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James Karinchak is back to avoiding barrels

The fiery reliever is starting to resemble his old self

MLB: AUG 01 Diamondbacks at Guardians Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Technically, James Karinchak has been back with the big league club since July 4. But if you ask me, he officially returned on Aug. 6 when he froze Jose Altuve on a 3-2 curveball to cap a scoreless inning of relief, his 10th straight unblemished appearance this season. As he walked back to the dugout, his signature histrionics were on full display:

Karinchak is a lunatic. But he’s exactly the kind of lunatic the Cleveland Guardians’ bullpen very much needs now that he seems to have recovered from a precipitous decline a season ago that had many questioning whether he could ever be an effective reliever again.

After making his big league debut in 2019, Karinchak cemented his place as a key figure in the back of the end of the Guardians’ bullpen in 2020, finishing the abbreviated season with a 2.67 ERA and a 1.52 FIP, averaging 17.67 K/9. But the 2021 season was a different story, and many drew a connection between his struggles and MLB’s crackdown on foreign substances.

Before the league implemented stricter enforcement on June 21 of last year, Karinchak had posted a 2.84 ERA, 2.98 FIP, and 15.92 K/9. But once the ban went into effect, he recorded a 5.70 ERA, 6.21 FIP, and 8.37 K/9 over the next 23.2 innings, culminating in a demotion to Triple-A Columbus.

The most telling trend was the decline in the average spin rate on his pitches, averaging 2138 RPM on his four-seam fastball and 2216 RPM on his curveball in August compared to 2485 RPM and 2424 RPM, respectively, in April. Opposing hitters started teeing off on his fastball, batting .300 against it in July compared to a .148 average in June.

Nearly a year after his demotion, Karinchak is starting to resemble his old self.

The biggest change is that, for the first time in his career, he is throwing his curveball more than his four-seamer fastball. After relying on his fastball 67.7 percent of the time in 2021, Karinchak is throwing his curveball 53.8 percent of the time this year. Inverting his pitch usage makes sense when you recall how his command of his fastball (or lack thereof) betrayed him in the latter half of last season, as opposing hitters were slugging .600 against it in the month of August.

Karinchak’s game has always been deception. He has the same average release point for both of his pitches — 6.6 feet off the ground, according to Baseball Savant — which makes it more difficult for the hitter to identify whether a fastball or a curveball is coming. Last season, due to inconsistent command, he wasn’t always able to throw his curveball for strikes, allowing hitters to sit on his fastball. Then when he missed his spot, they crushed it.

This season, the average spin rate on his fastball has continued to decline to a career-low 2287 RPM, which puts him in the 63rd percentile in the league in that category, the lowest rank of his career. His curveball has bounced back to average 2403 RPM, though that only puts him in the 37th percentile. Then again, the spin rate on his curveball has never been elite compared to the rest of the league, and that 37th percentile ranking is a career-high for Karinchak.

Now that he is throwing his curveball a greater percentage of the time, with a spin rate that more closely resembles his norm, Karinchak is also getting a greater percentage of called strikes. His 26.7% called strike percentage is a career-high, besting the 20.8% percentage he posted in 2020. While his swinging strike percentage is down to a career-low 10.2%, when opposing hitters are swinging and making contact, they’re not putting a barrel to the ball.

Of the 25 batted balls Karinchak has allowed up to this point, not a single one of them has been barreled. So while opposing hitters are batting .190 against his curveball, which is higher than previous seasons, they are also slugging .190 against it. The .192 slugging percentage against his fastball is also the lowest of his career since 2019 when hitters slugged .143 against it. He has yet to allow a home run or even a double this season. If you’re trying to beat him right now, you’re having to string together multiple hits, which is not easy to do.

The caveat is that this is a small sample size at this point. We’re talking about 13.2 innings of relief and 236 pitches over that span. It remains to be seen whether he can sustain this success the rest of the season. But one thing is for certain: Karinchak’s confidence is back, and his performance thus far has earned him the increased confidence of Terry Francona. If he can keep it up, closer Emmanuel Clase may finally have his setup man back.