Today we’ll be talking about Seattle’s new 28-year-old right-handed starter Nathan Karns. Back in November, Karns, Boog Powell, and the now-Oriole C.J. Riefenhauser were acquired from the Rays in exchange for Danny Farquhar, Brad Miller, and Logan Morrison. When I wrote about Wade Miley a couple weeks ago (another new M’s acquisition), I put together an introductory piece that focused a bit more on his background than it did on his projected performance. Quite a few folks seemed to enjoy that format, so I’ll be doing something similar for Karns.
Nathan Karns as a youngster
Karns played baseball and football at James Martin High School in Arlington, TX where he earned First-Team All-District honors as a junior and senior. After graduating from high school, Karns was selected in the 10th round of MLB’s draft by Houston, but he didn't sign. Regarding this decision, Karns was later quoted as saying "They didn't offer anything. Communication was very limited… [Being drafted] was something that I wanted, but at the same time I wasn't going to sell myself short." Instead, he enrolled at North Carolina State.
During his freshman season, his mother suffered an epilepsy-induced stroke that temporarily impaired her memory. This tragedy inspired Karns to move closer to his family, and he transferred to Texas Tech. Nathan made 25 combined starts in his sophomore and junior years for the Red Raiders, but his collegiate career was fairly tumultuous. Pitching through bicep tendinitis and against juiced metal bats, he posted a high ERA (6.91) but managed an impressive strikeout rate of 9.1 K/9.
Nathan Karns as a minor leaguer
Karns was drafted by the Nationals in 2009 after his junior year of college. He was taken in the 12th round, but his $225,000 signing bonus suggests that the Nationals held him in high regard. Karns pitched in spring training that year, but struggled with his command. After seeing a team physician, Karns was diagnosed with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder—perhaps the worst injury that a pitcher can suffer.
After undergoing shoulder surgery, Karns labored through a year and a half of rehab. He didn’t make his official professional debut until 2011 when, as a 23 year old, he started a game for the Gulf Coast League Nationals (Washington’s Rookie level club—one of the lowest rungs of professional baseball). Against long odds, Nathan excelled in the minors. In 2012, while splitting time between A and A+ ball, he was named the Nationals minor league pitcher of the year. He finished the season with 116 IP, a 2.17 ERA, a minuscule 0.2 HR/9, and 148 strikeouts. In both 2010 and 2013, Baseball America ranked Karns as a top-10 prospect within the Nationals organization.
Nathan Karns as a National
Karns made his MLB debut on May 28th, 2013 in a spot start against the Orioles. He was called up from Double-A Harrisburg to fill in for an injured Ross Detweiler, reaching the big leagues less than two years after his professional debut. Nathan survived his first game, pitching 4.1 innings of three-run ball as he helped the Nationals win 9-3. He made two more starts for the Nationals, but his inability to limit walks and home runs (he allowed six walks and five dingers in 12 IP) severely hampered his effectiveness; he was demoted back to Double-A on June 12th. The following February, he was traded to Tampa Bay for Drew Vettleson, Jose Lobaton, and Felipe Rivero.
Nathan Karns as a Ray
Karns spent all but the last few weeks of 2014 pitching for Tampa’s Triple-A squad. He didn’t perform particularly well, posting a 5.51 ERA in 27 starts, but was called up to start two games in September. Karns entered spring training in 2015 hoping to snag the club’s fifth rotation spot. However, following a plethora of injuries, he became the de facto number two starter to begin the season. He did not squander this opportunity. Although his walk and home run rates remained somewhat high, and his average outing was short (~5.1 innings per start), Karns was among the best rookie pitchers in baseball. He posted a 3.90 xFIP while striking out nearly a batter per inning. These numbers are more than respectable. It should also be noted that he suffered a mild forearm strain in September, which ended his year a few weeks early. All reports suggest that this was a minor incident, but his health is definitely something to keep an eye on in the future.
A few highlights from his rookie campaign:
- On May 29th, Karns pitched his best game of the season. He went into Baltimore and struck out seven hitters in six innings while only giving up a single hit.
- On July 4th, Karns set a career-high in strikeouts, whiffing 10 Yankees in New York.
- On July 21st, Karns pitched five shutout innings against the Phillies. He also mashed a dinger to provide the only run of the contest.
Nathan Karns as a Mariner
Looking forward to 2016, it’ll be interesting to see whether Karns wins a rotation spot out of spring training. Felix, Kuma, and Miley are locks for the starting five (*knocks on all of the wood*), which would leave two spots for Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and Nathan Karns. Each of these players has an option remaining; it seems unlikely that Tai would start the season in Tacoma, but with a new regime in charge of the M’s it’s hard to know for sure. ONLY TIME WILL TELL. Regardless, having Karns, Paxton, and Vidal Nuno as the number five/six/seven starters in 2016 seems significantly better than the Roenis Elias, J.A. Happ, and Mike Montgomery situation that the Mariners started the season with last year.
As for his stuff, Karns has three pitches in his repertoire: a 92 mph fastball, a fading changeup in the mid-80’s, and a sharp 12-6 curveball in the low-80’s. His heater is unimpressive, but his changeup is solid and his curveball is a real weapon. According to FanGraphs’ pitch values, Karns’ curveball was the sixth most valuable bender among starters who threw a curve at least 10% of the time in 2015; it was comparable in its efficacy to Jake Arrieta’s. With his injury history and propensity for short outings, Karns might draw some unfavorable comparisons to Erik Bedard if he gets off to a slow start. However, if he stays healthy and finds a way to be more efficient with his pitch count and/or improve his fastball just a little bit, he could become a real asset for the Mariners for the next several seasons. Good luck, Nathan. Here’s hopin’ for the best.