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Looking for a reliable backend fantasy starter? Take a close look at Mariners pitcher Nathan Karns.

By Michael Beller
May 15, 2016

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There are 27 starting pitchers who, to this point of the season, have struck out at least a batter per inning. They won’t all maintain that pace, even in this golden age of strikeouts in which we live. Last year there were 19, and the season before there were 14. We should expect something more in that range than a group that nearly counts 30 members.

Some of the pitchers sending down more than a batter per inning, like Clayton Kershaw and Stephen Strasburg, will undoubtedly remain in the 9 K/9 club. Others, like Nick Tropeano and Jeremy Hellickson, are likely small sample size wonders. If we can confidently say that at least 10 of the pitchers currently fanning more than a batter per inning will fall off, it’s the Tropeanos and Hellicksons for whom we must budget a strikeout decrease over the next four and a half months.

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One name that, on its face, might seem like it also belongs in that group is Nathan Karns. The 28-year-old is in just his second full major league season and never had much of a prospect pedigree when he was coming up through the Washington farm system. Look a little closer, however, and you’ll see that Karns is a bankable, backend fantasy starter for owners in all formats.

Karns is in his first season with the Mariners after spending the previous two years with the Rays. He’s 3–1 with a 3.51 ERA, 3.89 FIP, 1.34 WHIP and 43 strikeouts in 41 innings covering seven starts. Those numbers might not jump off the page, but if they came attached to a name like, say, Justin Verlander, there’d be no doubt that he’d be 80% owned. Karns is basically the inverse, available in about 80% of all fantasy leagues, and this is a huge oversight by the fantasy community at large.

We love to see track records before buying in on a guy who seems like he might be a fringe contributor. Karns is starting to develop one, especially in the strikeout-per-inning department. He threw 147 innings across 26 starts for the Rays last year. Karns racked up 145 whiffs and pitched to a 3.67 ERA, 4.09 FIP and 1.28 WHIP. Again, those are useful numbers, no matter your format.

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Karns uses both a four-seam and two-seam fastball, which check in at 93.8 and 94.5 mph, respectively. His curveball and changeup are his primary whiff pitches, and they’ve both been getting the job done this season. Hitters have swung at and missed the curve 13.7% of the time, while the change has a whiff rate of 20%.

Here’s the curveball making Carlos Correa look defenseless in an 0–2 count.

And here’s the change fooling Colby Rasmus, even if it wasn’t spotted perfectly.

This isn’t happening by accident. Karns is a legitimate strikeout-per-inning pitcher, and his rates project to be, at worst, neutral. Go get him, regardless of your format.

Denard Span, OF, Giants

Span’s up to his usual leadoff man tricks in his first season with the Giants. He’s hitting .280 with a .377 OBP and 20 runs in 37 games. He doesn’t run as much as he used to, but he still has four steals on the year, though he has been caught four times, as well. At this stage of his career, we know exactly what Span brings to the table. He’s going to get on base a lot, swipe in the neighborhood of 20 or 25 bags, and score 80 or so runs on top of a strong San Francisco lineup. There’s plenty of value in that sort of player in all fantasy leagues.

Derek Dietrich, 2B/3B/OF, Marlins

Dietrich is Miami’s primary second baseman with Dee Gordon suspended, serving as the left-handed bat in a platoon. The team may have to think about getting him in there every day, however, considering how well he has performed at the plate. In 93 plate appearances, Dietrich is slashing .313/.409/.550 with two homers, seven doubles, three triples and 14 RBI. He mashes right-handed pitching, hitting .273/.361/.502 with the platoon advantage last year, and .313/.418/.552 with it this season. With eligibility at three positions, he should be able to find a home in plenty of fantasy leagues.

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Byung-ho Park, 1B, Twins

We dedicated the introduction of last week’s waiver wire column to Park, so we won’t go until too much additional detail here. Park didn’t have his best week of the season since we featured him as a pickup recommendation, but he did post a two-homer game on Friday, and is now hitting .248/.336/.574 with nine homers and 15 RBI on the season. The power is unquestionably for real. Park should push, if not surpass, the 30-homer threshold.

Michael Saunders, OF, Blue Jays

Saunders has been in this column a few times this season, but we’re going to keep including him until his ownership rate makes a degree of sense. How he is still available in about three-quarters of all fantasy leagues is mind-boggling. All he has done this year is hit .325/.392/.547 with five homers, nine doubles, 11 RBI and 17 runs while hitting leadoff in one of the most potent lineups in the majors. That seems like the sort of guy who should be owned in three-quarters of leagues, not available in that many. Health is forever an issue for Saunders, but he has proved what he can do when he’s on the field. Scoop him up while you still can.

Melvin Upton, OF, Padres

No one would blame you for writing off Upton years ago. The entire fantasy community did after giving the one-time budding star numerous chances. While you were busy ignoring him, however, he appears to have gotten things on track. In 142 plate appearances this season, the 31-year-old is slashing .282/.366/.460 with five homers, 16 RBI and 16 runs scored. He has stolen seven bases while being caught just three times. Upton plays every day for the Padres, and even if the rates come down a bit over the rest of the season, he seems a good bet to post a 15–20 season for the first time since 2012.

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Aaron Hill, 2B/3B, Brewers

Hill has been on fire over the last two weeks, going 17 for 47 (.362) with three homers, 10 RBI, seven runs and a .434 OBP. We have, of course, seen this before from Hill, but he has turned in useful fantasy seasons before in his 11 seasons in the majors, and he plays every day for the Brewers. Miller Park has long been one of the friendliest stadiums to hitters, and with Hill providing eligibility at two positions, owners can find multiple ways to deploy him beneficially.

Scooter Gennett, 2B, Brewers

Gennett was hitting quite well before going to the DL, slashing .258/.361/.516 when he landed on the shelf in the last week of April. He returned late last week, and while he had just two hits in his first 12 plate appearances since getting back on the field, you can be willing to trust what you saw before the injury. Gennett’s case is undoubtedly bolstered by the position he plays, but there’s enough to like here to consider him in deeper leagues.

Tyler Glasnow, SP, Pirates
Jameson Taillon, SP, Pirates

With each passing week, the clamoring for both Glasnow and Taillon grows louder. Glasnow wasn’t at his best in his last start, allowing three runs on six hits and five walks with just one strikeout in five innings, but he still has a 2.13 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 49 strikeouts in 38 innings this year. Taillon was excellent in his last turn, fanning 11 batters while surrendering three runs in six innings. Meanwhile in the Steel City, Jeff Locke and Jon Niese both have ERAs north of 5.00. Locke’s FIP is 5.21, while Niese’s is an unsightly 6.23. The question isn’t if Glasnow and Taillon will be in the Pittsburgh rotation, but when. The answer is soon enough that they should be owned anywhere it’s possible to grab minor leaguers before they get the call.

Tyler Duffey, SP, Twins

The fantasy community didn’t take much notice when Duffey turned in 10 mostly good starts for the Twins last year, amassing a 3.10 ERA, 3.24 FIP, 1.31 WHIP and 53 strikeouts in 58 innings. It is starting to snap to attention this season, with Duffey following up on that strong debut. He has made three starts and pitched 17 1/3 innings in 2016, putting up a 2.60 ERA, 3.49 FIP, 1.15 WHIP and 17 strikeouts. Duffey is just 25 years old and had a really strong season in the minors last year, splitting his time between Double A New Britain and Triple A Rochester before getting promoted at the end of the season. He leans heavily on a curve that can be among the strongest in baseball when it’s at his best, and that gives his 91 mph four-seamer the ability to sneak up on hitters, as well. He’s still a spot starter in shallower leagues, but deep-league owners should give him an extended tryout.

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