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James Karinchak: Good again?

Only James Karinchak could carry a 4.85 BB/9 and still somehow be a dominant reliever

Wild Card Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Cleveland Guardians - Game Two Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The list of fun surprises that the Cleveland Guardians got to enjoy this summer is extensive, from breakout offensive performances to aces returning to form. One of the most important was just how solid the bullpen was. At times throughout the year, it felt like they could go five and six deep depending on how people were performing, and the team got to add new arms throughout the year that kept that rolling. One of those arms was a man that most of us thought was cooked: James Karinchak.

A year after he was basically useless on the mound in the wake of the sticky stuff crackdown, Karinchak had maybe his best season ever. You wonder where it will all go, but for a few months there he was just about unhittable.

I think it’s fair to say that a lot of the fan base — and maybe even the club itself — had all but washed their hands of Karinchak after a dreadful 2021 season. His strikeout rate had tanked from 48.6% to 33.2%, and he gave up nine home runs, three times more than he’s allowed in the rest of his career combined. Nothing seemed to work, he seemed to just stink, and there seemed to be a good reason for it too. He likely relied on Spider Tack or some other thing like so many other pitchers got used to over the last few years to boost spin rate, and with the league shutting that down he seemed to be all but done. Throwing 96 is great. But if you don’t have an out pitch, it doesn’t have any movement, and you can’t get it over the plate half the time, you don’t have long for the league. That was what happened with Karainchak — his spin rates plummeted as did his effectiveness once umpires started checking hands in June, and he found himself out of the mix soon after.

And when he returned this year on July 4, you’d be right to think that it was just more of the same. He was just going to be a body for Terry Francona to throw out there in mop-up situations. In his first game out he struck out three, but he also allowed two hits and a run. Two days later he gave up another hit and walked a guy, allowed two runs to cross, and didn’t log a single strikeout. In the parlance of the game, that’s a pretty blatant strike two for his 2022 campaign.

Then, he just decided to stop allowing runs.

Over his next 23 appearances spanning 24.2 innings, he struck out 41, walked 14 (it was still a problem but who cares at this point), gave up nine hits, and did not allow a single run to score. His spin rates certainly showed back up, leaping from an August 2021 low of 2,171 RPM back up to pre-no sticky stuff 2,377 RPM in September. Pretty weird, almost magic. Most of July and all of August didn’t see Karinchak allow anyone to score, just a whole lot of this:

The hype levels just reached critical mass, and we were all extremely here for it. And look, I get that this rubs other teams the wrong way. It’d piss me off if a Tigers reliever walked off doing this. Maybe that was part of why Rocco Baldelli decided to make the umpires caress Karinchak’s hair this summer. Between the spin rates spiking and the insanity that naturally egged on the opposition, it makes sense to me.

Not that anyone in Cleveland cared. That’s the magic of fandom, good and bad. It’s about results and entertainment, and he brought both this year. He’s a big doofus, and about as close to pure energy manifesting into a human being as you can get without shattering the laws of physics. Evidently, we’re getting better at loving this, though whenever he goes nuts the “wraparound shades in the front seat of a Dodge Ram” brigade is out in full force. But it’s a delight to see him really seizing the spotlight when he gets the chance. Relief pitching is all about taking hold of the moment and channeling that energy into results. How many closers and big-time bullpen arms are calm and collected? It seems to me like some level of psychopathy is required for the job. And Karinchak, at least this year, took full hold of that and made it work.

What more can you say about a really good year? It was only 39 innings of work, you wonder how he’d hold up if you gave him the usual 60-70, but it’s not wrong to think that he’s solidified his place in the pen for the foreseeable future. How he works in the clubhouse with Francona there, I’m not sure, and next year with the pitch clock his little routine is going to need some trimming, but that’s a next-year problem.

James Karinchak’s 2022 stats

39 38.8% 13.1% 2.08 53 1.0

We’re reviewing (almost) all the Guardians players from 2022 now through November, starting with the top-10 MVPs as voted on by eight Covering the Corner staff members. Players were awarded points based on their one through 10 individual rankings and were ranked as such. You can find all the Year in Review posts here.