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Karstens in Control

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Jeff Karstens wasn't even supposed to be a member of the Pirates' 2011 starting rotation, much less its anchor. Yet Karstens, who joined the starting staff after Ross Ohlendorf suffered a shoulder injury, took the mound Friday night in Houston with an ERA lower than the likes of Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia and Tim Lincecum.

Not bad for a former 19th-round draft pick of the Yankees who has been labeled an organizational soldier, a trade throw-in and a swingman during the course of his pro career.

Karstens has certainly had some bounces go his way this year, helping him post that ultra-low ERA: his .240 batting average on balls in play is 40 points lower than his career average and nearly 50 points lower than the league average. But there's nothing fluky about the right-hander's ability to hit his spots.

In 15 starts, Karstens has walked just 1.38 batters per nine innings pitched. To put that into context, the average walk rate for National League starters this season is about 2.9 per nine innings. Among NL starting pitchers with at least 90 innings pitched, Karstens' rate of free passes issued is topped by only Roy Halladay.

Though his velocity wouldn't stand out in a high school showcase, much less in the majors, Karstens peppers the strike zone with a kitchen-sink assortment of pitches. Sinkers, four-seam fastballs, sliders, curveballs, changeups -- you name it, Karstens throws it. Check out his percentage of strikes thrown with his cornucopia of pitches, compared to the major league average:

STRIKE PERCENTAGE
PITCH KARSTENS' STRIKE PERCENTAGE MLB AVERAGE STRIKE PERCENTAGE
Sinker 70 60
Four-Seam Fastball 75 64
Slider 70 63
Curveball 68 58
Changeup 53 61


Karstens has blown away the big league average with every pitch except his changeup. Overall, he has thrown strikes about 68 percent of the time as a starter.

The Pirates haven't enjoyed a starter with Karstens' level of control in years. In fact, the last time that a Bucs starter tossing at least 90 frames had a walk rate lower than Karstens' was 1996, when Danny Darwin issued 1.2 free passes per nine innings. Randy Tomlin matched Karstens in 1993, and Zane Smith bested him in both 1992 and 1991. Before that, you have to go all the way back to Vern Law in 1966, when "The Deacon" walked 1.2 per nine.

Manager Clint Hurdle summed up his soft-tossing, deadly-accurate starter perfectly after Karstens' July 5 start versus the Astros.

"He's confident on the mound. He's prepared. He's focused when he's out there," Hurdle said. "He's a backyard ballplayer. He's not the kind of guy that scouts are going to see and drool over. He's not 6-4, 215 and cut. But he knows how to play the game, he knows how to pitch, and he knows how to compete."

Karstens will never be a scouting favorite, but his emergence as a quality starting pitcher has played a major part in the Pirates' quest to stay in the NL Central race and avoid becoming a sidebar to Steelers training camp. With precise control and a pitch for every situation, Karstens doesn't need a 90 MPH fastball to succeed.
 

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