Yesterday, the Cleveland Indians announced that they would be calling up relief pitching prospect James Karinchak. The RHP demanded attention early on this season by striking out 24 batters in 10 scoreless innings with the Akron RubberDucks. He also posted a FIP of -1.03. Before my first brush with Karinchak, I didn’t even know that negative FIPs were possible.
He ascended to Triple-A Columbus and didn’t really slow down. His K% is still greater than 50%. While his walk rate climbed to 16.7%, he still managed to hold down an xFIP of 1.66. That contrasts with his Triple-A ERA of 4.67 largely because of a ludicrous .571 BABIP against. That’s an official term, by the way. Here’s the chart:
While fans have clamored for his addition to the roster for months, his ability to contribute to the Indians’ postseason chances remains to be seen. What, though, led James Karinchak to this point?
Karinchak hails from Walden, New York, and attended Valley Central High School in Montgomery. There’s a history of baseball talent coming from there, including Matt Morris and Jason Motte. After graduating from the school he went undrafted and attended Bryant University, where he pitched for the Bulldogs. When he appears on the mound for the Indians he will be just the second Bryant Alumnus to reach the Major Leagues. The only other player to do so is Keith MacWhorter, who pitched 42.1 innings for the Red Sox in 1980.
With Karinchak on the roster from 2015-2017, the Bulldogs won their conference each year. By virtue of also winning the conference championship in 2016, they advanced to the NCAA Regional. They lost to East Carolina in their first game, and then narrowly fell to William & Mary in their elimination game. In his final season, Karinchak posted a 13.7 K/9 as a starter with an ERA of 3.65.
The Indians selected him in the ninth round of the draft and sent him to Mahoning Valley, where he struggled. While the strikeout stuff remained strong, he gave up more than a hit per inning and finished 2017 with a 5.79 ERA.
Little video montage of #Indians prospect RHP relief prospect James Karinchak who was just promoted from (AAA) Columbus. Karinchak is set to join the big league club on Friday for the series vs the Twins.@jkarinchak21 #RallyTogether pic.twitter.com/GgVz8qpNQK— Indians Prospective (@indiansPro) September 12, 2019
In 2018, things started to gel for Karinchak. Starting at Lake County, he dominated hitters with a 0.79 ERA in 11.1 innings and quickly earned promotion to Lynchburg. His results there got even better, earning Karinchak a trip to Double-A Akron before the end of the season. He started the 2019 there but earned promotion to Columbus before the end of April. An injury in May cost Karinchak two months of the season. When he returned it took a little bit of time for him to get his legs back under him, allowing three runs in two of his first four appearances. He allowed three runs total in his final 10 appearances during the regular season for Columbus. In those 12 innings he walked six and struck out 28, though it is worth noting that he did not issue a walk in seven of those appearances.
Now, he may very well make his Major League debut tonight against the Minnesota Twins, in one of the most important series of the season. He relies on a mid-to-high 90s fastball and a 12-6 curve. He has a changeup in his repertoire, too, but it is rarely used since he is now exclusively a reliever.
The Indians’ bullpen has faltered since the start of August. With the quiet-and-not-quite-expected-or-explained-maybe-temporary-we’re-not-sure departure of Brad Hand due to arm fatigue, Karinchak looks sure to pitch in high-leverage situations for the remainder of the season. This isn’t completely unprecedented, either. The Angels relied on Francisco Rodriguez after calling him up in mid-September of 2002. You may recall that they won the whole damn thing that year, and K-Rod played a crucial role in that success.
Maybe the Indians have their own lightning in a bottle in Karinchak.