First Pitch: Don’t Count Karstens Out

I was reading some of the A.J. Burnett articles from the New York media yesterday, when I stumbled across an interesting proclamation. The author said that, if traded, Burnett would be the Pirates’ number two starter. The number one starter? Kevin Correia.

It seems like a simple mistake to make if you’re not following the team. Correia was an All-Star last year. That really means nothing to his value. If there’s a starter who has to be removed from the rotation for Burnett, Correia should be the guy. But the All-Star appearance put him on the radar for people outside of Pittsburgh. He’s also the highest paid starter currently on the staff.

I can see how someone could make the mistake if they don’t follow the team and don’t really want to put in a lot of research for a one line sentence at the end of an article. I did read another article, this one a little better researched. The article mentioned Charlie Morton’s hip injury, but then went on to say that when Morton returned, it would be Jeff Karstens who would get the boot from the rotation, moving to the bullpen.

Again, for a New York writer that’s nothing notable. They don’t follow the Pirates. But it’s not just New York writers making this comment. Every time I’ve had the discussion on Twitter I see a lot of people nominating Karstens as the guy who should be removed from the rotation.

I get it. Karstens isn’t as good as his 2011 numbers suggest. There were 107 pitchers who had 150 or more innings in 2011. The 3.38 ERA by Karstes ranked 30th on that list. I think anyone expecting him to repeat that is going to be very disappointed.

Karstens had some lucky ratios last year, something that happened to be a trend for the entire pitching staff leading up to the end of July. He ended up with a 77.4% strand rate, when 70% is about average. His BABIP was .275, when something in the .300 range is average. There’s bound to be some regression from his numbers once he starts stranding fewer runners and putting more runners on base.

The question is, how far will he regress? I think that’s where people start to write him off. They look at the 5.42 ERA in 2009 and the 4.92 ERA in 2010 and figure Karstens will bounce back to those levels. But while Karstens was lucky in 2011, he was unlucky in 2010. His ERA was 4.92, but his xFIP was 4.26. He saw major improvements in his control, dropping from a 3.75 BB/9 in 2009, to a 1.98 BB/9 in 2010. He also improved his strikeout rate by almost a strikeout per nine innings. Both numbers stayed at the same levels in 2011.

Karstens is a regression candidate, but how far will he regress? His xFIP last year was a 4.00. That was the best xFIP in the rotation, edging out the 4.03 by Paul Maholm and the 4.08 by Charlie Morton. His 1.83 BB/9 ratio was not only the lowest walk ratio in the rotation, but it was the lowest walk ratio for the entire team. His strikeouts weren’t impressive, but they were in the same range as Paul Maholm, and not far behind Charlie Morton.

Karstens isn’t a flashy pitcher. His fastball averaged 88.9 MPH last year. But he also has a curveball that averages 70.2 MPH, and throws three other pitches, all while pounding the strike zone with good control. He’s not going to be an ace, but Karstens isn’t a bad pitcher. There shouldn’t be a need for any convincing that he should get the nod over Kevin Correia. Whether you think Karstes is legit or not, his 2011 season earned him a shot in 2012. He might not come close to the 3.38 ERA, but the Pirates need to at least see if he’ll end up at a respectable level after his regression kicks in. If his 2011 xFIP is a telling sign, he should still be in a respectable range, even if the regression kicks in.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates reached a pre-arbitration deal with Casey McGehee, and beat Garrett Jones in arbitration. The 40-man payroll currently sits at just under $46 M. That’s likely to go up by this weekend if they end up adding A.J. Burnett.

**The 2012 college baseball season starts tomorrow. I’ll have some updates on Twitter, mostly following Victor Roache, but also taking a look at a few other college guys in the 5-15 range. Speaking of Twitter, be sure to follow the new Twitter feed for the site. It’s my old screen name, and will alert you whenever anything on the site is updated.

**John Dreker takes a look at the ten oldest living former Pittsburgh Pirates.