It’s fairly customary in baseball parlance to talk about “the sweetest swings” in the game or the “slickest gloves.” But for whatever reason, the pitchers with the “smoothest deliveries” don’t seem to generate quite the same recognition. If they did, former Indians right-hander and current Columbus Clippers pitching coach, Steve Karsay, would have his rightful place in the pantheon of proper mechanics. It’s been 15 years since he threw his last pitch in an Indians uniform, and yet I think I can still say—without hesitation or hyperbole—that Even Steven (actual birth name, Stefan) was the most fundamentally sound pitcher in the history of baseball.
Now bear with me a second. I will admit that weird, seemingly random thought-tangents like this can happen pretty easily in the wee wee hours of a horrendous late-night Tribe loss in Oakland (9-1 was the final if you need to know, which you don’t). When sleepily assessing the inconsistent release point of a demoralized Danny Salazar, the mind is apt to wander. But there is a method to my madness, I think, and plenty of reasons for you, too, to become a Steve Karsay-niac here in 2016.
By my own estimate, there are roughly 4,237 ways to throw a baseball, from the sweeping, ankle-breaking delivery of Andrew Miller to the herky-jerky jack-in-the-box style of Mike Clevinger. As long as you get results, it doesn’t really matter which method you adopt. “Even Dave Burba can look sexy in a box score,” the old baseball proverb goes. Still, there is something to be said for real style and grace in the art of pitching—all components moving harmoniously towards a common goal. On its own, “smoothness” will never mean more than your FIP or WHIP, perhaps.
But for somebody like Danny Salazar, getting back to muscle-memory and his own natural dance steps could be just the sort of non-psychological approach he needs right now (presuming the guy isn’t just flat-out injured, which is VERY possible). Sure, I’m confident that the very capable Mickey Callaway is going to do everything he can to sort out Danny’s issues in his own way over the weeks ahead. I just think, from my own mildly warped Karsay-centric perspective, that the best solution might actually be a few starts down in Columbus—minimal pressure, confidence building, and most importantly, one-on-one sage advice from the true Master of Mechanics himself.
Steve Karsay mania, of course, is always at its highest point when two of his former teams are playing, and the Indians’ annual visit to Oak-town is certainly a pit stop steeped in nostalgia and reeking of Karsaynogens. It’s hard for those of us with photographic memories not to recall the 1999 season, for example—the last of the Tribe’s ‘90s juggernauts—when Cleveland swept four straight from the A’s on the road in late April; putting them well on their way to another Central Division title. The winner of the first game of that series was, naturally, Steve Karsay—a former A’s prospect working his way back from arm surgery as a new member of the Tribe.
A first round draft pick of the Blue Jays in 1990 out of Christ the King High School in Queens, NYC, the hard-throwing, 6-foot-3-inch Karsay was eventually traded to Oakland in a 1993 deadline deal, basically straight-up for a still dangerous Rickey Henderson. Henderson and the Jays went on to win the World Series, and a 21 year-old Karsay looked promising in a late-season call-up with the Athletics, going 3-3 with a 4.04 ERA. Heading into the ’94 season, Steve was rated the #12 prospect in the game by Baseball America. …Then the wheels came off.
Despite his seemingly effortless throwing style, Karsay ran into arm troubles and had to undergo Tommy John surgery, missing a good chunk of the ’94 season and all of 1995. When he returned in ’96, he never advanced beyond an extended rehab stint with Oakland’s Single-A squad in Modesto. Finally rejoining the Athletics in 1997, the now 25 year-old Karsay still had the moves right, but the results did not follow. He started 24 games, going 3-12 with a 5.77 ERA and 1.61 WHIP. At season’s end, he was traded to Cleveland—not for a future Hall of Famer this time—but for a fat and useless Mike Fetters.
A once promising career easily could have ended right there, but John Hart saw something left in the kid. Call it raw talent or potential, but those concepts are too broad. Hart saw the grace, man. He saw a friggin’ Baryshnikov with a curveball.
Now, when you’re talking about mechanics in regards to Karsay’s approach, there wasn’t actually anything mechanical about it. There was zero rigidity in his movement—no quirks, no starts-and-stops, and no wasted energy. The whole process had the tempo of a waltz—back stride, whirl-a-round, draw, and fire. Out of the stretch? Just glide and fire. He worked this way: rhythmically, defying any sign of physical exertion, and with fluid motion, kind of like a dolphin.
I’m not good at animal analogies. Thanks to Major League Baseball’s stubborn, self-defeating refusal to open up its massive video archive, however, I’m forced to use descriptive words rather than embed actual online footage of Steve Karsay’s playing days. As a further consequence, the actual choreography of Steve’s windup and delivery has become increasingly shrouded in legend over the years. Did he really bring his glove completely over his head, or was it more at shoulder level? Did he throw perfectly overhand, or more at a three-quarters point? Obviously, all of us ponder these questions on a regular basis (right?!). But only Steve himself knows for sure anymore, and he’s too busy down in C-bus to waste time settling arguments among his legions of acolytes.
But anyway, yeah, John Hart traded the corpse of Mike Fetters for Karsay, and the Indians quickly elected to convert their new reclamation project to the bullpen as a way of limiting the wear on his surgically repaired arm. Pretty soon, it looked like Steve had finally found the perfect platform for his talents.
In that 1999 season, he entered August with an 8-1 record and 2.73 ERA out of the Tribe pen, working as one of closer Mike’s Jackson’s most reliable setup men. With a hole to fill in the starting rotation, though, Mike Hargrove decided to take a gamble towards the end of the year. Karsay would be converted back into a starter, to see if his newfound dominance could translate back to his original role. At first, it looked like a genius move.
In his first two starts, Karsay shut down Baltimore and Texas, allowing just 1 run over 10 innings, and picking up two more wins. He was now 10-1 with a 2.41 ERA and gaining national attention for his impressive comeback story. His next start would be August 24… back in Oakland.
Facing a solid A’s lineup, Steve cruised through the first two innings with the Indians up 5-0. The team that had left him for dead was now paying the price. Steve Karsay, the much-ballyhooed prospect, had finally arrived.
Then the third inning happened. After retiring the first hitter, Karsay gave up a homer to A.J. Hinch. He then loaded the bases on a walk, a single, and a hit-by-pitch, and served up a Grand Slam to John Jaha. The game was suddenly tied. Steve finished the inning, but informed the Indians training staff that he felt some soreness in his wing. His day was over, and after an exam, he was back on the DL, never to start another game in his career.
Of course, Karsaypians know the story doesn’t end there by any means. The Comeback Kid returned to the bullpen in 2000 and impressively won the Indians closer job, saving 20 games that season (though he was forced to jettison his immaculate wind-up in the process). The following June, however, the Karsay era in Cleveland was over, as he was shipped to Atlanta in the infamous deal for John Rocker—a monster truck replacing a dressage horse. As Cleveland wept, the rollercoaster just kept on rolling for Karsay.
In 2002, he saved 12 games as a key bullpen arm for his hometown Yankees, then missed another entire season due to injury in 2003.
Somehow, Karsay fought his way back time and again, even signing a Minor League deal with the Indians one last time before rounding out his career back where it started, in Oakland. One decade ago, on June 17, 2006, Karsay tossed two shutout innings against the Angels at Oakland Coliseum to earn a win. The next day, he announced his retirement. The daily strain on his tattered old wing wasn’t worth it anymore.
The man with the flawless delivery ended his career with a record of just 32-39 with a 4.01 ERA and 1.34 WHIP. Statistically, he would only ever be a footnote. And based on his medical history, his approach to pitching only seemed to promise a lot of risk factors. But then again, for a human being, maybe there really isn’t any such thing as “mechanically sound” when you’re talking about snapping your arm in a downward motion repeatedly a couple hundred times a week. We’re just fortunate as Tribe fans that we got to see someone who abused their arm as gracefully as Steve Karsay did. #LetSteveSaveSalazar!