College students tend to enjoy pass/fail courses as the necessity of finishing just good enough to pass is a welcome respite from the competitive culture within corps coursework. Excellence not being rewarded considered acceptable given the low probability of the learned material affecting the future livelihoods of those partaking. With the quiet offseason leaving the 2019 Cleveland Indians to have an obvious lack of redundancy or even substandard starting options at some critical positions, there were many calls suggesting the Tribe believed the AL Central Division was such a pass/fail course in 2019.
Rather, what the Indians attempted to navigate during this season was more akin to walking the tight rope. A difficult and sometimes harrowing journey filled with possible audience thrills and even a chance at great reward… yet a resulting failure would have far more catastrophic consequences. Between adjusting the payroll budget for the absence of minority investor John Sherman and not wanting to divest many of the assets for future contention, the Indians front office was bereft of a buffer should another team within the division rise. Upon sustaining major injuries to most every expected elite-level star,1 the Tribe might have even been starting the season at a deficit. The Minnesota Twins arriving as a legitimate contender a year earlier than expected was the only other event needed to topple the Indians from their three-consecutive-seasons perch as AL Central Division champions.
A microcosm of the season could be seen in the game the division was emotionally lost. After Miguel Sano hit a grand slam in the top half of the eighth inning on Saturday, scoring runs to breathe life into the must-win game– especially after having lost the afternoon affair– was urgent. However, after a Franmil Reyes hard line out, the batters receiving perhaps the most desperate ones of the 2019 season were… Ryan Flaherty and the first plate appearance of the season for Bradley Zimmer. These players now combine to be 0-for-9 with an OPS+ of -100, which is the lowest possible score.2
The Indians failed The Walk as it can reasonably be ascertained the Twins will not forfeit a 4.5 game lead with 13 remaining especially given their opponents; Kansas City Royals (seven games), Chicago White Sox (three games), and Detroit Tigers (three games). As the Tribe free falls from their formerly lofty status, hope remains in the safety net of the AL Wild Card. A game and a half separate the Tribe from the one-game winner-take-all affair, but the Tampa Bay Rays have difficult opponents on the docket; Los Angeles Dodgers (two games), Boston Red Sox (four games), New York Yankees (two games), and Toronto Blue Jays (three games).
If the safety net is to not tear, then the Tribe will need contributions from all available resources. One key asset could well be James Karinchak who also appeared in that fateful Saturday game. After shutting the door in the top of the eighth, he breezed through the ninth inning. Here are the results of every batter that has faced Karinchak in Major League Baseball.
Strike out, dropped third strike, safe on first
Infield pop up
The sample size is obviously small, but the eye test of a 97 mile per hour fastball with movement and an 85 mile per hour 12-6 curve that drops off the table3 indicates it could be real. The backlog of minor league data supports it as 186-of-431 batters faced have struck out (43%). Those wondering if Karinchak simply feasted on low-level players can rest easy knowing that his 2019 numbers in Akron (AA) and Columbus (AAA) were that of 66-of-114 batters faced ending in a strike out (58%).
On Saturday, Karinchak kept the Twins lineup off balance with almost a perfect mix of his four-seam fastball (13 pitches) and curve (11 pitches). Despite appearing somewhat effectively wild, a closer look at his pitch chart shows that every four-seam fastball was on the fringes of the strike zone. Only the curve ever dropped over the heart of the plate, and the bulk of the fastballs scraped near the top of the zone, which is a difficult place to catch up to 97 mile per hour heat.
Despite striking out three, Karinchack only registered one swing-and-miss inside the strike zone. He had FIVE other whiffs on fastballs high (two) and curve balls low (three). Further showing how confused hitters were, the weak induced contact of pop ups were on a curve ball high in the strike zone and a fastball low.
After a few stumbles and trips throughout the season, the Indians finally fell from the division-race tight rope they walked during the 2019 season. They can still bounce back up to achieve their postseason goals by obtaining an AL Wild Card spot, but, to do so, they’ll need to dominate their remaining schedule like Karinchak dominated Twins batters on Saturday night.