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James Karinchak chewed, trimmed, and yelled his way into a great rookie campaign

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Chew your gloves and cut your own hair, because the future is Karinchak’s in Cleveland

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Cleveland Indians Summer Workouts Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Based solely on “Gets Us” metric, there may be no finer player to come through the Cleveland organization than James Karinchak.

Eccentric? Check.

Electric? Check.

Loaded with Major League references? Yeah, I think number 99 has got that.

For better or worse, his season also resembled the ups and downs of your typical Cleveland season.

Coming into this season, expectations were sky high for Karinchak. After a 2019 season in which he maintained greater than 20 K/9 across every level of the minors he pitched in and then allowed just two baserunners and struck out eight of the 22 batters he faced in a late-season big league cameo, the weight of the fanbase’s hopes were upon the 24-year-old righty. To say he lived up to the hype would be under-selling his performance.

In the first month of the strange 2020 season, from July 25 to Aug. 25, Karinchak threw 16.2 innings and allowed just two runs (one earned), for a 0.54 ERA. Of the 60 batters he faced in that stretch, 31 struck out and all hitters slashed .096/.186/.115 against him. He loaded the strike zone with 64% strikes and had a whiff rate of 16% thanks in part to his devastating curveball and mid- to upper-90s velocity on his fastball.

The second month, in appearances from Aug. 29 to Sept. 27, was less kind to Karinchak. His ERA ballooned to 6.10 as he gave up seven runs (all earned) in 10.1 innings of work. His strikeout rate dipped, though not precipitously, as just 22 of 49 batters faced struck out against him; likewise, he still threw strikes 58% of the time and even increased his whiff rate to 17%. However, opponents slashed .250/.388/.389 over the last month, thanks in part to some luck with batted balls to the tune of a .500 BABIP.

After sitting atop FanGraphs’ WAR leaderboards for relievers for much of the season, Karinchak took a tumble due to his final month ... all the way to fourth. His 1.1 fWAR is the same as Raisel Iglesias and Brad Hand’s, just behind the 1.4 of leaders Devin Williams and Liam Hendriks. That’s a hell of a place for a rookie to be.

In addition, Karinchak finished the abbreviated 2020 season first in K/9 (17.67), fourth in FIP (1.52), fourth in K-BB% (33.9%), fifth in xFIP (2.33), 14th in HR/9 (0.33), and 14th in Barrel% (2.5%). Even if he lives somewhere between the versions of himself seen in the first month and the second month, Karinchak has the ability to be elite.

His fastball had more rise, on average, than anyone else in the league and his curveball featured the least amount of horizontal movement, on average, than anyone else in the league. The combination is absurd.

Next season (assuming there is a full season), Karinchak will make somewhere in the neighborhood of $570,000, or 17.5 times less than Brad Hand’s option. For a team going on an all-out media blitz to push the narrative that losses from this pandemic-shortened season are catastrophic, it’s only logical to assume that Karinchak will slot into Hand’s role as closer for the 2021 season (whatever it looks like).

For a guy who paces the mound, chews his glove, and yells what we can only assume are copious obscenities even after successful at-bats, the stress from such a role could be a lot for Karinchak to handle. It’s possible that the pressure of being a trusted arm for tough situations got to Karinchak later in the 2020 season; he had a 1.39 average leverage index (a measure of how much pressure was involved in each outing), which was 53rd among relievers, but -0.27 clutch (which measures success in high-leverage situations), which was 124th. Now, clutch is a descriptive stat not a prescriptive one, meaning it tells us a lot about the past and nearly nothing about the future, but considering how many people use clutch performance to undercut the brilliance of Francisco Lindor it’s certainly something to watch.

The only way to really tell what the future holds for Karinchak is to see how he performs. And at this point it seems like he’s going to get every chance to take over the back end of the Cleveland bullpen as early as next April. If it means more @pitchingninja tweets, then I’m all for it.