60% of the time. Of the 225 pitches he’s thrown this season, 115 have been fastballs, and the other 110 have been curveballs. After all those words about how good his fastball is, Karinchak is actually throwing the third-highest percentage of curveballs in baseball.

Is his curve good? Unfortunately for AL Central hitters who planned on doing some cool stuff in the late innings of games against Cleveland over the next few years, I regret to inform you that yes, his curve absolutely rules.

 

It’s a bit of an odd pitch. According to Statcast, it has much less horizontal break than the average curve does, and in some cases, has the appearance of actually backing up in a 12-5 motion as it approaches home plate. It does damage when guys swing — a 48.3% whiff rate and .091 opponents’ slugging percentage — but mostly, it seems to just freeze guys in their tracks. Karinchak has gotten 16 strikeouts with the curve this season, and eight of those batters went looking.

 

 

If there’s regression on its way, it’s hard to say what it’s going to look like. According to Statcast, Karinchak currently ranks in the 100th percentile in xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA, and the 99th percentile in xERA. It’s been a short professional career for the young right-hander, but we have yet to see him struggle at any point. In fact, we’ve only seen him grow more lethal on the mound. Karinchak captured a lot of attention last year as a former ninth-round pick who blossomed into the most dominant relief arm in the minors. If his first glimpse at the majors is any indication, we won’t stop talking about him anytime soon.

We hoped you liked reading James Karinchak Is Living Up To His Hype by Tony Wolfe!

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Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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Been waiting for a piece on Karinchak to come out! He’s become one of my favorite pitchers to watch. Hitters just have no chance. And yeah on the television angles anyway, his curve does come so straight down that at times it looks like it’s a screwball.