Back in May, I wrote an article titled ‘The Cleveland Indians Need James Karinchak to Make Brad Hand Expendable.’
The thought process was simple. Facing a year without ticket revenue and eventually having to decide what to do with closer Brad Hand’s $10 million option for next season, the Indians needed James Karinchak to make said decision easier for them. If the popular prospect could thrive in the bigs, Cleveland could feel more at peace with the idea of declining Hand’s option over the winter.
Sure, the Indians weren’t rooting for the veteran to struggle. Heck, in a perfect world, Karinchak sees big league success while Hand proves still capable of maintaining his role as closer.
Right now, this perfect world is exactly where Cleveland is living.
Karinchak has become a phenomenon for the Indians. Meanwhile, Hand is effectively holding down the fort as the Tribe’s closer. All in all, it’s a textbook best-case scenario.
It didn’t feel like that was taking place as recently as a couple weeks ago.
One year after enduring a late-season tired arm, Hand was still experiencing some shakiness on the mound. Through his first seven appearances on the year, he boasted a 6.35 ERA and gave up seven runs on 5.2 innings pitched. Though his 23.3% strikeout rate was strong, he was walking 13.3% of the batters he faced.
For a minute, it seemed as though Cleveland would be forced to find a replacement even before Hand’s option was up for consideration. Considering the Indians’ frequent struggles with run production, the team simply couldn’t afford to deal with an untrustworthy closer.
At the moment, it appears said concern is no longer relevant.
Barring a single hit allowed on August 18, Hand’s last four outings have been spotless. He’s faced 13 batters, striking out six and allowing no walks. Only twice has he even allowed hard contact, with hitters averaging an exit velocity of just 85.0 mph during this time frame.
Hand’s WHIP throughout his first seven outings of the year was an alarmingly high 1.59. Over his next four, he held a WHIP of 0.25.
As for Karinchak, to say he’s lived up to his expectations wouldn’t be effusive enough. Where Hand created doubt early on this year, his setup man has been a sure thing all season long.
Karinchak’s stat line reads like something out of a video game. He’s allowed just one earned run in 16.2 innings pitched (0.54 ERA), striking out 51.7% of the batters he’s faced thus far this season. Despite a notably high walk rate (10.0%), Karinchak’s ERA- and FIP- are each 88% better than league average.
According to Baseball Savant, luck isn’t playing any factor in his success, either.
Karinchak is currently in the 100th percentile for every one of the outlet’s expected outcome statistics, which analyze quality of contact with each batted ball allowed to provide a clearer look at a player’s performance. In fact, he tops every single pitcher in the majors when it comes to xERA (1.03), xBA (0.93), xSLG (.125) and xwOBA (.159).
Simply put, even if Hand does experience an on-mound setback, the Indians have a more than capable backup ready and waiting in the wings.
Which, frankly, highlights the beauty of the situation for Cleveland.
The team needed to see proof Karinchak was legit, and received it. Despite this, the Tribe is still getting quality outings from Hand, ensuring no midseason shake-ups are required. It’s a best-of-both-worlds scenario, one which opens up a handful of options for Cleveland.
For one, the team can confidently tab Karinchak as its closer of the future. This allows Cleveland to decline Hand’s option this winter without having to worry about finding a replacement. Emmanuel Clase -- the flame-throwing reliever who returns from suspension next season -- should be more than ready to replace Karinchak as the setup man.
Or, the Indians could choose to pick up Hand’s option for 2021.
This would certainly serve as a surprising move, considering the $10 million he’s owed currently ranks as the sixth highest closer salary in the league next season.
Still, picking it up would put the Indians right back in the situation they’re presently experiencing, with the back end of the bullpen looking solid and a viable backup option available should Hand experience inconsistency.
But that’s a conversation for another day. For now, the Indians can sit back and embrace their current setup.
Cleveland needed Karinchak to prove he could be a reliable safety net should any setbacks occur at closer. It’s safe to say that mission is accomplished. Yet, with Hand finding his groove, said safety net hasn’t been necessary.
From the team’s perspective, what more could you ask for?