Back in July of 2020, I started doing more in-depth pitching analysis than ever before, looking into some interesting names. James Karinchak was one of those first names.
In the piece I wrote about him back then, I went on to review a lot of things that made him a very exciting option for fantasy managers looking for a great reliever who could help with ratios and pile-up strikeouts. The biggest concern with him has always been his BB% but walks don’t affect regular leagues and, because of his ability to strike batters out, those walks did not usually end up causing too much harm in his ERA.
I centered my analysis on a fair amount of stats, pitch usage, and sequencing. I also compared with similar minor leaguers to get a fair image of Karinchak and to try to forecast his immediate future, which by all accounts was extremely reassuring. But I did not look into spin rates, and that needs to change.
What Are We Sticking About?
A few days ago, Michael Ajeto sent a tweet in which he posted a graph showing how Karinchak’s 4-Seamer has changed its Average Vertical Break (AVB) drastically since June this year (we’ll come back to this later on), and that sparked my curiosity once again on the future Guardians’ electric reliever.
Mikey’s tweet was clearly pointing to a big change related to the spin rate of Karinchak’s pitches, as that’s the most probably predominant factor in the AVB shift. And, as everyone already knows, MLB took a big step forward in policing any foreign substances that might be influencing the pitchers’ ability to increase those spin rates.
It doesn’t take too long to check on any pitcher’s RPM these days, you can just pull that info from Savant so that’s what I did. Let’s see Karinchak’s curveball data first, its average revolutions per minute (spin rate) by month since September 2019:
And the same data but for his fastball:
If you were looking for a smoking gun, maybe you don’t need to look any further. Something happened in June 2021 that made his pitches less “spinny”. If you are wondering, June 21st was the date when MLB started enforcing checks on every pitcher taking the mound, warning that pitchers would be “ejected and suspended for using illegal foreign substances to doctor baseballs”. Coincidence?
Let’s dig a little deeper, comparing the RPM reduction with the resulting ERA and FIP:
Yes, definitely something happened in June. Although the official policing on sticky substances started on 6/21, the buzz around its impending application started some weeks before, which had pitchers already on guard.
As I did not want to just run with the idea that it’s all about the RPM, I did some checking in other areas, for example, the tightness of the release point.
When things suddenly start to go wrong or, on the contrary, well for a pitcher, there are many possible causes. One of those that I like to check is their ability to have a consistent point of release for each pitch they throw.
Depending on the pitcher, if he had a consistent release point prior to things going wrong, we can check if it’s different now, and vice versa.
I found no major differences between Karinchak’s release points before and after 06/01; even calculating the RMSE showed no big deviations from what he had been doing since the start of the year (you can go a little deeper on Release Points and RMSE in this piece if you want to).
Karinchak seems to be healthy, or at least nothing serious has been associated with him lately, so that should not be a problem, either.
To be honest, barring any case of the yips or an emotional situation, it’s really hard to not blame the struggles he is having on the sticky substances (or lack of them) as the culprit of Karinchak’s woes, so I have to agree with Ajeto, here.
There are a few pitchers experiencing the same kind of “problems” Karinchak is, maybe the biggest names are Walker Buehler and Gerrit Cole. The latter has had his ups and downs on his RPM numbers, and although sometimes he has looked diminished, he has still carried an amazing season in results.
Regarding Buehler, as we can see next, he has experienced a dip in his 4-Seamer’s RPM which, while not as big as Karinchak’s, is still important.
And, as we can see in the following chart, it has affected his Average Vertical Break (AVB), too; not as much as it has affected Karinchak’s, but it is close.
Buehler has not remotely struggled as much as Karinchak. He has continued to be dominant in the post-sticky era. Buehler has an advantage, though: he can throw six different pitches, while Karinchak just throws fastballs and curveballs and while they were elite that was not an issue, but now that they lost some of their shine, things can get rough.
It’s clear that Karinchak is having a really hard time since things began to dip in June. He has had an ERA, FIP, and xFIP line of 4.70/5.03/4.53 from June 1st and a K-BB% of 11.0%. Before that, his line was 2.28/2.83/2.53 with a ridiculous 33.3% K-BB%.
Contrary to starting pitchers, relief pitchers have almost zero margin-for-error, every little mistake is potentially a disaster, especially for high-leverage pitchers like Karinchak. He was already constrained due to his limited selection of pitches, and now that they are not as effective as before, he is in a very rough spot.
I would avoid anything to do with Karinchak for a while, and his redraft and dynasty values have plummeted with good reason; until any sign of recovery, you can safely keep him out of your fantasy plans for the future.
[Karinchak was demoted to Triple-A on Saturday afternoon, shortly after this piece was published]
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire | Feature Image by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)