Starting pitcher Karstens efficient, effective for Pirates
BRADENTON, Fla. — On the first day of spring training camp, Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage pinned a note on the bulletin board outside the clubhouse. It contained a simple command: Make something happen in three pitches or less.
"Get ahead, stay ahead, put 'em away," Searage said. "That's the mentality. Once you get to an 0-2 (count), don't fool around."
Right-hander Jeff Karstens read the memo every morning, but he didn't really need the reminder. Karstens was among the most efficient pitchers in the National League last season.
Karstens averaged 14.53 pitches per inning, trailing only Cole Hamels (14.50) among NL pitchers who threw at least 140 innings. It was the third consecutive year Karstens lowered his average pitches per inning.
A typical plate appearance against Karstens lasted 3.53 pitches, third best in the league.
"It's something I've always tried to do, so for me it's nothing new," Karstens said. "The fewer pitches the hitter can see, the more it works to my advantage."
Karstens challenges batters early with offerings over the plate and gets ahead in the count. That allows him to work his way to the outer edges of the strike zone, where the hitter is more vulnerable.
Karstens on Wednesday tossed three scoreless innings against the Toronto Blue Jays. He gave up two hits and walked one and threw just 35 pitches.
Last season Karstens threw a strike with the first pitch in 62 percent of plate appearances, which ranked 16th in the National League. His 26 percent rate at getting an 0-2 count ranked 13th.
"From a hitter's standpoint, he's frustrating," infielder Casey McGehee said. "It makes it tough when you can't get into a rhythm with a guy, and he's really good at doing that. He feels comfortable not sticking to one pitch. He'll throw pretty much any pitch in any count.
When McGehee played for the Milwaukee Brewers, he hit .222 (2 for 9) with three strikeouts against Karstens.
Karstens is not a classic strikeout pitcher. He doesn't possess a 99 mph fastball or some other mind-bending, unhittable pitch.
"If I fool the hitter, I want him to make contact because it's usually going to be soft contact," Karstens said. "All I'm trying to do is make him miss the sweet spot. Cheap, easy outs in general are a pitcher's best friend. If you're aggressive, these guys get themselves out more times than not."
Instead of overwhelming batters, Karstens out-thinks them and relies on control. He reads the hitter's swing on a pitch and learns from it.
"He's got those instincts," Searage said. "They were not God-given from birth, but he taught himself to do that in the past three years. It's a big credit to him. When he sits in the dugout, he watches the game. He watches how hitters react to certain pitches. He locks it up in his database, and he goes to town."
In his first three seasons with the Pirates, Karstens was a swingman who spent most of his time in the bullpen. This is the first time he came to camp as part of their starting rotation, though he might move back into a long relief role when A.J. Burnett comes off the disabled list in May or June.
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