Notes on James Karinchak’s historic strikeout binge, Clase’s cutter and lack of strikeouts, Jose Ramirez’s next level and should Cleveland look at Pujols..
Image: USA Today
Thanks for reading the first two editions of Justin’side’ Baseball,’ a new column including thoughts on Cleveland baseball mostly, but will occasionally venture into other parts of baseball. My goal is to write two of these per week: one on the Indians and the other on the minor league system, now that minor leagues are back in action. The Cleveland/MLB version of this column will be open to all readers, but the minor-league only portion will be for Insiders only. If you want to become an Insider at IBI to read that column, and all of our other minor league coverage that is behind the paywall, you can sign up here for just $4.99 a month, no commitment.
Getting no-hit is rarely good. But good teams and bad teams like have been no-hit before. Being no-hit twice is not good. It most recently happened to the Seattle Mariners in 2019, who lost 94 games.
Before the Mariners in 2019, the 2015 Mets were no-hit twice. They went on to the World Series but lost. In the last decade actually, two other playoff teams were also no-hit twice in the same season (LA Dodgers, 2015 and Tampa Bay Rays 2010).
However, Cleveland is just the third team to be no-hit twice in the first 31 games of the season.
The PIttsburgh Alleghenys (which, as far as team names go, this regional name seems pretty cool!) went 39-39, though they had a positive run differential for the year. The 1917 Chicago White Sox were also no-hit twice in their first 31 games and went on to win the World Series.
So what does that mean for Cleveland? Absolutely, positively nothing. It means a left handed former top prospect who has regained the stuff that made him a top prospect was nearly perfect against them, and a crafty, journeymen left hander no-hit them. It means that the lineup is littered with young players who are still trying to find their footing, some inconsistent veterans, and some hitters who probably don’t belong as starters on a good team.
What is ironic is that players like Jordan Luplow and Amed Rosario have statistically been better against left handers in their career (Not that I am trying to banish Luplow back to platoon duty. Quite the opposite) and Cleveland only had two left handed hitters in the lineup (Eddie Rosario and Josh Naylor), so it didn’t seem like a matchup that should have left them no-hit. Wade Miley only induced nine swinging strikes all night from Cleveland hitters. Miley essentially threw three pitches most of the night (39% cutters, 32% changeups, 20% 4S fastballs, and then eight curveballs and two sinkers). It wasn’t as if Miley had dominating stuff. Cleveland’s approach started getting more aggressive the later the game got, almost out of desperation or trying to ambush him early (he ended up throwing 63% strikes on the night).
Jose Ramirez saw seven pitches in the seventh inning, but after that no Cleveland batter saw more than four pitches in a single at bat. Three of them offered at the first pitch and made an out. Cesar Hernandez, who worked the only walk of the night in the sixth inning, took three called strikes in a row in the ninth inning. It’s hard to tell if it’s an approach or scouting report issue or if the opposing dugout is making better adjustments first.
It’s a shame that Cleveland lost and no-hit, because those outcomes buried another great start from Zach Plesac. He allowed just three hit in eight innings and struck out seven. After Nick Castellanos’ leadoff double in the fourth, Plesac retired the next 15 batters in a row, six by strikeouts.
It was also the third straight start that Plesac averaged 94 MPH on his fastball. Plesac hasn’t averaged 94 on his fastball were eight of his starts in 2019 of his rookie year, where he averaged 94 and 95 in his first seven starts. He clearly had the velocity on the fastball in 2019 and it didn’t show up 2020, and now for three straight starts again, it continues to reach into the 94-95 range and topping out at 96.
Over his last three starts, Plesac has allowed just three runs over in 21.1 innings (~7 innings per start) with 17 strikeouts and five walks. It makes his two duds against the White Sox look like an aberration, even though the first one was a massive blowup and the second one was just not good. The chase rate on his curveball has also improved slightly from April to May as he’s dropped in some better ones in lately, making it a pitch hitters have to respect or look for more often.
The GOAT gets better
Somehow Jose Ramirez is getting better. Coming into Saturday’s game, Ramirez has 13 extra base hits, 15 walks, and 16 strikeouts. So, nearly as many extra base hits as strikeouts and walks. His average exit velocity this year is a career high for him at 91.1. Despite his success, he’s never run high exit velocities to do so. His 12.4% barrel rate is the best of his career as well. Only hitting .252, his xBA is at .314 and his xWOBA is at .418, up from his actual wOBA of .374, which is still good. His .216 BABIP is unsustainably low for his contact quality, but of course home runs don’t count toward BABIP and with how much Ramirez is shifted on (66 PAs vs the shift in 2021, 30th most in baseball so far) it may not creep up as much as it should (career .282 BABIP) but there’s no reason it shouldn’t at least be in the .250 range in 2018 and 2019. So somehow, Ramirez should still get EVEN better.
Speaking of Ramirez, Jeff Passan reported back in March that Cleveland was interested in talking to him about another contract extension, so those talks have been rebuffed given how cheap his first deal was, Cleveland is going to have come in strong to get another one done. And Ramirez is in the middle of gunning for another top-3 MVP finish the way he’s been playing.
Batters being aggressive vs. Bieber
In his last start, it appeared maybe Shane Bieber didn’t have his best command. But recently it seems as though hitters are jumping him early in the count. In the last two starts, Bieber allowed five hits on the first pitch throw, out of 16 allowed total. 14 batters have swung at the first pitch in his last two starts today. The swing percentage against him in 2021 is the highest of his career 50.2% total.
Probably not ironically, Bieber is throwing first pitch strikes at the lowest rate of his career (58.2%, down from rates of 63% and above in 2018-2020). He is also running a ridiculous 19.1% swinging strike rate, the highest of his career. To combat all the first pitch swings against him, not throwing as many first pitch strikes may be a good way to go. When you throw as many strikes as Bieber normally does and he has the curveball and slider he does, getting behind in the count isn’t ideal. Corey Kluber seemed to experience this as well when his breaking ball was absolutely unhittable, especially when he got ahead in the count and went to the breaking ball.
Karinchak’s historic strikeouts
What James Karinchak is doing with strikeouts right now is truly historic. Since 2011, no pitcher has struck out more batters in their first 50 innings (Karinchak is at 47.1IP in his career to be exact). Only Austin Adams (not the former Cleveland reliever, but the one time Mariner and current Padre) has even come close at 87 strikeouts in 50 innings pitched.
Additionally, Karinchak has the highest strikeout rate of any reliever (min 40 innings pitched) in the last 10 years at 49.5%. The next closest is Josh Hader at 44.3%. He might shatter a ton of strikeout records.
Clase’s cutter and lack of strikeouts
On the other end of the spectrum, Emmanuel Clase has been tremendous for Cleveland, is averaging 100 MPH with his cutter and had not allowed a run until Friday night. But despite his nasty, hard cutter and slider, he’s not striking out batters like you would think. And perhaps that has something to do with the cut fastball not really being a strikeout pitch.
He’s in the 67th percentile in whiff rate, while Karinchak is in the 99th. Some of that has to do with a cut fastball not being a strikeout pitch.
Only two pitchers have used the cutter a greater percentage of the time than Clase in 2019 and 2021 combined (skipping 2020 since Clase didn’t pitch) – Xavier Cedeno (77.8% usage) and Bryan Shaw (76% usage) and Clase (72.7%). Cedeno had a 12.5% whiff rate on the pitch in 2019 and Shaw had whiff rates of 18% and 21% so far. And Clase is ahead of them at 27%
Yu Darvis has 84 strikeouts using his cutter in 2019 and 2021 so far, and has thrown 1294 of them in that span for whiff rates of 30% and 23%. So Clase is in good company with his whiff rate on the cutter, but it’s a pitch that lends to lower swing and miss rates than other pitches. His slider has a 45% whiff rate. But his cutter induces at 79% ground ball rate, which is good. But it leaves him to be susceptible to issues with bad luck on balls in play and needing defenders to catch the ball when he allows grounders, which was an issue on Friday night.
What to make of Harold Ramirez
Harold Ramirez was a big part of Cleveland getting hot in the beginning of May. He had five hits in his first three games including three doubles and two RBI. His max exit velocity of 114.5 is the third hardest hit ball for them this year (behind Franmil Reyes and Josh Naylor, but only .2 and .4 behind each). So clearly he can hit the ball hard, but his 70.2 GB% suggests that it might be hard to convert those into hits as often as he has so far. He also has one strikeout and no walks. In his 2019 ‘breakout’ with the Marlins, he had a 20.4 K% and 4 BB%. That’s not terrible and can work, but it’s harder to sustain offensive success unless you put the ball in the air or off the ground more. He carried high averages on balls in play in the minors, due to his exit velocities, no doubt. Usually aggressive approaches and hitting the ball on the ground as much as Ramirez does, doesn’t lend to long term offensive success. But it’s worth seeing how long he can make it work for until a better option presents itself in the form of, well, any single outfielder in Columbus from Bradley Zimmer to Nolan Jones.
Does Albert Pujols fit in Cleveland?
To make this short, no, Cleveland should probably pass on looking at an opportunity here for Albert Pujols. He’s had a storied career, but is no longer capable of playing everyday and especially not against right handers. The last time he had an above league average offensive season (100 wRC+ is league average). He’s been below 100 from 2017-2021. Against right handers, he has an 82 wRC+ mark and an 88 mark against left handed pitchers.
However, in 2019 it was 113 against left handers, 66 in 2020, and 146 so far this year. Perhaps there is a role for Pujols to start against left handers only. It was reported he was upset that he was not in the lineup against Tampa Bay LHP Ryan Yarborough and asked for his release if he wasn’t going to play against left handers. He also reportedly wants to play everyday. There’s no team in baseball that would or should let Pujols play everyday.
Would a role playing first base or as the DH against left handers work for Pujols here, occasionally pinch hitting and serving as a mentor (a la Jason Giambi) work? Perhaps. But he’d have to accept where he’s at in his career and embrace that role like Giambi did. This is a young team. He’d replace Yu Chang and Reyes could play the outfield vs. LHP as well (if they’re willing to play an outfield of Eddie Rosario, Harold Ramirez and Josh Naylor, they should be fine with Reyes in right field) to make room. They’d have to bring up someone like Owen Miller or Ernie Clement to be the utility man and perhaps send down a bullpen arm to make it work. But this is a highly unlikely scenario I’ve been running in my head where it could work. It makes more sense to use Owen Miller at first base and eventually see Bobby Bradley and Nolan Jones. But I suppose there’s a small percentage where it could make some sense if the planets aligned. They’d also have to be willing to cut bait with a player with the stature of Pujols if things are not working out as well.
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