Sending down James Karinchak was the right decision for the Cleveland Indians
It finally happened. The move we’ve been calling to see was officially made on Saturday as the Cleveland Indians sent relief pitcher James Karinchak down to Triple-A Columbus. Is it a coincidence that it came just days after we ran an article calling for this exact move?
The case of Karinchak this season has really been the tale of two players. While some have attributed it to the league cracking down on foreign substance use by pitchers on the mound, there’s a lot of factors that have gone into Karinchak completely unraveling in the second half of the season.
Entering the year, Karinchak was deep in the mix to be the club’s closer. He was splitting opportunities in the ninth with others from the bullpen and that was a trend that carried deep into the season. However, his fall happened rather suddenly and any hopes of stabilizing while still in Cleveland seemed to be lost.
Before we go down the rabbit hole of how much Karinchak struggled recently, it needs to be noted how dominant he was before the fall. Last season when he came into the majors, he took the league by storm. Over 27 innings in 2020, he logged an ERA of 2.67, but more impressively he averaged 17.7 strikeouts per nine innings, sending down 53 batters on strikes. That was enough to not only get him closer consideration going into this season, but American League Rookie of the Year votes at the end of last season, finishing sixth.
Even in the first half of the 2021 season, Karinchak looked like the 2020 version we saw the sample from. Before the All-Star break he logged 39.1 innings over 41 appearances and kept an ERA of 2.52 while averaging 15.6 strikeouts.
Even after foreign substances for pitchers were called into light, Karinchak seemed to be alright. The crackdown started around June 21 and he made seven appearances between then and the break, having an ERA of 1.17 with 12 strikeouts over 7.2 innings. Then, it all fell apart.
It wasn’t the crackdown that caused Karinchak to unravel, but the All-Star break. After the All-Star break, a month after the crackdown on pitchers by the MLB, Karinchak started to look like a completely different pitcher and he hasn’t been able to regain his footing.
Since July 16, Karinchak’s first game back from the All-Star break, he’s made just 18 appearances with a total 15 innings logged, a stark difference from his high usage in the first half. That can be attributed to his ERA, which skyrocketed to 8.40, and a dip in his strikeouts, which dropped to 5.4 per nine innings, more than 10 fewer than the first half of the campaign.
In an interview with Mandy Bell, Cleveland Indians pitching coach Carl Willis had this to say about Karinchak’s all-around drop.
"“So what we’ve seen, his spin efficiency on the fastball has dropped. Spin efficiency creates ride to the fastball — which he was elite with that ride. So I think what we’re seeing when we’re trying to look at his delivery, when we’re looking at slow motion and capturing things on Edgertronic, he’s just not squaring up the ball at release. That last little click, he’s not behind the baseball. So again, that can start with the beginning of the delivery, it can start with takeaway — but certainly his arm path, getting behind the baseball a little bit sooner is going to allow him to square it up, create that efficiency and create that ride again. And he can do that.”"
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Spin rate seems to trigger the mind to go to foreign substances, but of course the staff isn’t going to speak to that, if it’s the case or not. Instead, Willis looks to Karinchak’s arm path and essentially his release. These are concerns that come down to fundamentals and normally those take a while to iron out and can’t happen at the big league level in the middle of a season.
The good news for Karinchak and the Cleveland Indians is that this season is shifted in Triple-A. Normally, this is when the regular season is wrapping up at that level, but due to the shift of the schedule a month back for COVID purposes at the big league level to start the season, Columbus will be playing through September.
Sending down Karinchak now will give him around a month to fix the problem, or at least identify the source, before the offseason begins. It essentially gives him a one-month head start on the process. Instead of struggling in Cleveland, he can now work on fixing in Columbus.
If Karinchak can correct whatever he needs to now, that will give him the full offseason to try and hone his skills again. I wrote earlier this month that Karinchak can still be the closer of the future for Cleveland, and at this point I stick to that. He has the desired tools to fill the role, he’s just going through a rough patch.
Karinchak will only be 26-years old at the start of next season. He’s going to have rough patches and he isn’t the first phenom to have a sophomore slump. Hopefully, he can come back firing in Spring Training and get back to what we saw the first half of this season.