Jeff Karstens was the Pirates best pitcher last year. He was also their luckiest.

The Luck of the Karstens

If you read my blog (The “Mc” Effect) last year or listened to me on TribLIVE Radio, you know that I have never been very high on Jeff Karstens. I was okay with him getting in the rotation after Ross Ohlendorf went down last year, and I was especially okay with it when he had a 2.00 something ERA at the all-star break. However, I was anticipating regression all year long, and it finally started hitting him later in the season. Despite that, he was still a much better pitcher than I expected last year, and that has earned him the right to start tonight’s game against Cliff Lee and the Phillies.

There are a lot of reasons to have faith in Karstens this year, but there are also a lot of reason to not be so excited.

Last year Jeff Karstens had a 77.4% strand rate, which is well above the league average. When Karstens gave up hits, they were often without anybody on base. He was extremely effective at pitching from the stretch. Think what you want, but history tells us that high strand rates aren’t easily sustainable. Karstens is a pitch to contact guy, who is a red flag in and of itself, and it’s going to be really hard for him to keep that strand rate as high as it was last year.

The solo home runs thing goes along with that. Last year Karstens gave up 22 home runs. All but two of those home runs were solo shots. That is just ridiculous. Sure, you could make the argument that Karstens came across the plate a little more with the bases empty because it’s safer to be aggressive in those counts, and that surely could explain some of it. However, you never try to give up home runs, and it seems that good luck had a lot to do with it. He doesn’t walk a lot of guys, which helps that number for sure, but 20/22 is just crazy. He’s bound to have some more guys on base when he gives up the long ball this year.

Another predictive stat is BABIP (batting average on balls in play). Karstens had a very fortunate .275 BABIP last year while he career average number now sits at .286, that was a lot higher before last year so you can see the difference there. Sure, Karstens became a better pitcher last year, which lends itself to a lower BABIP, but .275 is pretty dang low, and it’s going to be tough for him to replicate that this year.

People talk about strikeouts and contact pitchers all the time, and it’s true that you don’t need to strike people out to be successful in the big leagues. Jeff has struck out 4.74 batters per nine innings in his career, so you aren’t going to see a ton of whiffs this year from him. That means a lot of balls in play. The good news is that Karstens gets a ton of weak contact and the Pirates have a great defensive shortstop in Clint Barmes along with a guy who knows what he’s doing behind the plate in Rod Barajas, so Karstens is still in good shape to have a nice year. I’m just a little concerned about him this year, and I’ll be keeping a close eye on the numbers this year.

Let’s hope Karstens starts proving me wrong tonight.

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