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Nate Karns Is Changing It Up

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Heath discusses Nate Karns and his 2016 fantasy baseball outlook.

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

In the recent state of the position for starting pitchers, Ray discussed some criteria to consider when targeting pitchers for your fake team. Ray's words are in italics, and the answers (as they pertain to Nate Karns' career thus far) are in bold.

I will have a more detailed post on my starting pitcher strategy on Thursday, but fantasy owners want to focus on pitchers who meet the following criteria:

1. strikeout rate of 7.00 K/9 or higher; the higher the better - 8.89 (CHECK)

2. walk rate of 3.00 BB/9 or fewer; the lower the better - 3.47 (DEFINITELY NOT)

3. ground ball rate of 45% or higher; the higher the better - 41.5% (NOPE)

Starting pitchers who met these criteria put up an ERA of 3.33 and a WHIP of 1.15. Starters who struck out eight or nine batters per nine innings saw their ERA drop into the low 3.00 range, with some in the sub-3.00 range.

One out of three ain't bad, right? In baseball it isn't, okay? Just because we only met one of the three criteria, I still think Karns is worth a look underneath the hood.

The obvious takeaway is that Karns' ERA will most likely be over the 3.50 mark. The average walk rate for MLB starters in 2015 was 7.1 percent, and Karns has a career walk rate of 9.0 percent. He also never had a walk rate below 8.7 percent throughout his entire minor league career. So this issue with free passes is not a new development. It is more a part of who he is. Even in Karns' solid 2015 season, he posted a walk rate of 9.0 percent, which is exactly the same as his career walk rate. More baserunners obviously means more runs, so it would not surprise me if Karns posted an ERA in the mid to high threes in 2016. I think Steamer's projected mark of 4.06 might be a little on the high side, though. More on why I feel that way, later.

Home runs are also something of an issue for Karns, who is a fly-ball pitcher. At the AA and AAA levels he posted average HR/9 marks of 0.95 and 0.99 respectively. In the majors, however, he has a career 1.42 mark--albeit over only one injury-shortened 2015 season and two twelve-innings stints in 2013-2014. He has shown some growth in this area, though, as his numbers have trended downward from 3.75 to 2.25 to 1.16 (last year's mark). Steamer projects a mark of 1.10 in 2016, and the average number for MLB pitchers in 2015 was 1.06 home runs per nine innings. If Steamer is close on this projection, Karns will be right around what should be the league average rate of allowing home runs. But the ground ball and flyball rates mean what they mean--Karns will likely be susceptible to the home run throughout the course of his professional career.

So what is the point, then? So far we know Karns walks too many batters and gives up home runs at either an above average rate or (at best) a league average rate. So what makes him interesting? The strikeout rate, of course! This is why I feel Steamer's projection of a 4.06 ERA is a tad on the high side.

Karns had a 27.7% strikeout rate in his minor league career, and he has posted an above average K-rate in the majors with a K/9 of 8.88 in his first full season in 2015. The average MLB strikeout rate last season was 19.5% and Karns posted a first half mark of 22.6%. As the season progressed and he continued to refine his changeup, his K-rate improved to a mark of 25.5% in the second half (which was shortened when he developed a forearm issue). Not all of the other signs were positive--his walk rate was worse in the second half--but the strikeout rate was a definite plus for the fake game.

This article was written in November of last year and speaks to the improvement in the changeup. Why reinvent the wheel when we already have this perfectly good information here at SBNation? The short of it is this: Karns has always had a plus curve, which has served as his out pitch. But the new shiny thing about Karns is that now he has another plus pitch for his arsenal in the changeup. The article discusses Karns weaknesses, some of which I have tried to highlight here--primarily control, but more specifically the ability to locate the fastball. The majority of home runs allowed by Karns last season were from the fastball, so Karns will need to improve his command if he hopes to limit the bombs. With the curve and the changeup now in his arsenal, it follows that he will be able to utilize the fastball less, allow less home runs, and garner more strikeouts. I do not expect a massive uptick in production, but a modest one would not surprise me--especially with the move to Safeco.

My general take on Karns is that his strikeout ability covers a lot of sins. He is the guy that can give up a walk and a home run and then strike out the side. And even though walking more batters means higher pitch counts and working less deep into games, we've seen some high-strikeout pitchers survive while having high walk rates before. Below are a few examples and their career walk/strikeout rates, compared to Karns:

PITCHER WALK RATE STRIKEOUT RATE
Gio Gonzalez 10.1% 23.1%
Shelby Miller 8.6% 20.1%
Francisco Liriano 10.0% 24.3%
Nate Karns 9.0% 23.1%

My take is rudimentary but it was helpful for me to see that giving up too many walks does not necessarily have to be a deathknell for a pitcher's value. Comparing Karns' K-rate to other successful MLB starters was also encouraging. I am intrigued enough to take a chance on him in the latter part of my drafts. I like the new home field and I like the K-rate--as well as the addition of another potential "out pitch." If Karns can manage to stay healthy for 150 innings, I feel I will make a profit on where I am able to draft him. The FakeTeams consensus had Karns as the SP88, but over at FantasyPros Karns is all the way down to SP95--despite finishing as the SP66 last season.

My own projections for Karns are modest. I expect a sub-4.00 ERA and a K-rate in line with his recent production. If Karns can manage 25-27 starts, that means you are looking at about 150-160 innings and 140-150 strikeouts. Sure, the WHIP might end up being a little inflated, but hey, you drafted him in the bleary-eyed rounds of your hometown draft, so you should be happy all the way to the bank with that sort of profit. Draft one of those shiny, high-K relievers with excellent ratios to cover up the damage to your ERA and WHIP and you'll be fine.