The mind game behind the pitcher versus hitter battle is one of the most intriguing aspects of the sport. It is unique in that other team sports rarely ever attain such a true form of one on one, especially when considering frequency. In basketball, a wing might cruise past a defender in an isolation set only to have his layup attempt swatted by a help defender. In football, a running back might juke a defensive back out of his cleats only to see a safety reward him with a penalizing blow to the upper body. Hockey shootouts and soccer penalty kicks are few and far between.
In baseball, it is a perpetual one on one battle until contact is made. This makes the hitter and pitcher approach to each battle intriguing; each side is searching for the slightest edge or weakness. During Sunday night’s national telecast of the Cleveland Indians and Houston Astros matchup, ESPN analyst Jessica Mendoza dropped a fascinating tidbit. Carlos Carrasco informed her that he prefers utilizing his slider as a strike-to-ball offering rather than a ball-to-strike weapon.
Simply, in Carrasco’s head, about 90% of the time he is starting his slider in the zone and working it out. The idea is to generate swinging strikes rather than called strikes. This is generally considered a best practice, as balls out of the zone are infinitely more difficult to square up than ones that end up in the zone. In order to make this work, though, one must wield an elite slider. Carrasco can claim that distinction and then some.
Since 2014, only 10 pitchers have generated more bang for their buck with their slider from a weighted pitch value standpoint. That short list includes names like Max Scherzer, Chris Archer, Andrew Miller, Madison Bumgarner, and Chris Sale.
Across the Statcast era (2015-2019), only eight pitchers have generated more swings and misses with their sliders. So, it misses bats. When it comes to contact management, only 10 hurlers have permitted a lower wOBA while allowing more balls in play. He attains this contact management mastery through keeping hitters on the ground on over half the balls in play against the pitch. Another byproduct of pitching strike-to-ball on the lower half.
The effects are clear: more ground balls and more chasing. The bite on the pitch is the means to producing the effects. He achieves the bite through elite spin rates, an average in excess of 2500 rotations per minute. In order to avoid getting too technical — he snaps that thing with the best of them. It’s how he can make hitters like Jay Bruce (above) and Evan Gattis (below) look silly.
Notice where he starts the pitches in each of the above displays (courtesy of @PitchingNinja). The bottom edge of the strike zone moving way out down and away from the zone. It stands to reason that he targets that area frequently.
The key takeaway here is that his slider location is irrespective of hitter. To both righties and lefties, Carrasco operates in the same area. If one were to view each split individually, the heat map would show little change, if any. The intention and accomplishment of stymying opposing hitters each operate on the assumption that he can get them to flail at that slider that starts in the bottom left corner of the zone from a pitcher’s perspective, down and away for righties and down and in for lefties.
The aging journey has taken its toll on Carlos Carrasco. One would never know it by his stat lines, though. He achieves and maintains consistency through utilization of his slider and changeup, despite losing about a half a tick on the radar gun in each of the last few years. His transformation from power and junk to slightly less power and craft is one that is deserving of marvel.
As for Carlos Carrasco’s rocky April, it is not panic worthy. As long as he is still generating swings and misses with his weaponized slider, there is little to fear. And despite his relative struggles, the swinging strike rate is still in that elite window. This tells us that the results should stabilize, and Indians fans have little to worry about — Carlos Carrasco is dead set on winning that pitcher versus hitter battle.