Karinchak has one brother, Brendyn, and one sister, Nicole. Their parents are Suzan and Stephen Karinchak.
In 2014, James graduated from Valley Central High School in Walden, New York.
Karinchak was off to Bryant University in Rhode Island. It might not occur to people to think of Rhode Island as a baseball hotbed. But Bryant University has been a bit of a machine in terms of producing draftable talent. A total of 18 draft picks have come out of its baseball program, including three in the 2016 draft. But only 5 of those 18 were taken in the top 10 rounds. (mlb.com - June 2017) (Editor's note: In 2017, Karinchak was number 6 in the top 10 rounds; see below.)
June 2017: Karinchak was the Indians 9th round pick, out of Bryant Univ. And James signed for $138,300, via scout Mike Kanen.
MLB debut (Sept. 15, 2019): The Indians had a frustrating and disappointing day, dropping both games of a split doubleheader to the first-place Twins. In a day with few bright spots, the one positive takeaway was seeing prospect James Karinchak make his Major League debut.
The Twins had tied the nightcap in the eighth inning before Miguel Sano launched a grand slam off of Nick Goody. With the Tribe trailing by four, the team turned to Karinchak for the remainder of the game in front of the third sellout crowd of the season.
“Not nervous,” Karinchak said of his emotions running to the mound. “The ballpark was obviously electric, but it’s still baseball. Same mound. I was pitching to a familiar face, Eric Haase, and I pitched to [Kevin] Plawecki at the Texas Rangers earlier in the year at the exhibition game.”
The 23-year-old righthander forced Jason Castro to fly out to center to record the final out of the eighth inning. When he came back out for the ninth, Haase, Karinchak’s Triple-A catcher, replaced Plawecki behind the plate.
“Execute pitches,” Karinchak said of his mindset taking the rubber. “First batter, [I didn’t do that]. But the second inning I came out, I was executing a lot better.”
Karinchak struck out Ian Miller, Max Kepler (although he still got on because of a dropped third strike), and Jorge Polanco. Finally, LaMonte Wade Jr. popped out to short to end the frame.
“It was good to get him in,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “Obviously, you’re trying to win the game. When it looks like that’s slipping away, getting a kid some experience, I think, is important. He threw the ball really well. Just getting his feet wet is important.”
For a bullpen that doesn’t really have a hard-throwing arm, Karinchak certainly brings some gas. He stayed between 97 and 97.9 mph on all 13 of his four-seamers. Cleveland's No. 21 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, also threw four sliders and seven curveballs, the latter pitch resulting in three swinging strikes and three called strikes.
“I mean, everybody was saying the same thing: ‘Same game. Be yourself,’” Karinchak said. “So that’s what I tried to do.” (Mandy Bell - MLB.com)
In 2020, the Baseball America Prospect Handbook rated Karinchak as the 16th-best prospect in the Indians' organization.
When Cody Buckel, the assistant director of player development/pitching in 2020, joined Cleveland’s staff in 2019, he gave a presentation to a group of young pitchers heading into their second full seasons, James included. Karinchak began asking a series of standout questions that sparked further discussions.
“We were talking about different components of spin and how that can make the ball move, and he basically started asking, ‘What if I did this to the ball, what if this component of spin went up, what if this went down?’” Buckel said. “He came to us and he asked, ‘How do I get better at complementing this really good fastball that I have? How do I help improve my command?’ And knowing James, he’s a pretty hard-headed dude, so for him to come approach us and want to partner with us, we were completely overjoyed.”
Indians Northeast area scout Mike Kanen said, “But the thing that I’ve been most impressed with watching him in the big leagues in 2020 has just been his poise. He’s been thrown into the fire in a really big role, in big situations, and he’s stayed composed and been able to throw strikes.”
Added Buckel: “It’s his sheer will. He is not one to just take failure and shy away from it. He wants to learn as much as he can from anything that might pull him down. I’ve seen him have an outing where he just didn’t have it. He walked X amount of guys or he gave up some hits. A lot of guys take that pretty hard; they take that into their next outing or their next day of work. I honestly couldn’t tell you how he does it—huge compliments to our mental performance staff—but he’s able to forget on a dime the next day, and be able to attack what he needs to attack.” (Brudnicki - mlb.com -9/7/2020)
2020 Season: Coming into the season, expectations were sky high for Karinchak. After a 2019 season in which he maintained greater than 20 K/9 across every level of the minors he pitched in and then allowed just two baserunners and struck out eight of the 22 batters he faced in a late-season big league cameo, the weight of the fanbase’s hopes were upon the 24-year-old righty. To say he lived up to the hype would be under-selling his performance.
In the first month of the strange 2020 season, from July 25 to Aug. 25, Karinchak threw 16.2 innings and allowed just two runs (one earned), for a 0.54 ERA. Of the 60 batters he faced in that stretch, 31 struck out and all hitters slashed .096/.186/.115 against him. He loaded the strike zone with 64% strikes and had a whiff rate of 16% thanks in part to his devastating curveball and mid- to upper-90s velocity on his fastball.
The second month, in appearances from Aug. 29 to Sept. 27, was less kind to Karinchak. His ERA ballooned to 6.10 as he gave up seven runs (all earned) in 10.1 innings of work. His strikeout rate dipped, though not precipitously, as just 22 of 49 batters faced struck out against him; likewise, he still threw strikes 58% of the time and even increased his whiff rate to 17%. However, opponents slashed .250/.388/.389 over the last month, thanks in part to some luck with batted balls to the tune of a .500 BABIP.
After sitting atop FanGraphs’ WAR leaderboards for relievers for much of the season, Karinchak took a tumble due to his final month ... all the way to fourth. His 1.1 fWAR is the same as Raisel Iglesias and Brad Hand’s, just behind the 1.4 of leaders Devin Williams and Liam Hendriks. That’s a hell of a place for a rookie to be.
In addition, Karinchak finished the abbreviated 2020 season first in K/9 (17.67), fourth in FIP (1.52), fourth in K-BB% (33.9%), fifth in xFIP (2.33), 14th in HR/9 (0.33), and 14th in Barrel% (2.5%). Even if he lives somewhere between the versions of himself seen in the first month and the second month, Karinchak has the ability to be elite.
His fastball had more rise, on average, than anyone else in the league and his curveball featured the least amount of horizontal movement, on average, than anyone else in the league. The combination is absurd.
Next season (assuming there is a full season), Karinchak will make somewhere in the neighborhood of $570,000, or 17.5 times less than Brad Hand’s option. For a team going on an all-out media blitz to push the narrative that losses from this pandemic-shortened season are catastrophic, it’s only logical to assume that Karinchak will slot into Hand’s role as closer for the 2021 season (whatever it looks like).
For a guy who paces the mound, chews his glove, and yells what we can only assume are copious obscenities even after successful at-bats, the stress from such a role could be a lot for Karinchak to handle. It’s possible that the pressure of being trusted for tough situations got to Karinchak later in the 2020 season. He had a 1.39 average leverage index (a measure of how much pressure was involved in each outing), which was 53rd among relievers. And a -0.27 clutch (which measures success in high-leverage situations), which was 124th.
Now, clutch is a descriptive stat not a prescriptive one, meaning it tells us a lot about the past and nearly nothing about the future, but considering how many people use clutch performance to undercut the brilliance of Francisco Lindor it’s certainly something to watch.
The only way to really tell what the future holds for Karinchak is to see how he performs. And at this point it seems like he’s going to get every chance to take over the back end of the Cleveland bullpen as early as next April. If it means more @pitchingninja tweets, then I’m all for it. (Chris D. Davies - Oct 15, 2020)
|Birth City:||Walden, NY|
|Draft:||Indians #9 - 2017 out of Bryant Univ. (RI)|
Karinchak has a 95-98 mph FASTBALL with riding life that he can throw by hitters at their letters. He also has a 12-to-8 nose-to-toes hammer 84-85 mph CURVEBALL that he can get hitters to chase out of the bottom of the zone. He also threw a changeup/splitter as a starter but doesn't use it much while coming out of the bullpen.”
Karinchak has an exceptional fastball that features well above-average spin that creates unusual ride and arm-side run. He also has a hammer breaking ball that combines curveball depth with slider velocity, making it futile to try to sit on his heater. His high arm slot and herky-jerky delivery add plane and deception to his pitches, adding to the difficulty of making contact.
With his mechanics, Karinchak will never have pinpoint control, but he can become a closer if he throws enough strikes to keep batters honest. He can get too amped up and lapse into overthrowing, detracting from the quality and location of his pitches and costing him control. After striking out eight of the 22 batters he faced in his big league debut last September, he's ready for an expanded role in Cleveland's bullpen.
James has outstanding deception from his steep downhill plane and the way he hides the ball well. It is a bit of a funky delivery and somewhat hinders his strike-throwing ability, but it does allow his stuff to play up a bit. (Spring, 2020)
2019 Season Pitch Usage: 4-seam Fastball 56.7% of the time; his Slider 6.3%; and Curve 37% of the time. Average velocity: 4-seam 97.1 mph, Slider 85.5, and Curve 84.4 mph.
2020 Season Pitch Usage: 4-seam Fastball 49.6% of the time and Curve 50.4% of the time. Average velocity: 4-seam 95.8 mph and Curve 83.4 mph.
April 25, 2018: A pair of Indians' prospects—Francisco Perez and James Karinchak—combined to throw the fourth no-hitter in the history of the Class A Lake County Captains. The duo led their team to a 4-0 win over the West Michigan Whitecaps.
Sept 13, 2019: The Indians announced that the club selected Karinchak’s contract.
For the regular season in the Minors, Karinchak averaged 22.0 strikeouts per 9.0 IP and fanned 74 of the 125 batters he faced—a rate of 59 percent. But he also average about five walks per 9 innings.
According to MLB Pipeline, Karinchak is the Indians’ No. 21-ranked prospect after beginning the year rated No. 30 overall. Here’s how the Pipeline experts break down his stuff:
“Karinchak misses bats with two pitches that play well off of each other. He has a 95-98 mph fastball with riding life that he can throw by hitters at their letters, and a 12-to-6 curveball that he can get them to chase out of the bottom of the zone. He also threw a changeup/splitter as a starter but doesn't use it much while coming out of the bullpen.”
One scout's March 2020 take: "Absolutely filthy. He’s got an 80-grade curveball. You just don’t see that oldschool 12-to-6 straight downer like this one anymore. He can punch a ticket. He’s really impressive on a short, one-inning deal.”
James has obviously become the strikeout-dominant pitcher that everyone knows him to be right now. “And what he’s been able to do is absolutely insane, but he’s also an insane individual, and I mean that in the best possible way. His routines, the way he approaches the game, the way he wants to get better, his ability to learn from outings, is exceptional. When you put those all together, you get a pretty special individual,” said Cody Buckel, the Indians' assistant director of player development for pitching. (Brudnicki - mlb.com - 9/7/2020)
Top rookie Statcast performers of 2020: Best curveball: James Karinchak, Indians. Karinchak’s lethal downer curveball (.228 wOBA) helped him become one of baseball’s most valuable relievers and finish among the top one percent in the league in xBA (.130), xSLG (.196), strikeout rate (48.6 percent), and xwOBA (.222).
Of the 50 at-bats that ended with Karinchak throwing a curveball, only seven resulted in a hit (.114 xBA). And none for extra bases.
Karinchak is a two-pitch pitcher who delivers the ball straight over the top. He befuddled hitters with either his mid-90s fastball or a hammer 12-to-6 curveball.
“One thing about James, he’s an unbelievable worker,” Indians president Chris Antonetti said in Sept,. 2020. “He works as hard as any pitcher we have. In fact, we’ve had to try to reign him in with his work, to make sure he was being productive with his work and not counter-productive.”
2020 Season: With a distinct over-the-top delivery that makes his curveball especially tough to hit, Karinchak baffled MLB hitters in his rookie season. Among pitchers who threw at least 20 innings in 2020, only Devin Williams had a higher strikeout rate than Karinchak (48.6%), and just three hurlers -- Williams, Liam Hendriks and Brad Hand -- had a lower FIP (1.52). (Thomas Harrigan - Jan. 3, 2021)
Feb 22, 2021: He's only had one full season in the big leagues (even if it was only 60 games), but James Karinchak has already made quite the first impression on the baseball world, especially with his curveball. So much so, that when Pitching Ninja posted videos of other pitchers’ curveballs on Twitter, people in the comments sometimes refer to them as “Karinchak-like.”
“That's what I've always dreamed of,” Karinchak said. “Being at this stage and having guys look up to me. Hopefully I can be a role model for years to come and keep excelling at this game.”
It’s a pitch that induced a whiff 56.3 percent of the time he threw it last season. As the lone pitch to pair with his heater, the curveball had a 38.6 percent put-away rate in 2020, while it limited batters to a mere .140 average.
In 2017, Karinchak was watching Houston’s Lance McCullers Jr. shut down the Yankees in the postseason by throwing 24 consecutive curveballs. That’s when Karinchak thought, “That’s something I need.” So, he Googled McCullers’ curveball grip and taught himself how to throw it.
“Just a thousand, million reps,” Karinchak said. “Just kept throwing it and it started clicking.”
The more reps he’s gotten with it, the better the pitch has developed. Karinchak wants to be able to turn to the pitch as many times as needed, just like McCullers did, and he’s already shown signs of not having the fear of throwing it consecutively. On Aug. 29 against the Cardinals last season, Karinchak threw 10 consecutive curveballs, resulting in two strikeouts. “It's just, again, what's working that day,” Karinchak said. “Sometimes you have a better feel for the fastball, sometimes you have a better feel for the curveball. Whatever batter is up, if the curveball is working, I'm not going to stop throwing it.”
While it may sound unique for a pitcher to use Google to help better his arsenal, it may be something that happens more often than people realize.
“Everybody knows about the infamous Pitching Ninja on Twitter,” Indians ace Shane Bieber said. “He posts and talks about grips and is kind of an avenue for pitchers to share their thoughts, their cues, their pitch grips and all that. So, if you're ever struggling or if you need a fresh perspective on a pitch or you're trying to add something, that's always a good place to start, especially in this world of where we're at right now. Social media and the Internet can provide a lot of tools for those willing to learn and hungry to learn.” (M Bell - MLB.com - Feb 22, 2021)
March 2017: Karinchak suffered with shoulder discomfort. When he returned in April, his 91-96 mph fastball was in the 90-93 mph range.
- May 11-July 24, 2019: James was on the IL with a strained hamstring.