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Cleveland’s bullpen is fixing its issues with more offspeed

Emmanuel Clase and James Karinchak are leaning on their offspeed pitches to finish games for the Guardians

St. Louis Cardinals v Cleveland Guardians Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images

Emmanuel Clase and James Karinchak are ending games faster with this one weird trick — doctors hate them!

It’s no secret that the Guardians bullpen’s 2023 performance has been a little uneven. A lot of the reason for that has revolved around two players who were the eighth- and ninth-inning options in 2022, Karinchak and Clase, respectively. Karinchak’s xERA has ballooned from 2.92 in 2022 to 4.04 in 2023 and his FIP from 2.29 to 5.62 entering play on Tuesday. His strikeout rate is down 1.7 per 9 and his walk rate is up 0.5 per 9. Clase has seen his xERA go from 1.97 to 3.17 and FIP from 1.98 to 2.70, while his K/BB/9 rates have declined from 9.54/1.24 to 7.45 to 1.86 (again, entering play on June 6).

Obviously, those numbers are a lot more concerning for Karinchak, but, in a season where close outcomes are an everyday occurrence, a slight decline in performance from Clase tends to be magnified when the margins for victory are so slim.

In their past 7-8 appearances, a notable change has taken place for both Karinchak and Clase, accompanied by improved performances — namely an increased reliance on their respective go-to breaking balls.

From March 31 to May 19, Clase threw 68.3% fastballs (cutters and four-seamers) and 31.7% sliders. From May 20 to June 4, he has thrown 55.4% fastballs and 44.6% sliders. The results have been dramatic: 5.87/1.96 K/BB/9 for the first seven weeks of the season with a 3.20 FIP, and 13.5/1.5 K/BB/9 with a 0.78 FIP for the past two weeks. He has also benefited from gaining about one mph on each of his pitches in the past two weeks compared to his averages from the previous seven weeks of the season.

Clase has repeatedly been getting ahead of hitters with first-pitch sliders that prevent the opposition from sitting on the cutter to make hard contact. When protecting against the slider, batters have a much more difficult time getting the barrel of the bat to the cutter, as seen in the below sequence:

[Editor’s note: Apologies if you get a bunch of ads in these videos, but it’s because we’re using the clipping service provided by MLB; they are not from us or SB Nation. —Matt]

If you’re sitting on Clase’s cutter, it is virtually impossible to hit this slider. It doesn’t move in any way similar to the cutter and Donovan Solano assumes this pitch is going to ride up and in, only to have it drop in the zone. Now, a couple of pitches later, he has to protect against that same slider coming back and dropping into the zone, only to get a cutter he has no chance of touching, running out of the zone for the strikeout:

Clase’s compatriot, Karinchak, has gone from throwing 62.6% fastballs, 37.4% curveballs, with a 12.05/5.79 K/BB/9, and walks in eight of his first 21 appearances, to 51.4% fastballs and 48.6% curveballs, and 14.14/5.14 K/BB/9 and walks in only two of his last eight appearances. After saying late last week that Karinchak might need a tune-up in Columbus when Quantrill is back, it looks to me like the demonstrative right-hander may be on the way to figuring it out in the bigs.

Karinchak has seen a slight increase in his fastball spin, around 10% over the past week, which should help combat the 50% decline in spin he had seen earlier in the season, but the separator for the volatile right-hander is throwing that curveball consistently for strikes and being free to return to the old Uncle Charlie throughout an at-bat.

For example, getting ahead of dangerous hitter Jorge Polanco:

Did you enjoy that curveball, Jorge? Maybe ahead 0-1, Karinchak might not want you to see the curveball again right away? Nope. Wrong. It’s working today. Fastballs are for the cages, big fella.

Now, ahead 0-2, Karinchak can go to that fastball above the zone and see if Polanco thinks it’s a curve that’s gonna drop into the zone. Jorge recognizes the heater off from the jump.

Karinchak decides to try it again, but the pitch is a little lower and Polanco is just under it here, which, again, is part of the fact that Polanco is forced to protect against the fact that the curveball might drop into the zone.

All right, You’ve seen the fastball twice now, and you’ve seen the curve. Actually ... do you remember that curve? Do you remember what it does? Well, if you do, Jorge, all you need to do is not swing over the top of a curve and hunt that fastball in the zone while protecting against the curve. Simple, right?

Hitting in the majors is so hard, folks. And, when Guardians pitchers are making it that way on Twins hitters, we can’t help but enjoy that fact.

Interestingly enough, while the sample size is still small, another Guardians’ back-end reliever, Sam Hentges, has gone from 63% fastball, 16% slider, 21% curveball in 2022 to 44% fastball, 10% slider and 46%(!!!) curveball so far in 2023. It’s fun to see three guys in Karinchak, Hentges, and Clase — who can consistently hit anywhere from 96-100 with their fastballs — rely on their offspeed pitches to frustrate hitters.

Obviously, hitters are constantly making adjustments during a season and they have the data I’ve shared here. If Clase and Karinchak consistently attempt to throw first-pitch strikes with their breaking balls, hitters will start trying to sit on those breaking balls. Cam Gallagher, Mike Zunino, and, eventually (I promise), Bo Naylor will need to try a step ahead of batters by altering sequences, but I believe they should continue to be unafraid to go liberally to the slider and the curve, respectively, to keep the competition from sitting on the hard stuff to make better contact.