I am a sucker for guys like Jeff Karstens. And there is no rhyme or reason for the fact. It just is. Perhaps it is because he is a former Yankee and it is a personal habit to follow such creatures once they leave the New York nest. But he left a long time ago. Perhaps it is because he was not drafted until the nineteenth round of the 2003 draft. It is not hard to root for guys who had 573 guys chosen ahead of him in that draft so his signing bonus must have been like a Swiss army knife and some gift certificates to Wendy's. And yet Karstens still made it to the majors for a few emergency starts in 2006 and 2007. I root for guys like that.
Jeff Karstens is about as nondescript a pitcher as there is. He has pitched parts of seven seasons and has 91 big league starts and another 47 relief appearances. He has pitched in relative obscurity in Pittsburgh during some really challenging years there. He is not an All Star. He is not going to make the Hall of Fame. To look at him, he never seems to fit into his uniform. When he has attempted to pull off the scraggly, unshaven look affected by so many modern males, he just looks unkempt. His big league record is nondescript as well. He sports a career 26-40 record, good (bad?) for a .397 winning percentage. His career ERA is 4.44 and career FIP is 4.55. They are mundane numbers.
And yet, I find that I am not alone in my suckerhood for the guy. When MLB Rumors announced his signing by the Pirates for $2.5 million, it was after they unceremoniously dumped him to the non-tendered pile so the team wouldn't have to pay him more in arbitration. Any team could have had him at that point and yet he went back to Pittsburgh. The comments under the story are mostly from Pirate fans and they are mostly positive. Pirate fans appreciate him as a "bulldog" type of pitcher who hangs in there and doesn't get rattled and gives it all he has each outing. They like him. Some called it the GM's best move of the off-season.
Is such a discourse an insult to the Pirates' off-season? Perhaps for some. But for others, it was a heartily approved signing to get one of their own back that has become a fixture for several years. Two of those seasons weren't very good. His WHIP in 2009 and 2010 were above 1.4 and one season, he even went 3-10. But how much of that was due to a woeful team and poor defense?
As I look at his last two seasons, Jeff Karstens hasn't been half bad. He pitched 162 innings in 2011 and went 9-9 with an ERA of 3.28. His FIP was higher at 4.29, but that's not a bad season. In 2012, he battled injuries and was limited to just over 90 innings. But his ERA was 3.97 and his FIP was 3.32. Again, that's not bad. And if you dig a little bit, you can see some good things.
His fastball has always been an 89 MPH fastball. But at least it hasn't headed south. His strikeout rate was abysmal earlier in his career. But in 2010 and 2011, it rose to mediocrity at 5.3 and in 2012, it rose again to 6.6. That's not bad. Combine that with his ability to avoid bases on balls and you get a very good 4.40 strikeout to walk ratio in 2012. Now we are getting somewhere.
His walk rate of 1.5 batters per nine innings was the best on his team. His 1.8 BB/9 was the best on the team in 2011 too. That walk rate gave him the best WHIP among Pirate starters in 2011. And his WHIP was the best among the Pirate starters in 2012.
But let's go even deeper. And maybe these numbers will blow your mind a little bit. Karstens must be deceptive because of all pitchers who pitched 90 innings or more in 2012, nobody enticed a higher swing percentage on his pitches out of the strike zone. Batters swung at 36.6 percent of his pitches out of the strike zone. And that rate was very good in 2010 and 2011 as well with both seasons coming in at 31.2% and 32% respectively.
Of all pitchers with more than 90 innings, he was 18th in getting first pitch strikes. That is another nice number. He was tied for 22nd in swinging strike percentage. And we are talking about over 200 pitchers here. His home run per fly ball rate was 12th lowest.
Am I cherry-picking numbers here? Well, probably. But Jeff Karstens is not a bad major league pitcher. In fact, I would go ahead and say that he would be better than the third or fourth starter on a lot of teams in baseball. He needs to stay healthy this season. And if he does, Jeff Karstens will keep the Pirates in the game. He went 5-4 in 2012 despite having the eighth lowest run support among all pitchers with 90 innings or more.
No, it would not matter if these conclusions were reached. I would still be a sucker for the guy if he was terrible. But at least I root for a guy that is better than most people think.