It isn’t a true baseball season unless dominant relievers appear out of thin air.
Last year, as a 29-year-old rookie, Nick Anderson struck out 41.7 percent of hitters, second in the game only to Josh Hader. In 2018, the Twins traded Ryan Pressly to the Astros, and he didn’t allow a run in his final 21 appearances. Chad Green, Chris Devenski, Brad Boxberger — these are all relievers who broke out as elite arms over the past few years.
This year’s elite newcomers? James Karinchak and Josh Staumont.
Both Karinchak and Staumont have taken baseball by storm. In 13 appearances into Monday, Karinchak has thrown 14 2⁄3 innings, allowing just two runs (one earned) on four hits, with 28 strikeouts to just six walks. He’s only faced 53 batters, so yes, you’re reading this correctly: Karinchak currently has a 53 percent strikeout rate. Likewise, Staumont has appeared in 12 games, throwing 11 1⁄3 innings. He’s only allowed two runs (one earned) on seven hits, with 23 strikeouts to just six walks. He’s only faced 49 hitters, yielding a 47 percent strikeout rate.
Karinchak and Staumont aren’t inherently connected; they just both fit the theme of “newly-dominant relief arms” here in 2020. However, people have noticed the similarities between the two, drawing comparisons on both their stuff and their results. Now, it’s time to officially enter this into relief pitcher canon: A true, 100 percent confirmed and accurate comparison of our two new favorite pitchers, James Karinchak and Josh Staumont. There will be no questions.
While I strongly implied that Karinchak and Staumont “appeared out of thin air,” that isn’t necessarily true.
Casual baseball fans might not have been introduced to Karinchak or Staumont until 2020, but, at least for the former, this is just business as usual. (And some did pick up on this.) On FanGraphs, Karinchak was listed as the Indians’ fifth-best prospect, with Eric Longenhagen writing that he is the “backend bullpen arm some teams are willing to pay a premium for.” Longenhagen grades his fastball as an 80, and the minor league numbers certainly back that up. Karinchak’s career minor league strikeout rate was 43 percent. He’s only gotten better, too, striking out 59 percent (!) of the batters he faced across three minor league levels in 2019. Among pitchers with at least 20 innings in the upper minors, Karinchak’s strikeout rate ranked first. . . and by 9.7 percentage points.
Staumont’s track record isn’t as sterling. He did receive some eye-popping grades from the FanGraphs scouting report, including a 70-graded fastball and a 60-graded curveball. However, in the command area, he struggled, receiving a 30. It shows up in the numbers, too, with Staumont walking more than 17 percent of the batters he faced in the minors, while striking out just 29 percent. Command impacts both strikeout and walk rate — you have to command your stuff well to strike guys out — and that’s quite evident here. Staumont has been able to hit 102 mph on the radar gun since college, but because he never was able to harness it (until now), his numbers were always considerably worse than they could’ve been. Some of this is certainly due to the Royals’ original attempt to develop him as a starter — Staumont was still making starts as recently as last year, so he might still be in the development phase there.
That brings us to our second category: stuff. People love relievers with ‘stuff’. Guys who light up the radar gun are the most fun. Most of us could never throw a 90 mph fastball, but when we see someone throw a 100 mph — and do it consistently — it’s still a treat, even though it is becoming much more common.
But for as much fun as it is to watch a reliever with nasty stuff, it’s also extraordinarily important for another reason: consistency. Relievers already experience a ton of year-to-year volatility, likely at least in part due to their small sample size of results. In a single season, a reliever may only throw 60 or 70 innings, far from enough to get a handle on his true talent level. However, random variability can be limited significantly when you’re just blowing by every hitter:
2019 league-wide results on fastballs by velocity
|Fastball type||BA||SLG||wOBA||Avg. EV||Avg. LA|
|Fastball type||BA||SLG||wOBA||Avg. EV||Avg. LA|
Both Karinchak and Staumont have some excellent pure stuff. Karinchak has thrown his fastball 122 times this year, with an average velocity of 95.6 mph. Last September, he hit as high as 97.9 mph on the radar gun. So while he is not a member of the triple-digit club, he’s clearly not a soft-tosser.
Additionally, he has excellent rising action on his fastball, with the most fastball rise of any pitcher in the league. (When accounting for velocity’s impact on rise, Karinchak is third.) Naturally, he peppers the upper portion of the strike zone This is what the pitch looks like:
You can’t touch that. Things don’t get any better for the hitter when you add in the fact that Karinchak also has a solid curveball that he throws just less than half the time, to batters of both handedness. It forces hitters to guess, and because Karinchak works north-south in the zone — fastball generally up, curveball generally down — his elite tunneling makes him nearly impossible to square up:
James Karinchak, 95mph elevated Fastball (swinging strike) and 83mph Curveball (backwards K), Individual Pitches + Overlay pic.twitter.com/p0CkVcIDGN— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 13, 2020
Staumont’s story is similar. Like Karinchak, he works north-south with the fastball and curveball. He throws harder, averaging 98.4 mph on the gun, maxing out at 102. That is not a one-off — he’s consistently above 100 mph. He’s thrown 20 fastballs at or above 100 mph, the most in baseball. One out of roughly every seven Staumont fastballs reaches triple-digits. Because he throws so hard, Staumont’s fastball has natural rising action, with his 9.7 inches of drop ranking as the second-fewest in the majors, behind Karinchak. (When accounting for the velocity, however, he is tied for 52nd.) Here it is:
Staumont’s curveball is arguably better than Karinchak’s, too. He is in the 91st percentile in curveball spin rate, the 80th percentile in curveball spin efficiency, and the 94th percentile in curveball drop when adjusting for velocity. Here’s the pitch:
Both pitchers have elite stuff, but Staumont’s is slightly better. He throws harder and generates more drop on the breaking ball, rendering him near-unhittable. Karinchak does generate a bit more rise on the four-seamer, but that’s not enough to give him the title in this category.
Next, we have to talk about command. Since Staumont was tagged with a 30-grade here, it’s not hard to figure out where the advantage lies. What is interesting, however, is that his command has been serviceable this season. Staumont hasn’t turned into a strike-throwing machine, but he’s been good enough that the walks (and hit batters) haven’t come back to bite him.
Looking strictly at walk rate, Karinchak (11.3 percent) has just slightly edged out Staumont (12.2 percent), but if you include Staumont’s three hit batters into the equation, he’s allowed 18.3 percent of batters faced to reach from a lack of command or control. (Karinchak hasn’t hit anyone.) If anything, this is just a lesson in how walk rate can be slightly misleading, especially in small sample sizes, when a hit batter (or two... or three) can make a considerable overall difference.
Staumont (50.5 percent) has actually thrown more pitches than Karinchak (47.9 percent) in the strike zone, but that’s far from the whole story. Here’s the breakdown of the two by attack zone, along with the 2019 wOBA and swinging-strike rates for the league-average hitter in each zone:
Pitch% by attack zone, with 2019 league-average results
|Zone||Karinchak||Staumont||2019 wOBA||2019 SwStr%|
|Zone||Karinchak||Staumont||2019 wOBA||2019 SwStr%|
By this examination, the two pitchers don’t really differentiate all that much in the area of command. That’s likely in part because Staumont’s command is fairly a new revelation. However, even by Alex Chamberlain’s expected walk rate metric, the two are almost indistinguishable: Karinchak comes in at 12.3 percent to Staumont’s 12.2 percent.
*Track record was a separate category must continue to be treated as such. We are not penalizing Staumont twice for having bad control in the past.
Hard contact control
The last important aspect to consider is hard contact control. While raking up strikeouts and limiting walks is clearly the most important part of pitching, another significant factor is the ability to control batted ball outcomes. As a pitcher, making your fielders’ job easier is part of the game. It’s why, despite not having high strikeout marks, Zack Britton has been able to be one of the most consistent relievers in the game. On the flip side, though, getting shelled isn’t necessarily the end of the world. Josh Hader allowed a ton of hard contact last year, but because hitters rarely made contact at all, he still ranked third among relievers in fWAR.
That brings us back to Karinchak and Staumont. Both theoretically could be Hader-esque. They each generate so many whiffs that, even in a world in which they allow hard contact, they’d be successful relievers. In a sense, limiting hard contact is the cherry on top for them. This is also where they diverge.
Staumont is similar to Hader; though the sample size isn’t large, batted balls off of him have an average exit velocity of 94.8 mph. That’s in the 1st percentile. But he’s also doing something incredibly interesting: Staumont has generated an unusual number of infield fly balls thus far. That is far from being reliable, however, though it is something to watch. Much more notable is the fact that nearly half of all batted balls off Staumont leave the bat at 95 mph — again near the bottom of the league.
Karinchak, meanwhile, limits hard contact like none other. He hasn’t allowed a barrel yet, his hard-hit rate allowed is in the 95th percentile, and hitters have a .218 wOBA when making contact. He generates an insane number of lazy fly balls, somewhat similar to Staumont, but with much less oomph. So his 60% fly ball rate might be a bit concerning for observers, but there’s not an issue if most of the fly balls Karinchak allows look like this:
The bottom line
While I would argue that Staumont has better stuff, and that the improved command will go a long way in his development, Karinchak is currently the better pitcher. The track record is too good to ignore, and while it did come in the minor leagues, there’s been nothing to suggest that he’ll change now that he’s in the majors.
Josh Staumont, you’re awesome, but this round goes to James Karinchak.
Devan Fink is a sophomore at Dartmouth College and a Contributor at Beyond The Box Score. Previous work of his can be found at FanGraphs and his own personal blog, Cover Those Bases. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.