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The Nate Karns scouting report

What does he throw and how does he throw it?

St Louis Cardinals v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The Royals have a new pitcher to add to their rotation possibilities, having acquired Nate Karns from the Seattle Mariners for outfielder Jarrod Dyson. The 29-year old right-hander may have limited upside at his age, but he did post a 1.5 Wins Above Replacement season in 2015 in just 26 starts, according to Fangraphs. With the Royals lack of starting pitching depth, that kind of performance would be much-welcomed. So what is Karns like as a pitcher?

Nathan Karns averages 93 mph on his fastball, getting up to 96 at times, throwing the heater 57% of the time over his career. He also throws a knuckle-curveball, and he throws it a lot. Over the last two seasons, only two pitchers threw curveballs more often than Karns did, with the bender comprising 32.2% of all of his pitches. He has good reason for the high usage, in 2015 it was one of the most effective curveballs in baseball.

The traditional curveball is thrown with two fingers, with the middle finger along the seam, thrown with a twist of the wrist, as if opening a doorknob. The knuckle-curve is similar except the pointer finger is curled so the pad of the finger is not touching the ball. Some knuckle-curve pitchers will hold the ball with the first joint of the pointer finger, others will hold the ball with the very tip of their finger in what is known as as "spike knuckle-curve." Karns throws with the spike grip.

The effect of a knuckle-curve is a lower, flatter trajectory than you might see from a "12-6" traditional curveball. Wade Davis and Edinson Volquez both throw knuckle-curveballs. A knuckle-curve is generally thrown with more velocity, and some feel that the flatter trajectory allows pitchers to get more called strikes from umpires. The knuckle grip may also add some additional horizontal movement. Here is a good example of Karns' knuckle-curveball courtesy of Sports Illustrated.

Much has been made about how Karns struggles the third time through a lineup. The third time has been less than a charm for him. Here are his career splits.

1st PA 413 9.4 21.8 .247 .326 .418 .744
2nd PA 413 9.2 26.6 .212 .290 .326 .616
3rd PA 237 10.5 20.2 .287 .367 .517 .884
4th PA 9 11.1 11.1 .500 .556 .625 1.181

Despite consistent velocity the third time through the lineup, the fastball is getting destroyed on a third look. The first time hitters see it, they hit .298 with a .564 slugging percentage. That actually drops to .263 with a .474 slugging percentage in the second plate appearance. By the time they see it a third time, they hit .365 with a .703 slugging percentage.

However are his splits the third time through that really much different from another pitcher who had a reputation for high strikeouts but an inability to go deep in games?

1st PA 233 5.1 27.9 .230 .280 .359 .640
2nd PA 227 5.7 25.6 .227 .279 .427 .705
3rd PA 176 6.3 23.3 .273 .322 .534 .856
4th PA 21 4.8 14.3 .211 .286 .211 .496

Those were Danny Duffy's numbers in 2016, his breakout season.

Nonetheless, this difficulty the third time through a lineup is one of the reasons why Karns is averaging just 5.4 innings per start over the last two seasons. Out of the 107 starting pitchers who made 40+ starts over those seasons, just seven had fewer innings per start.

Those issues, plus his inconsistent changeup are why many feel that Karns may end up in the bullpen as an elite reliever. However Eno Sarris at Fangraphs notes the changeup had improved dramatically in 2015, but has regressed since then. It is still inducing a similar whiff rate, but when hitters are making contact, they are drilling it now. Sarris theorizes the changeup is getting mashed because the fastball has dropped off in effectiveness due to a diminished spin rate, possibly caused by fatigue or his back strain that ended his 2016 season prematurely.

Sarris also writes that Karns’ issues stemmed from lowering his release point, a mechanical flaw that can be fixed. It seems that the release point could be the source of his issues the third time through the lineup as well. Look at how his release point drops throughout the game, courtesy of Brooks Baseball.

Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland seems pretty cognizant of release point and arm slot. Last summer, Eiland made a mechanical fix in Ian Kennedy, looking to get his release point higher to induce the pop-up rates that made him successful in the second half of the season.

"That being said, Ian likes to pitch up in the zone with his fastball for chase swings. But you’re talking above the belt. When he’s quick through his delivery, his arm slot gets a little bit lower. He gets underneath the ball and he’s like upper thigh to belt-high. That’s kind of the hitters’ happy zone.

"I’ve been working with him and he’s been working really hard to not be so quick through his balance point, stay back over the rubber a little bit longer to give his arm a chance to work and get up to the proper arm slot. We’ve been concentrating on pitching down in the zone, then going up when we want to go up, but going up above the belt.

"My little catchphrase with him is that, ‘We’re going to stay down until we want to go up.’"

If Karns is able to raise his release point, he can get more "rise" on his fastball. "Rise" is the optical illusion that happens when a fastball stays high on a hitter. Since the pitcher is throwing from higher ground than a hitter (on a mound), a higher release point causes the pitch to stay up longer before gravity drags it down, which from a hitter’s viewpoint looks like the ball is actually rising on them. This illusion causes hitters to misjudge the pitch and miss it altogether, or underestimate how high the pitch is, causing them to swing under it and pop it up. Sarris notes Karns was one of the best in fastball rise in 2015, when he enjoyed the most success.

As far as health, Karns has been nicked up in his career, but he has avoided the dreaded elbow injuries. He strained his back in July of last year, causing him to miss the remainder of the season. In 2015, he was shut down in mid-September due to a forearm strain. He had some leg issues in 2013, and in 2010 he pitched through a torn labrum while at Texas Tech, and later required surgery.

In short, there are reasons to be optimistic in Karns. He definitely has some seeds of potential, that could flourish with some mechanical fixes and better health. The Royals seem to be putting their "pitch-to-contact" days behind them, going for pitchers that can miss bats, and Karns has that ability. The question will be if he can go deeper in games to give the Royals the starting pitcher they sorely need.