The Rays' pitching development machine has a new project in right-handed pitcher Nate Karns, and it's impossible not to be intrigued. Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs have yet to publish their rankings of the top prospects in the Washington Nationals system, but Baseball America has (with scouting reports $), and they ranked Karns as the Nationals' ninth best prospect.
Drafted out of Texas Tech in 2009, Karns suffered a torn labrum that kept him out of professional baseball until midway through the 2011 season. Karns has good size, filling the mound with his 6'3" 230 lbs, frame. His fastball ranges from 91-96 mph, and according to the Baseball America report can even touch 98 mph, but neither the BA scouting report nor a Baseball Prospectus scouting report filed by Zach Mortimer in August of 2013 ($) like his mechanics. They both point to a stiff front leg that leads to inconsistent command and may pose an injury risk.
Karns's plus fastball, though, is overshadowed by his plus-plus curve that BP ranked as a 70 on the 20-80 scale (BA agreed it was plus, but said he was still learning to throw it for strikes). From the BP report:
[Karns's curve is an] attack pitch that can be thrown as a strike as well as a put-away offering. Strikeout offering drops violently out of the zone late.
Karns also throws a changeup that's currently well behind his other two offerings, and the level of his success may depend on how far he's able to develop that third pitch.
But Karns pitched twelve innings over three starts in the majors this season, so we don't have to rely on scouting reports alone. We have PITCHf/x. That's not enough exposure for us to draw any conclusions about the tendencies or the results, but it can give us some idea of his raw stuff.
His fastball averaged between 93 and 94 mph during his time in the majors, and showed very strong rise to pair with decent run. His changeup averaged just a bit over 85 mph, and while its movement isn't elite or anything, it falls down and away from his fastball in a perfectly respectable manner. Of course a movement chart can't show command or arm action, but the makings of a viable pitch are there.
What really jumps out of the grid lines, though, is his plus-plus curve. No, the movement's not very impressive, but there's one piece of information missing: velocity. The curves pictured here averaged over 84 mph.
That's really fast. For perspective, there were no pitchers who threw over 80 innings in 2013 whose MLBAM-classified curves averaged over 80 mph. Matt Harvey's 83.4 mph curve was closest (if you lower the innings limit, you can find a few relievers with harder curves). So what do you get when you mix the velocity of a slider with the movement of a curve? Andrew Friedman is betting that the answer is "a lot of strikeouts."
To put Nate Karns's bizarre hard curve in terms Rays fans can understand, I've stuck it on a graph with the breaking balls of other Rays starters. Lefties' horizontal movement is flipped to put them on the same side of the graph. All pitches are curves, except for those specified as sliders. Click to enlarge.
I think there's a very interesting comparable in here: Chris Archer. They both have live fastballs with a history of questionable command. They both have an underdeveloped changeup. And they both have a breaking ball with exceptional movement for its speed. Chris Archer was able to make that combination work in his rookie season, but will he be able to keep it up? Will Karns?