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James Karinchak is a pitch tunneller’s dream

...and a hitter’s nightmare

Cleveland Indians v. Minnesota Twins Photo by Harrison Barden/MLB Photos via Getty Images

It’s common knowledge at this point that the Cleveland Football Team Baseball Team is a pitching factory.

Not many organizations can churn high level pitching talent—most recently starter Carlos Carrasco—and still be competitive year after year. But Cleveland is able to churn said pitching talent because they seem to be able to develop pitching talent with great ease, in the bullpen as well as the starting rotation.

One of the more valuable arms to come out of the Cleveland Pitching Factory most recently is reliever James Karinchak, who cemented himself as one of the baseball’s elite relivers during the 2020 season. In 27.0 innings, he pitched to a clean 2.67 ERA. His 1.52 FIP and 48.6% K% were good for 3rd and 1st in the AL, respectively.

Karinchak, like many elite relivers in today’s game, relies on two pitches. For him, a mid-to-high 90’s fourseam fastball and a devastating 12-to-6 curveball are his duo of choice, throwing each pitch roughly 50% of the time. Both offerings proved elite from the start, with his fastball generating a .228 xwOBA and 39.0% Whiff%, and the curveball generating a .218 xwOBA and a ridiculous 56.3 Whiff%.

But a lot of major league pitchers feature a good fastball curveball combo. What makes Karinchak above the pack? For one, Karinchak does a great job of separating the locations of his two pitches, keeping his fastball elevated, while concentrating the curveball down in the zone in contrast.

Additionally, Karinchak’s fastball has elite rise, dropping just 9.5 inches on average on it’s way to the plate—3.6 inches less than similar fastballs in its class, creating that much more movement separation from the two pitches. Think of it as adding 3.6 inches of break to the curveball by proxy.

But of course, it isn’t just that simple. What makes Karinchak so dangerous is his ability to create a tunnel with his pitches, making them both look virtually identical up until the hitter has to make a decision to swing at the pitch. For a better visual, here is the same video with the pitches overlayed.

Notice how both pitches look the same... right up until they don’t. To further appreciate what Karinchak is doing here, let’s slow the video down an split it into two phases—pre-tunnel point and post-tunnel point.

First, pre-tunnel.

The two pitches are going toward the catcher at nearly the same trajectory. This a nightmare scenario for hitters, as at this point, they need to decide what they are going to do.

Now, post-tunnel.

Now we see the fruits of Karinchak’s efforts. What began as two pitches looking exactly the same ended up as two wildly different ones, allowing him to get chases both above the strike zone with the fastball and below the strike zone with the curveball.

With two above average pitches that are difficult for hitter to detect and decipher, as well a the ability to tunnel those pitches, James Karinchak has emerged as one of the premier relief pitchers in all of baseball. While the public perception mat be that Cleveland is at a crossroads concerning the direction of the franchise, so long as they continue to develop pitching talent, it’s hard to imagine them ceasing to be competitive.

Brian Menéndez is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a senior writer for DRaysBay. Additionally, he has been featured in The Hardball Times. You can find Brian on Twitter at @briantalksbsb.