Five steps to becoming a pitching phenom

There are plenty of tips and tricks available offering up suggestions for how to make a good first impression.

None are quite like the way James Karinchak made his mark on the Indians, and more recently, among the baseball landscape. Cleveland’s No. 17 prospect debuted just shy of a year ago, called up to the Majors after a Minor League season in which 81 percent of his outs came via the strikeout. Now, FanGraphs ranks him third among rookie hurlers with a 1.51 FIP, fourth with 0.8 WAR and second with 17.53 strikeouts per nine innings.

But the lasting impression he’s made and built upon started years ago, and here’s how he did it:

Step 1: A solid resume

The first time Northeast area scout Mike Kanen got a glimpse of the 6-foot-3, 215-pound hurler was in the Cape Cod League in 2016. Karinchak was coming off of the greatest pitching season in Bryant University history, one that earned him Northeast Conference Pitcher of the Year honors after going 12-3 with a 2.00 ERA as the Bulldogs’ Friday night starter and recording 112 strikeouts and allowing only 70 hits over 94 2/3 innings.

“James had a chance to be the top college arm drafted that year out of the area; actually top college player in general,” Kanen said. “Physical workhorse, he was up to 94. … He had a pretty good changeup actually at the time, when he was able to land it, and he was working on a cutter. He would flash three-and-a-half pitches as a starter, he had a number of different ways to get you out — both the fastball and the curveball that are variations of what you see today in the bullpen, then he had a changeup and occasionally a cutter.”

Step 2: Throw gas and show the makings of a plus offspeed offering

Karinchak only got into two games with the Chatham Anglers that summer, and returned to action in January, ahead of his junior season. Cleveland got a chance to see him throw a few indoor innings in a preseason scrimmage before he went on the road with the Bulldogs, impressing at New Mexico State, Arkansas and Liberty, ahead of being briefly sidelined with a minor injury.

In his third outing back he threw a seven-inning, one-hit, complete-game shutout against Wagner, striking out 11.

“He was up to 94 in the last inning, he was really poised throughout, threw strikes, multiple ways to get you out, it was a really loud outing,” Kanen said. “So from there, more and more scouts started to go in and see him with us, and we all had pretty similar impressions of James. From then on it really became a team effort for the last six to eight weeks leading up to the Draft where we had a chance to see him probably almost every outing — once he came back from injury — as a staff.”

Two months later, the Indians selected Karinchak in the ninth round of the 2017 Draft, and he began to make his first impression on the player development staff. Karinchak threw 23 1/3 innings as a professional in ’17, striking out 31. The following season, he started at Class A Lake County and fanned 20 over 11 1/3 frames. Promoted to Class A Advanced Lynchburg, he followed with 45 strikeouts in 27 innings. He finished 2018 with 10 1/3 frames at Double-A Akron, striking out 16.

Step 3: Never stop working

When Cody Buckel — now assistant director of player development, pitching — joined Cleveland’s staff last year, he gave a presentation to a group of young pitchers heading into their second full seasons, Karinchak included. The right-hander 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.”

Step 4: Strike everyone out

Together, they made adjustments to Karinchak’s training protocol to help improve command, as well as to his breaking ball. As a result, he was able to command the zone better with his fastball, upping his strike percentage and helping his chase rate. The additional depth he created on his curveball then elevated his fastball even further.

Karinchak returned to Akron to start the ’19 season, where he racked up 24 strikeouts over 10 innings before earning a promotion to Triple-A Columbus. There, he fanned 42 batters over 17 1/3 innings before being called up to Cleveland in September, where he got into five games and struck out eight over 5 1/3 frames.

“We saw a really nice improvement in one, to be able to command his whole arsenal, and then also to create even more swing and miss than he had already, which was incredible because he was already really good at that,” Buckel said. “But he was able to take that to another level, and he was able to add chase to that, and then he obviously became 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.”

Step 5: Keep finding ways to impress

Karinchak started the 2020 season with seven straight outings in which he did not allow an earned run. He has notched at least one strikeout in each of his 18 appearances. The 24-year-old owns a 2.84 ERA over 19 innings and he’s walked 10 and has struck out 37 of the 76 batters he’s faced.

“It would be foolish of me to say that I expected him to be the incredible strikeout wizard that he has managed to become early in his big league career,” Kanen said. “I don’t think anybody could have quite foreseen that.

“But the thing that I’ve been most impressed with watching him in the big leagues this year 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.”

Alexis Brudnicki is a Canada-based Baseball Development and Special Projects reporter for Follow her on Twitter @baseballexis.