If you had to take a guess as to how the 2014 season might look for Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco, look no further back than March 19.
Carrasco had just pitched in a spring training game for the Indians, and the results weren’t pretty. The right-hander allowed eight runs (five earned) in 2 2/3 innings of work.
After the start, the usually hyper-positive Terry Francona described Carrasco’s performance as “a frustrating outing.” Francona has probably not used the term “frustrating” in regard to one of his players before or since this incident.
It appeared as if 2014 was setting up to be more of the same for Carrasco — his talent level has always been tantalizing, yet outside of one month in 2011, he’s seemed to struggle to put it all together.
Still, Carrasco remained the heavy favorite to exit spring training with a spot in the starting rotation. He and his 97-mile per hour fastball remained a valuable commodity, and he was also out of options. If he was not in the rotation, he would have been in the bullpen, and it just had to work this time, right? Could a guy this talented really continue to struggle for this long?
The answers to those two questions are both yes and no.
At the onset of the 2014 season, it appeared as if Francona’s words in spring training were indeed a precursor of things to come. In his first four outings, Carrasco was dreadful.
His control was off.
Hitters were teeing off on his fastball.
He quickly fell to 0-3 in those four starts and sported a 6.95 ERA.
Just like that, Carrasco was now the latest member of the Indians’ bullpen.
Yet, then, something changed.
Suddenly, Carrasco started to resemble a Major League pitcher.
First, it started in lower-leverage situations, but the situations quickly escalated. Before long, Carrasco found himself pitching in meaningful situations — and succeeding.
From his demeanor to his approach on the mound, something certainly seemed different, but was anything really different?
Of course, as we all know, Carrasco has since rejoined the rotation and has had incredible success. Overall, he is 8-5 with a 2.65 ERA in 119 innings. The impressive numbers are sparked by his success since rejoining the rotation — a sparkling 1.17 ERA in eight starts.
Who is this Carlos Carrasco?
What happened to the player who would break down the very second that things started to go sour?
What happened to the player who was better known for plucking hitters than for punching them out?
What happened to the player who always seemed to let us down the moment we started to gain even a shred of trust?
In his place is someone else.
We’re now seeing a Carlos Carrasco that was worthy of being a top 100 prospect three years straight (2007 to 2009) by both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. It took a long time for the Indians to make good on their return from the Cliff Lee deal, but it’s now easy to see why the team was so enamored with Carrasco years ago.
According to FanGraphs, Carrasco has a WAR of 2.6. That’s second on the team for its pitchers, behind only Corey Kluber.
Here’s the startling thing. When Carrasco has been on, he’s been better than every single pitcher on this Indians team.
He’s been better than Danny Salazar.
He’s been better than Trevor Bauer.
He’s been better than Corey Kluber.
So, what’s different? Pitching coach Mickey Callaway certainly deserves much of the credit as it’s clear that he’s worked heavily with Carrasco since the onset of the season.
Carrasco’s control has been much improved as evidenced by the mere seven walks he’s allowed in 54 innings since rejoining the rotation on August 10.
How exactly do you hit a 97-mile per hour fastball complemented with a biting slider that can be placed anywhere with pinpoint accuracy? You can’t, and this is the exact dilemma that hitters are facing whenever Carrasco is on the mound.
However, in the past, we know that Carrasco could have a tendency to become overly reliant on one pitch. In fact, Francona expressed frustration about that very thing in spring training this past March.
This once again was an issue with Carrasco at the start of the season as the table below illustrates, which shows Carrasco’s pitch usage for his first four starts, April 5 to April 25.
Whether it was against right-handed or left-handed hitters, Carrasco used his fastball significantly — too significantly actually.
While it’s a great offering, this overusage becomes a problem because hitters have shown an ability to tee off on it when it comes in flat.
The tables below show the averages that hitters had against Carrasco during his first four starts. The first table is for right-handed hitters while the second is for left-handed hitters.
So, two things are telling about Carrasco’s pitch usage. Why exactly would he throw his fastball with such frequency when you consider that both left-handed and right-handed hitters were having significant success?
Just a thought, but it’s probably not a good idea to throw a pitch over 50 percent of the time when hitters are getting .333 and .500 averages against it. That’s just common sense, right?
Yet, we all know how stubborn Carrasco can be. After all, this is a player who has been suspended multiple times for hitting batters with pitches. Clearly, there are times where he just wants to do things his way.
Callaway must have worked hard to encourage Carrasco to mix-up his pitch usage as the right-hander’s usage was as follows during his stint in the bullpen on April 30 through August 5.
Carrasco still used his fastball heavily during this time, but he also began to use his slider with much more regularity. Also, it’s important to note that pitching out of the bullpen is obviously a much-different situation than starting.
Carrasco would normally only see a hitter once per game, so it was perfectly acceptable for him to use his fastball at this rate.
Now, here is Carrasco’s pitch usage since rejoining the rotation on August 10 through his last start on September 17.
As you can tell, Carrasco’s fastball usage has been down significantly since he rejoined the rotation. Also, usage of his slider and changeup are up significantly, which is always a good thing as these are deathly offerings.
Though the irony is that hitters are still getting hits off of Carrasco’s fastball as evidenced by the averages below, which cover Carrasco’s last eight starts since he rejoined the rotation. The first one is for right-handed hitters while the second is for left-handed hitters.
In particular, right-handers are still hitting Carrasco’s fastball at a very nice clip. However, he is now just throwing that pitch against them 36 percent of the time compared to 43 percent in his first four starts back in April.
Also, Carrasco is now doing a much better job of using his fastball to set up his secondary offerings. In his first four starts, Carrasco threw his fastball 28 percent of the time and his slider 36 percent of the time when he had right-handers down 0-2 in the count. In comparison, he now throws those pitches 23 percent and 52 percent of the time when in the same situation.
Carrasco now realizes that his slider is his out-pitch when he gets right-handed hitters down in the count. In other words, he trusts his stuff, and that’s a welcome change as we know that’s not always been the case with the Venezuelan native.
It’s been a sound strategy too as right-handed hitters own just a .127 average against Carrasco’s slider.
Tonight, Carrasco will once again take the mound for the Tribe in what is indeed the closest thing to a “must-win” that we’ve seen this season.
The Indians are 81-74, 3.5 games back in the American League Wild Card race and facing the Wild Card-leading Kansas City Royals.
There’s a good chance that the Indians will be favored to win this game, and that’s precisely because of Carrasco.
Corey Kluber’s rise to ace-status has been one helluva ride. The same can be said for Michael Brantley’s rise to All-Star status. However, no Indians story has been more improbable this season than the rise of Carrasco.
Don’t ever say that people can’t change. Carlos Carrasco proves the opposite.