These stats are 'silly': Karinchak a 'weapon'

May 21st, 2021

CLEVELAND -- Baseball Savant provides breakdowns of all the advanced analytics the game has to offer, but all you really need to know, if nothing else, is that red is good and blue is bad. And when you click on Indians reliever ’s page, you’ll find a sea of red.

Karinchak entered the three-game series against the Twins at Progressive Field on Friday ranked in the 99th percentile in expected slugging percentage (.197), expected ERA (1.42) and expected weighted on-base average (.189), while ranking in the 100th percentile (yes, you read that correctly) in expected batting average (.112) and strikeout percentage (51.4%).

“He has been a weapon,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “That's the best word. I mean, my goodness. His numbers are silly and we probably nitpick so much, and we worry when he goes 3-2 on a lot of people. But there's not a lot of walks and there's certainly not a lot of hits. His fastball profiles, I know the board will say 96-97, but I think it profiles better than that and his breaking ball is filthy. And he competes like crazy. He's fun to watch, man.”

His .068 opponent batting average (3-for-44) on his fastball is the third-lowest opponent batting average for any pitcher on a single pitch type this year (min. 50 plate appearances ending on pitch type). Only Yu Darvish’s slider (.040) and Tyler Glasnow’s curve (.056) have lower opponent batting averages. And the fact that those two ahead of him are starters is notable -- since Karinchak is a two-pitch pitcher, he’s thrown a ton of fastballs, putting him in range with starters for the PA minimum on the pitch.

James Karinchak's 2021 MLB Percentile Rankings

And of the 101 pitchers who have gotten at least 100 swings against their four-seamer this season, none have a higher whiff rate on those swings than Karinchak, at 39.1%.

“I would say there's life to it, too,” Francona said. “We see a lot of guys that throw 95 [mph]. But he gets his fastball by a lot of hitters.”

Karinchak has been a weapon Cleveland has never seen before. There have been just two instances since at least 1908 of an Indians pitcher having a 50% or higher strikeout rate through 20 appearances in a season: Karinchak in 2020 (51.2%) and in ’21 (51.4%). Before Karinchak, the highest was Andrew Miller in 2016 (41.5%).

It’s not just Indians history, though. Karinchak is one of two pitchers since at least 1908 to strike out at least half the batters he faced through 20 appearances in a season twice, along with Josh Hader in 2018-19. (Aroldis Chapman is on pace to do this for a second time in 2021, but has made 17 appearances so far.)

All of this is simply to say that Karinchak has taken the Indians bullpen to the next level. And even after making a tremendous impact in his first full season (although it was only 60 games) in 2020, he’s shown even more improvement in '21. He’s pounding the zone more this season and has seen a 2.5% increase in his first-pitch strike rate. And with as another force at the back end of the 'pen, Cleveland has a lethal one-two punch that’s constantly rotating between setup man and closer.

Francona has been transparent since the season started that he wanted to avoid naming any one hurler a closer because he liked the flexibility of turning to either Karinchak or Clase in a tight late-game situation. That’s allowed them to mix and match more freely, using Karinchak when more lefties are due up in the order. Why? Because his .026 opponent batting average against lefties is the lowest among 153 right-handed pitchers with at least 35 lefties faced this season.

He’s a two-pitch pitcher that’s allowed his starting rotation to feel confident when they are removed from the game. So much so that starter Triston McKenzie couldn’t have complimented him more last month when Karinchak was just heating up.

"I feel like every time Karinchak steps on the mound,” McKenzie said, “it's going to be a show."