Given everything that's happened of late, there is one major change from earlier this week that's been somewhat overlooked: Nathan Karns and the radar gun.
In his first three appearances, Karns allowed at least five hits and didn't make it out of the sixth; on Tuesday, he allowed just two hits over seven innings. He had produced no more than six ground ball outs in each of his first starts; he generated 11 against the 'Stros. Based on how things were going, I wouldn't be surprised if you gave him a helmet and a bat and he roped a line-drive double down the left field line. He was that dialed in.
Most interestingly, his fastball was WAY up there.
Karns averaged 93.3mph on his fastball last night. He averaged 91.6mph all year last year.— Michael Barr (@michaelcbarr) April 27, 2016
That's a sizable difference, and it makes his offspeed offerings that much more dangerous. According to Brooks Baseball, Karns topped out at 96.61 MPH on Tuesday, but watch the video above again. At the 0:52 mark, Preston Tucker is incredibly late on a 93 MPH heater. Karns was messing with guys all game long.
Yet something else stands out, and it's the incredible movement Karns has on those curveballs, which are classified by Fangraphs as knuckle-curves. He averaged -5.7 inches of vertical movement on the pitch in 2015, with an absolute maximum of -7.0. Thus far, Karns is averaging -7.5 inches of movement, and he hit -8.6 inches on Tuesday.
Check out how much Karns has increased his curve usage thus far. Here is his 2015 and 2016 pitch usage chart from Brooks Baseball:
It began at the end of last season, and excluding the spring training games that are included here, he's kept going to his curve more and more often.
Plus, there's this:
According to baseball savant Nate Karns 50 curveballs tonight were the most thrown by an M's pitcher since at least 2008(1st year of data)— Neal Kendrick (@neal_kendrick) April 27, 2016
And on top of that, the way his fastball & changeup work together is a sight to behold. Fangraphs' Eno Sarris called Karns' change the year's "most improved pitch" and gave us these GIFs in his article to examine how it works with his fastball.
In an interview conducted just before the season started with David Laurila of Fangraphs, Karns doubled down on the importance of his change:
For me, it’s more about having the same arm action as my fastball. I may not necessarily be throwing it 100%, but I’m throwing it with enough conviction, enough arm action, that it looks like a fastball coming out of my hand. I want them to read fastball, then when they start to swing, the ball starts adjusting its course and drops out of the zone.
His repertoire is nasty. His fastball is powerful. He strikes out a LOT of guys (24 Ks in 22.1 IP so far). Yet, because the Mariners have a pretty deep rotation, he's our #5 starter.
I went through the last seven seasons (all of the Jack Z regime) and identified the pitcher that, for all intents and purposes, acted as the fifth starter. Here's what I found. Remember: ERA+ is an adjusted ERA stat, where 100 is league average and higher is better. 120, for example, is 20% better than the league average.
Not exactly a murderer's row of starters (though I must say, if you remembered that David Pauley was virtually league-average for 15 starts in 2010, take a bow). And there are some real stinkers in there, especially the Noesi-Maurer-Ramirez triumvirate. Obviously, Karns isn't going to repeat Tuesday's performance every start - if he did, he'd be the best pitcher in baseball history. But the flashes he's shown indicate that he could very well clear the (very low) bar to become the best Mariners #5 pitcher in a long while.
Karns is also interesting in that he's 28 years old, but in just his second full season in MLB. That means that he's making the major league minimum this year as well as next, and the Mariners have three more arbitration-eligible years of him after that. He was worth 2.2 WAR a year ago, which, on the free agent market, would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million. Yet his salary was just over half a million dollars.
So, if Karns can maintain his performance from 2015 (and as discussed above, it's easily possible he improves on it), he allows the Mariners to focus their payroll on other areas. There's a reason that Jerry Dipoto gave up Brad Miller, once considered the team's shortstop of the future, as well as a cost-controlled first baseman and an up-and-down reliever, in the deal for Karns. He's a valuable piece.
But at the end of the day, fans care about value but love fun. It's great to watch aces dominate, or to watch Ketel Marte fist-pump after he tags out a runner trying to steal second in the ninth.
Go back and re-watch Karns' curve. Watch it again. And again. Then watch his fastball just run away from Preston Tucker. He's making guys look silly, waving at curves, watching the ball just drop right into the strike zone, watching and swinging and whiffing and failing.
If that's not fun, then I don't know what is. And that's what makes me excited about Nate Karns.