Despite being the centerpiece of a six-player trade with the Rays that brought him to Seattle, Karns is battling left-hander James Paxton for the final spot in the Mariners rotation.
PEORIA, Ariz. — In previous years, Nathan Karns would have spent the days leading up to his next start overanalyzing what took place Thursday at Peoria Stadium and how it might affect him.
That’s just who he was and how his mind worked.
In his his Mariners debut, Karns tossed two scoreless innings, allowing a walk and a hit against the San Diego Padres. He threw 32 pitches, including a 22-pitch first inning in which he allowed the two baserunners. In the second inning, Karns needed just 10 pitches to retire the side.
His first start of the spring was not spectacular or horrible, just solid. It’s something he can accept now.
“It was definitely fun to get the first one out of the way,” he said. “It was definitely me trying to work on some things in the first inning and in the second inning just going out there and playing baseball.”
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When Karns, 28, was younger he would analyze every pitch and decision, sometimes second-guessing himself and always holding an outing to his highest standard.
“I would be so tough on myself,” he said. “In the past I’d be very critical of every little thing. That just comes with lack of experience.”
Worst of all, he would have wondered how all those little things could affect his chances to make the Mariners’ opening-day roster.
“Now with some experience, I know that they aren’t going to make this call in a day or the first week of camp,” he said. “I just need to continue to build and progress and do the best I can. In the meantime, just have fun and get to know my teammates.”
Despite being the centerpiece of a six-player trade with the Rays that brought him to Seattle, Karns lost his spot in the starting rotation when Hisashi Iwakuma’s contract with the Dodgers fell through and he returned to the Mariners.
The return of Iwakuma left the Mariners with six quality starting pitchers for five spots. Felix Hernandez, Wade Miley, Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker have spots locked up. It leaves Karns battling left-hander James Paxton for the final spot.
It’s a familiar scenario.
“For me, I’ve always had to compete to make a team since 2009,” he said. “It’s the same story every camp for me. I’ve never been in a position where I was told, ‘Hey you got a spot coming in.’ So for me it’s just another day at the office competing.”
Besides the different outlook, Karns is a better pitcher now. He went 7-5 with a 3.67 ERA in 26 starts and a relief appearance in 2015. He struck out 145 in 147 innings, tops among American League rookies.
Part of that success stems from a rapidly improving curveball that might be his best pitch. Using a spiked grip with his index finger raised, Karns generates a nasty downward break with a tight spin. It’s not a traditional curveball.
“The hitters are so good,” he said. “I’m just trying to eliminate the hump in my curveball. It’s just one less thing that they can pick up as the indicator of a curveball. So if I can try to keep it flat at the top and have straight downward motion, I feel like that for me it’s a better curveball.”
According to Fangraphs, Karns used the pitch almost 30 percent of the time last season. And based on the website’s metrics it was worth 10.4 runs over the average curveball. According to Pitch F/X tracking from Brooks Baseball, Karns’ curveball generated misses on 31.23 percent of swings. Hitters batted just .179 with a .270 slugging percentage on his curveballs.
“It was kind of a pitch that I didn’t have great control of coming up through high school and college,” he said. “It wasn’t until after shoulder surgery when I really got a feel of it. I think that’s just ’cause of the patience I had to have to build up arm strength. I couldn’t go right out the box and throw it as hard as I could. It was one of those pitches that has taken me some time to get a hold of.
“Over the past two years, I’ve been able to locate it for strikes and put it out of the zone when I want to. It’s still a developing pitch. But it’s definitely one of my better offspeed pitches.”
Karns didn’t use it in the first inning Thursday, as he and catcher Steve Clevenger worked on his sinker and changeup.
“I wasn’t doing quite as well as I wanted to do with it,” Karns admitted. “Can I pitch and get out of jams with these two pitches? I know the curveball can get me out of jams. I wanted to improve the two-seam and changeup rather than show curveball right out of the gate. “
For his second inning, pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. told Karns to start using the curveball. Karns breezed through the inning.
Even with Karns’ understanding of the process, manager Scott Servais thought the young right-hander was a little “amped up” in the first inning.
“There were a lot of balls up,” Servais said. “He made an adjustment in the second inning. He threw some changeups and got the breaking ball going. Typical first time out there, and he is a young guy out there competing (for a job).”
There aren’t many real battles in camp other than Paxton and Karns for that last spot. For the Mariners, they win either way. But one player will be disappointed on opening day.
“Whatever happens, I respect their decisions,” Karns said. “I’m going to go about my business as a professional.”