Judging the Royals

A closer look at pitcher Nate Karns: What the Royals gained in the Dyson trade

Five things to know about Royals pitcher Nathan Karns

Karns has been with the Washington Nationals, Tampa Bay Rays and Seattle Mariners. He was acquired on Jan. 6 from Seattle in exchange for outfielder Jarrod Dyson.
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Karns has been with the Washington Nationals, Tampa Bay Rays and Seattle Mariners. He was acquired on Jan. 6 from Seattle in exchange for outfielder Jarrod Dyson.

In the last column we looked at what the Royals gave up when they traded Jarrod Dyson to the Seattle Mariners.

Today we’ll look at what the Royals gained: right-handed pitcher Nate Karns.

Karns’ platoon splits

According to FanGraphs, Karns throws three pitches: a fastball, a knuckle curve and a changeup.

According to Baseball Reference, over the course of his career Karns has reverse platoon splits: righties hit him better than lefties, and righties also hit Karns for more power (a .465 slugging percentage). Karns has given up 38 home runs in his career, and 26 of those homers were hit by right-handed batters.

I don’t think I’ve never seen Karns throw a pitch (which doesn’t mean much … I also don’t remember where I parked my car this morning), but there might be a fairly simple explanation for his reverse platoon splits.

Timeout: I just looked it up and Karns has pitched one game in Kauffman Stadium, so I’ve definitely seen him, but it was an easily forgettable performance. Nine hits allowed, including two doubles, a triple, two home runs and seven runs total.

Now back to those reverse splits …

In 2015, former Royals closer Jeff Montgomery and I were watching Kris Medlen pitch. At the time, Medlen threw three pitches: One of them was a changeup.

Medlen also had reverse splits (righties hit him better than lefties) and Monty offered a logical explanation: Lots of pitchers are reluctant to throw their changeup to like-handed hitters. Changeups often have movement toward the arm-side, so Medlen didn’t want to throw a whole bunch of 84 mph changeups inside to right-handed hitters.

When Medlen faced lefties, he was a three-pitch pitcher (his changeups moved away from them). But when Medlen faced righties, he was a two-pitch pitcher ... and that simplified things for those right-handed hitters.

So when you watch Karns pitch, pay attention to the radar gun and see if he throws changeups to right-handed hitters (his changeup will be in the mid 80s, curve in the low 80s and fastball in the low 90s).

If he doesn’t throw his changeup to righties, Karns will be a two-pitch pitcher, and that could hamper his effectiveness — which is a polite way of saying Karns’ home run total might go up.

Another timeout: I looked up the last time Karns threw at least five innings, and it was in 2016 against the St. Louis Cardinals, a game he won. In that game, Karns threw 97 pitches, but if I counted right only six of them were changeups. And only two of those changeups were thrown to right-handed hitters. I’ve been told that hitters are taught that if a pitcher throws a pitch less than 10 percent of the time, ignore it; no point in looking for a pitch you’re extremely unlikely to see.

Should Karns start or relieve?

If Karns does not make the starting rotation, the Royals might send him to the bullpen in hopes he can become a power reliever. So let’s take a look at what Karns brings to each role.

Over Karns’ career, batters have hit .247 the first time through the order, .212 the second time through the order and .287 the third time through the order. They’ve also slugged .517 that third time around. And if Karns made four trips through the order, batters hit .500 and slugged .625 against him.

Those last two numbers are based on a total of eight at-bats, so take them with a grain of salt. But the pattern seems pretty clear: Once Karns starts that third trip through the order, you need to watch him carefully. If Karns only throws two pitches to righties, they’ve probably seen everything he has to offer after two at-bats and that limits how deep Karns can go in a game.

Last season, Karns had 15 starts and five times went six innings or more. In 2015, Karns had 26 starts and 11 times went six innings or more. Karns strikes out more than one batter per inning, but those strikeouts use up pitches and energy.

As a starter, Karns is going to expose the middle relievers in most of his starts. This year’s Royals bullpen does not appear to be as deep as it has been in recent years, so if Karns can’t go deep in the game, that’s a problem.

Karns has logged just 16  1/3 innings as a reliever, and the numbers aren’t encouraging: batters hit .284 and slugged .507 off him, and his ERA as a reliever is 7.71.

If Karns winds up in the bullpen, he might pick up velocity — he’d be able to cut it loose for one inning — so once again pay attention to the radar gun. A few miles an hour can be the difference between a ball fouled back to the screen and a double off the wall.

If a hitter has to start his swing early to catch up to the fastball, he’s more likely to get fooled by a secondary pitch. In 2016, Karns’ fastball was 92.9 mph on average; if it jumps into the mid-90s as a reliever, that’s a good sign.

Karns’ pace

This might not mean much to you, but I have to watch 162 games this summer. So a pitcher’s pace is a big deal.

In 2015, Mark Buehrle took approximately 15.9 seconds between pitches. Teammates, umpires and reporters loved Buehrle for working quickly. And if it was “getaway day,” everyone loved him even more. Everybody’s plane left on time.

In 2016, Karns’ took 23.6 seconds between pitches, so I’m hoping he becomes a reliever. Watching a guy who takes almost half a minute to deliver a pitch throw 100 of them sounds like torture.

When a pitcher works slowly, it makes things difficult for his defenders. Lots of ballplayers already have a hard time paying attention through nine innings (seriously), and a pitcher who works slowly isn’t going to help matters. If his defenders make concentration errors behind Karns, his pace might be part of the problem.

It also looks like Karns is often behind in the count and has a lot of traffic on the bases. When Danny Duffy went to the bullpen, it taught him to come right after hitters. If Karns ends up relieving, maybe the same thing will happen to him ... but he has to embrace that role.

If Karns wants to start, that might be a problem.

The stuff we don’t know

As either Donald Rumsfeld or Yogi Berra said, there are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. (I’m pretty sure it was Rumsfeld, but the fact that it sounds like Yogi ought to give everyone second thoughts about some of our recent, current and forthcoming cabinet members.)

All I’ve done here is look up some numbers and try to provide some context, but once I get to spring training and get a chance to talk to Karns, Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland and general manager Dayton Moore, I’m 100 percent positive I’ll hear some stuff I didn’t know.

On the surface, Karns’ numbers aren’t overwhelming. He appears to be a fifth starter or middle reliever. But sometimes a team gets a guy because they have a coach who thinks he can make that guy better. So until further notice, keep an open mind about Nate Karns.

Royals fans have a pretty good idea what they gave up in the Dyson-Karns trade, but it will be a while before we learn what the Royals gained.

Sam Mellinger shares memories of former Royal Jarrod Dyson