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James Karinchak Is A Relief Pitcher To Know in 2020

One of the lesser-known players that intrigues me for the 2020 MLB season is Indians relief pitcher James Karinchak. The former Bryant Bulldog was drafted by Cleveland in the ninth round in the 2017 draft and went on to have one of the most outrageous statistical seasons in minor league baseball history.

As someone who spends way too much time going through baseball stats, I just want to point out that there are few players with Baseball Reference pages as wild as Karinchak's.

After a mediocre stint in Low-A ball as a 21-year-old in 2017 (5.79 ERA, 30.1% K-rate in 23.1 IP), the right-hander posted a 1.29 ERA and 39.9% K-rate in his first full minor league season in 2018 across A, High-A, and Double-A. He allowed only 29 hits in 48.2 IP but walked 36 for a WHIP of 1.336. His 15 strikeouts per nine innings pitched was very impressive, but control seemed to be the area Karinchak needed to improve the most.

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Karinchak's Minor League History

In 2019, Karinchak improved nearly every area of his game, most notably in his strikeout numbers. In 30.1 innings across Rookie ball, Double-A, and Triple-A (mostly the latter two), Karinchak struck out a staggering 74 opposing hitters while only walking 17. Of the 125 hitters he faced in the minors, 59% took a sad stroll to the dugout after their plate appearance.

I've never seen someone have a K/9 of 22.0 in more than a few innings pitched. Never. Karinchak surrendered a 1.088 WHIP, a major improvement from his previous season, but saw his ERA jump to 2.67. This can largely be explained by the crazy run environment in Triple-A last year, as he did not surrender a run in his 13 innings across Rookie and Double-A but allowed nine earned in 17.1 innings in AAA.

With Karinchak, however, his minor league ERA jump in a relatively small sample is the last thing that catches my eye. Strikeouts are a much more "consistent" statistic than ERA is; you can generally have a pretty good idea of whether or not a guy is a strikeout pitcher in a 30 inning sample, whereas ERA is much flukier and more influenced by luck. You don't strike out three-fifths of the hitters you face in the upper minors unless you are special.

 

2019 MLB Success

On September 14, the Indians called Karinchak's name for his MLB debut with Cleveland down 9-5 to Minnesota with two outs in the eighth inning. He got Jason Castro to fly out and then came back out for the ninth inning where he struck out Ian Miller, Max Kepler (who reached on a wild pitch), and Jorge Polanco before getting LaMonte Wade to pop out. In his first MLB appearance, Karinchak mimicked his minor league rate by striking out three out of five batters.

Karinchak made four more major league appearances before the end of the season, striking out five guys in four innings and allowing one run to finish the year with 8 K and 1 ER in 5.1 IP.

While his time with Cleveland didn't give us a huge idea of his true talent level, it did give us some awesome GIFs, like this one, this one, and this one courtesy of my friend Rob Friedman. Karinchak is wicked. He averaged 97 on his fastball and had a curveball that looks like what Clayton Kershaw would throw if he was a righty. Eno Sarris even Tweeted that according to a new Driveline that measures a pitcher's "stuff," Karinchak ranked best in baseball.

 

2020 Outlook

Is Karinchak a viable option for your fantasy bullpen in 2020? He will likely start the year with Cleveland, and some believe that a mid-season Brad Hand move could elevate him or Emmanuel Clase into the closer role. Until then, Karinchak is a solid late-round option for deep leagues, Ottoneu leagues, or Saves+Holds leagues.

Karinchak should get many hold opportunities and rack up a strikeout or two per inning. Walks could be his biggest issue, but as long as he prevents hits at the level, he's shown he can, it shouldn't be too big of a concern. Karinchak, in my opinion, has the ceiling of a top relief pitcher option just based on his incredible stuff, and he is worth spending a later pick on in the right type of league.

Projection systems have him sitting between 12-14 K/9. Still, it's very difficult to project a reliever, let alone one who has barely pitched in the majors, so you can reasonably expect something higher.

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