Nate Karns: Are You For Real?

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As the saying goes, you can’t win your league during the draft. The moves owners make during the season are the ones that will dictate who wins. The art to winning in fantasy baseball is being able to determine who should be added to a roster and who should be bypassed. In order to do that, an owner needs to be able to tell if someone is for real or not.

This weekly column will focus on starting pitchers who have recently thrown their hats into the ring for consideration. Today we take a look at a pitcher who performed well in Week 6, and analyze his waiver wire viability.

This pitcher will be available in many leagues, and we’ll dig a little deeper to determine whether you should be picking this guy up or leaving him be.

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The Royal Treatment

Nate Karns, Kansas City Royals

2016 Stats: 94.1 IP, 5.15 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 101 K (9.64 K/9), 45 BB (4.29 BB/9)

May 13, 2017 versus Baltimore: 5.0 IP, 3.60 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 12 K (21.60 K/9), 1 BB (1.80 BB/9)

Nate Karns has always had one tantalizing characteristic: strikeouts. The average K/9 of a major league starting pitcher is 8.23 in 2017, the highest it’s ever been. Karns has never posted a season rate that low. His career average is 9.36 K/9, and he’s had a rate of 9.64 or higher in three of his last four seasons. Since strikeout rate is one of the holy stats fantasy baseball enthusiasts look for, it’s not surprising that Karns has been a popular breakout candidate for years. Unfortunately, it’s only really come together for one season, in 2015. That year, Karns carried a 3.67 ERA through 26 starts for the Rays, and he racked up 145 strikeouts in 147 innings pitched. The fantasy baseball community rejoiced as another Tampa Bay Rays starter was living up to his potential, and Karns was headed to the wide open spaces of Seattle. It was a match made in heaven!

Instead, Karns was pretty terrible. Initial struggles turned into ongoing struggles which turned into enough bad outings that he was eventually removed from the starting rotation and sent to the bullpen. There, his spiral continued until he was diagnosed with a back strain that ended his season early. He was then part of a deal that sent him to Kansas City in exchange for Jarrod Dyson. Initially tagged as the favorite to win the fifth starting role out of spring training, Karns was dreadful in the preseason. He was still awarded the role, but the leash was obviously shorter. However, instead of being an innings-eater, he’s actually been one of the more dependable pitchers on the (notably poor) Kansas City staff. With the Royals team and pitching staff being so bad that a fire sale is expected, Karns may have the opportunity to finally have the follow-up season analysts have been predicting.

May 13th, Karns welcomed the Orioles to Kansas City. One of Baltimore’s signature features is the free-swinging nature of their lineup. As a team, they’ve struck out more than 21 others, and Karns took full advantage. Though he only made it through five innings, Karns sat down 12 Orioles by way of the punch out. His fielders provided just three of the outs during his time on the mound. This was a new career high for him, and this came just one week after he tied his previous career high by sitting down 10 Rays. Karns has always had difficult stuff to hit, but the key to his newfound level of strikes is addition by subtraction.

Many pitchers develop a new pitch to help improve their repertoire. Karns has taken the opposite approach in his last couple games. He’s all but entirely stopped throwing two of his four pitches. In previous seasons, Karns has thrown his sinker anywhere from 12% to 24% of the time, depending on the season. His change-up has ranged from 10% to 19% of his pitches. In his last two outings, he’s thrown his sinker less than 2% of the time and his change-up just under 5% of the time. His fastball usage has remained around 40%, but the real key is his ramped up curveball usage. Over his last six outings, Karns’ curveball usage has steadily increased in each outing from 20% of his pitches on April 15th to 48% of his pitches on May 13th. He has gone all in on his curveball, and it has been untouchable for the last couple weeks.

Verdict

As analysts have been saying for years, Nate Karns is the real deal. Unfortunately, he’s got a laundry list of caveats to go with that title.

First, he’s becoming entirely dependent on one pitch. That’s always a dangerous approach for a starter to have because while a one-pitch pitcher can often school hitters their first time through, those pitchers are usually relegated to short relief because a second chance is all many hitters need. Second, it’s impossible for fantasy owners to know if Karns or his pitching coaches are going to recognize the success he’s having with his curveball and keep him throwing it at such an astounding rate. The reality is that this move of shying away from a pitch (or pitches) for a little while has happened before in his career, and he’s always gone back to the full arsenal pretty quickly. If he starts throwing his sinker and change-up more often, and both remain mediocre, he could just go back to being a run-of-the-mill No. 5 starter. Third, Karns has always been a bit unpredictable from start to start. Even in the midst of his stellar season in 2015, Karns suddenly forgot how to pitch in the month of August. He began walking lots of guys, and those runs came around to bite him. It’s not clear yet if this is Karns breaking out for 2017 or just Karns doing a Chris Sale impression for a couple weeks.

The good news about all these first three caveats is that Karns may simply ignore them. In all this writing about Karns’ elite strikeout level and pitch usage, one thing that’s been neglected is that he also happens to have the 9th best ground ball rate amongst starters. When combined with his strikeout rate of 10.71, only two other starters in the top ten are comparable, Lance McCullers and Trevor Cahill. They are both rocking an ERA under 3.30 and FIP under 2.95. Karns is languishing with his 4.46 ERA and 4.32 FIP, but those others can give an owner an idea of what Karns could accomplish if he can keep this type of performance going.

Karns’ other caveats are a bit different. Fourth is that he is currently getting regular turns in the rotation partially because Ian Kennedy is on the disabled list. While he may have locked down the fifth starter slot at this point, Karns may see his turn get skipped periodically once Kennedy returns to the rotation. That’s currently expected to happen within the next week or so. If skips start to occur, it could mess with Karns’ routine, timing, or even availability if manager Ned Yost sees him as a better option in long relief situations. Lastly, the biggest knock on Karns is health. He’s yet to ever pitch more than 157 innings in a season, and his approach to going on the disabled list is to ignore pain for a few weeks until finally succumbing after he’s been pitching horrifically for a couple outings.

However, there’s good news about this second set of issues too, from the perspective of a Karns owner. First, everyone has injury concerns in The Walking Dead: MLB 2017 Edition. Karns is probably only on most owners’ radar because they’re replacing one of the dozens of walking wounded. Second, there could be an opening in the Kansas City rotation even after Kennedy returns. Jason Hammel has been a batting practice pitcher so far this season. While his status as a new signee means he’ll get every opportunity possible, there’s a chance that management could decide him injuring their chances of winning is qualification enough for his own trip to the DL. That process could be moved along by the presence of a certain someone raining Ks all over opposing lineup cards.

There’s no denying that’s a long list of caveats, but if all of those caveats can be checked off, Karns could finally be living up to the expectations the analysts have been placing on his for a long time. Last year, Danny Duffy was just starting to check off his caveats, and it got him a fat contract this offseason. Karns could very well be Kansas City’s 2017 reclamation project.

 

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