Struggling Karinchak optioned to Triple-A

August 28th, 2021

CLEVELAND -- This isn’t the way would’ve imagined his sophomore campaign going.

The right-hander was elite last year, drawing attention from a national audience as his ridiculous 17.7 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio caught everyone’s attention. But suddenly, he’s looked like a completely different pitcher over the last three months, resulting in the Indians’ decision to option him to Triple-A Columbus on Saturday following his fifth blown save of the year.

“Well, obviously, this is a really tough decision for us,” Indians pitching coach Carl Willis said. “James has proven to be not only effective but special and especially effective. But it’s the nature of the beast and the nature of the game that guys go through struggles at times. He seems to have not been himself for a little while now, in terms of some of the pitch profiles we’ve seen -- which, obviously, leads to results that we’re not accustomed to seeing, as well. So, at the end of the day, the decision was made with the basis and foundation of what’s best for James Karinchak and how can we get James Karinchak back to [being] himself.”

The Indians know it’s possible to get Karinchak back to his old form, but it requires time that isn’t always easy to find at the big league level. If the team pulled him aside during an afternoon to work with him, that’d limit his availability for the same evening, causing the bullpen to be down an arm. Trying to strike a balance of between working on building confidence and working on mechanical tweaks isn’t a seamless process in the Majors.

“It’s very difficult in the Major Leagues,” Willis said, “particularly when we’re at this juncture of the season -- late August going into September. We have starters we’re trying to protect in terms of volume. We have to be able to pitch the games.”

Karinchak got off to a hot start in 2021, but around mid-June is when things started to change. He’s posted a 6.38 ERA since June 19 and an 8.40 ERA since the All-Star break. His out-of-this-world strikeout numbers have come crashing down to Earth, as he's fanned just nine batters in his last 15 frames and 23 batters in his last 24 innings.

“So what we've seen, his spin efficiency on the fastball has dropped,” Willis said. “Spin efficiency creates ride to the fastball -- which he was elite with that ride. So I think what we're seeing when we're trying to look at his delivery, when we're looking at slow motion and capturing things on Edgertronic, he's just not squaring up the ball at release. That last little click, he's not behind the baseball.

“So again, that can start with the beginning of the delivery, it can start with takeaway -- but certainly his arm path, getting behind the baseball a little bit sooner is going to allow him to square it up, create that efficiency and create that ride again. And he can do that.”

Because his spin rates have dropped so dramatically over the last few months as MLB’s crackdown on the use of sticky substances began, there’s been much speculation about whether that has played a role in his downfall.

“I can’t speak for James and specifically what he feels,” Willis said. “I don’t know exactly how he’s gone about things in terms of that throughout the season.”

Regardless of how Karinchak has reached this point, the right-hander is desperate to find answers. He and the Indians both agreed a trip to Columbus may be his best option.

“James Karinchak is as accountable as anyone I’ve ever been around in the game,” Willis said. “And the other side of it is, he cares tremendously about his team and he totally understood [this move]. He was really hard on himself, to be honest with you, and we certainly tried to impress upon him that no one is mad at [him]. … As disappointing as news like that is to hear, he was as professional as he could’ve possibly been.”