Carlos Carrasco’s Hypothetical Release Point Problem

(Note: This was written before Carrasco’s start on Thursday, August 28th and includes no data from that same start)

Carlos Carrasco’s career to date has been somewhat brief, very strange, and absolutely fascinating. The age-old trope that was frequently applied to Carrasco was the model of the wunderkid with killer stuff but very little ability to use it – it’s an argument that makes for a very intuitive understanding, as his excellent stuff whose 95+ MPH heater never did translate to results.

‘Translate into results’ is an incredibly vague phrase, however, and the numerous phases between ‘fast fastball’ and ‘success’ help make clear where it is that Carrasco is going wrong. One might posit a more in-depth hierarchy of those things that lead to positive pitching results, as well as determine where the most common dissonances arise. While the following list is neither definitive nor bulletproof, it is likely a sufficient introduction.

1) Biomechanics and Physics
2) Single-Pitch Batter-Pitcher outcomes
3) Plate Appearance Outcomes
3a) Batted Ball outcomes
4) Sequencing of events within innings
5) Sequencing of innings relative to run support

Several of these links are tenuous and subject to randomness, but other of these links are quite more well-established. For instance, the link from #1 to #2, from having the biomechanics required to throwing 95 or having a breaking ball with eight inches of vertical break to actually getting whiffs, is an exceedingly tenuous link; if it weren’t, Phil Hughes would be contending for his third Cy Young award. Likewise, the entire premise of the ‘Kill the Win’ movement is that that the distribution of a pitcher’s poor innings relative to both each other and the pitcher’s run support is far more important to a pitcher win than how many he throws – in other words, that the link between #4 and #5 is tenuous.

In short, the 1-2 link and 4-5 link are alike in the sense that the translation from process to results is far from guaranteed, though the first link is by far the most fundamental to success as a pitcher. On the other hand, the 2-3 link is almost completely ironclad in terms of Swinging Strikes to Strikeouts – if one has aligned their biomechanics and control to such a degree that they can get whiffs, then regardless of how that happens, be it with an 88-MPH fastball or 99 MPH heater, the strikeouts very quickly follow in proportion. If a swinging strike rate is above-average, the strikeout rate is likely to be above-average, and vice versa. Within the populace of major league pitchers, the swinging strike-to-strikeout link is very nearly the most hard-and-fast pitching correlation, insofar as any forecasting of human behavior can actually be both hard and also fast.

Carrasco is an interesting case because he is one of the few pitchers to defy this trend with rigid regularity. In his first three years, his swinging strike rate was always better than average, but his strikeout rate had been regularly below league average. This was only over 160 innings, but the dissonance really was quite breathtaking. Now, in 2014, his K% of 24% places him 23rd among all pitchers with 80+ innings pitched. Finally, in 2014, Carrasco’s strikeout rate bears some correlation with his ability to induce whiffs; finally, in 2014, Carrasco is almost normal.

Yet in his recent starts, a cause for possible concern has arisen. His stuff is filthier than ever, granted. His slider runs 88 and flees arm-side batters with all the urgency of Roman forces fleeing Hannibal at Lake Trasimene, but unlike the Roman forces, the slider actually succeeds in fleeing. Yet while perusing Carrasco’s release points, a moment of concern arose. Since his return to the rotation, the following chart illustrate where he has released his pitches – horizontal location indicates distance relative to the center of the plate, vertical location the distance from the ground. Note that, for the sake of visibility, the x-y scale is somewhat distorted.

Credit: BrooksBaseball

When it comes to mechanics and their impact on command, actual biomechanical analysts like the extremely-sharp Doug Thorburn should be unilaterally preferred, so this article is not going to pretend to imitate Thorburn. Rather, it will focus on the hitters’ perspective. Carrasco’s stuff can be unhittable, but there’s also reason to believe it could be predicted based on arm slot. His three primary pitches are his four-seam, his slider, and his change-up. In each of the following charts, the release points of one of those three pitches will be highlighted.

First up, Carrasco’s four-seamer.

Credit: BrooksBaseball

Next, Carrasco’s slider.

Carrasco slider

Credit: BrooksBaseball

Finally, Carrasco’s change.

Credit: BrooksBaseball

Given that these three pitches are by far his most significant – his primary fastball, coupled with his two most devastating offspeed pitches – the difference is striking from the data. Carrasco clearly releases his fastball from a higher arm-slot than either of his primary offspeed pitches. On average, the release point of his fastball is released 2.3 inches higher and 2.6 inches nearer the center of the plate horizontally than his slider – in terms of total distance, that’s approximately 3.5 inches, or nearly the width of a human hand.

This change may not be dramatic, but it seems possible to exploit this difference, particularly the third time through the order. While Carrasco has, to date, allowed an anomalously low .107/.265/.107 triple-slash the third time through the order, the sample in question is only 34 plate appearances, far too small to say anything meaningful; this caveat would be true even if he were getting dismantled.

There are several possibilities with this difference – the distance between average release points is so small as to lend no competitive advantage to hitters, regardless of how many times they run through the order. However, there also exists the dual possibilities that the difference is so small as to be exploitable but only after a great many plate appearances. It’s almost certainly the case that opposing MLB clubhouses know that Carrasco has this quirk; the fact that they have not yet exploited it yet likely means, to state the obvious, either that it’s not exploitable or that it is exploitable but only after a longer period of time.

For a pitcher like Carrasco, this feeling must be a novel one – while he has frequently generated excellent swinging strike rates, he has been victimized by the fact that a long-standing link between process and result failed to apply in his particular case. In this case, a possibly negative factor exists in his game – to date, however, it appears as though the nonexistent link between this process and his results have, for once, worked to Carlos Carrasco’s benefit.

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