Carlos Carrasco Brings A Bullpen Ace To The Rotation

For years, people have been writing “nothing good ever comes out of Cliff Lee trades” articles. I’m sure somewhere along the line, I wrote one too, and that’s mostly because, well, nothing really had. Justin Smoak was probably the best player to come out of any of those deals, and he isn’t any good. Jason Donald, Jason Knapp and Lou Marson didn’t amount to anything, nor has Blake Beavan. I don’t want to talk about Josh Lueke. Among Ruben Amaro’s many missteps, the 2009 deal that shipped off Lee to Seattle for the massive return of Tyson Gillies, Phillippe Aumont and J.C. Ramirez probably doesn’t get enough press.

For most of the last five-plus years — yes, really, it’s been that long — Carlos Carrasco was lumped in with those failures, too. In parts of four seasons with Cleveland (2009-11, ’13) he’d put up a 5.29 ERA and 4.48 FIP in 238.1 innings. He’s been DFA’d at least once, lost all of 2012 to Tommy John surgery, and served multiple suspensions for head hunting. While he won the fifth starter job out of camp this year, he was also sent to the bullpen in favor of Zach McAllister after four lousy starts.

At the time, his career ERA stood at 5.43. He had mediocre strikeout numbers, and the inexplicable combination of “gets both groundballs and home runs.” We’ve been writing stories about him here since at least 2008, and all we’d seen in that time was disappointment and absence. There was really little reason to think any of that was going to change. After all, it had already been five years of struggle since the trade.

Carrasco moved back into the rotation in August. Since then, he’s made eight starts. He’s allowed seven earned runs, and since four of them came in one game, that means he’s made seven starts allowing zero or one earned run, including Wednesday’s two-hit — neither of which left the infield — shutout of Houston. He’s got a 59/7 K/BB in that time. Is this finally the Carrasco Cleveland had waited so long to see? Let’s find out.

* * *

A note, first: Yes, eight late-season starts don’t really scream “large sample size.” That much is true, and two of the starts did come against the Astros, who aren’t exactly the most feared hitting team in baseball. Let’s expand it to note that he spent basically all summer being outstanding out of the bullpen; since he was demoted from the rotation in April, he’d pitched 97 innings, with a 98/16 K/BB and a 1.67 ERA/2.30 FIP. He’s also a formerly well-regarded prospect who never seemed to lose the raw skills that made him so interesting, rather failing to ever turn them into production. We shall proceed.

So what’s changed? If you ask him, it’s all about the April demotion from the rotation:

“Everything I’m doing now is about the three months I spent in the bullpen,” said Carrasco.

Carrasco wasn’t the first failed starter to find new life in the bullpen — hi, Wade Davis! And a billion others! — and he won’t be the last. Manager Terry Francona, in a post-game interview, said it was about “building confidence.” Corey Kluber, as passed along by the television broadcast, echoed the thought, saying that Carrasco was carrying himself differently even around the clubhouse. Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, in the article linked above, thinks that the bullpen “taught him to relax,” that the old Carrasco would spend four days agonizing about a poor start, and that being in the bullpen doesn’t allow for that.

That all seems to make sense. It’s difficult to quantify confidence like that, so all we can do is take it at face value. Let’s go with it, while also looking at the real, actual changes in his performance, like, for example, the real, actual change in how he throws the baseball.

Here’s two images. The first is Carrasco about to throw his first pitch of the fourth inning last night, to Jose Altuve:

carrasco_stretch_houston

Here he is about to throw the first pitch of the fourth inning in his final April start before being demoted, in San Francisco:

carrasco_windup_sanfran

The difference, hopefully, should be easy to see. Like most starters, Carrasco would pitch out of the windup with the bases empty. Now, like most relievers, he’s pitching from the stretch every single time. We don’t have any statistics, at least that I’m aware of, that allow us to accurately break down the difference in pitcher performance between the two styles. Even if we did, they would probably be so full of noise as to not be useful. For most pitchers, the preference for the stretch is about being able to repeat mechanics, to not have to worry about two different approaches to the plate. In April, there was discussion about some disagreement between Carrasco and his coaches about arm slot, and we’ve seen his release point change.

For Carrasco, it’s about simplicity, as he said in August, keeping what worked out of the bullpen:

“I’m not going to change anything,” Carrasco said. “They gave me another opportunity to [start] and I’m just going to continue to do everything that I do out of the bullpen.”

Like most bullpen conversions, Carrasco’s velocity increased out of the pen, as a fastball that was generally in the 94-95 range started popping in the 96-97 range, which is outstanding. Unlike most rotation conversions, he’s maintained that velocity since returning to starting. Against the Astros, he was touching 97 with the four-seamer. It would be simple enough to assume that Carrasco found some new life on his fastball and has been riding it to success.

But the fastball, as hard as it is, has never really been a weapon. Our pitch values have it as a net negative over his career, and while that’s partially influenced by poor performances from years ago, it’s also not really been a huge positive this year, either. It’s fast, sure; it just hasn’t had a good deal of movement on it, and any decent major league hitter can batter a straight fastball. And they have! Since 2009, the wRC+ against on the fastball has been 147. Only 10 hitters in baseball have a wRC+ better than that this year. Carrasco’s fastball looks pretty, but never came to results, and even this year, his 13.97% swing-and-miss rate on it is easily the lowest of any of his pitches. Last night, only three of the 23 swings on the fastball turned into misses.

If you were to just look at Carrasco’s yearly pitch usage over the last few years, you’d see that he kept using the fastball more, and you’d be confused. But what’s important is to look at what he’s done just during the course of this season, and you can see something very different. That fastball usage has dropped considerably.

carrasco_pitch-mix

What’s important here is the big increase in the red line, and the smaller increase in the blue line. The blue one is labeled as a “changeup,” and that’s probably as good as anything else to call it, but there’s changes, and there’s whatever this thing is. Hoynes called it “some kind of split-finger/change up.” Catcher Yan Gomes, in a post game interview, referred to it as a “change-up/split, whatever he wants to call it.”

It looks like this. It is absurd.

carrasco_change

This, too:

carrasco_change_villar

It just disappears, really. Since it’s nearly impossible to hit — he’s allowed only 11 hits off of the change this year, all but one a single — the best a hitter can do is to lay off of it, but since it’s coming in at nearly 90 mph, and looks like a fastball until the exact instant it doesn’t, he’s getting 54.7% swing rates on it.

There’s also the slider, too, which he’s been throwing more and more this year, and for good reason: It is, among pitchers with 100 innings pitched, ranked as the most valuable slider in baseball. That’ll happen when you allow a .118 batting average and .143 slugging percentage off the pitch.

carrasco_slider_carter

Suddenly, now, the fastball makes sense. It still doesn’t get a ton of swinging strikes (though more than in  years past), but that’s not really the purpose. The purpose is to throw it for strikes and to use it to remind hitters that they can’t simply sit on the breaking pitches, because hey, there’s a 97 mph fastball potentially coming. As Altuve said:

“Carrasco was unbelievable,” said Altuve. “He was throwing a splitter, fastball, curveball and slider. In my first at-bat, he was throwing me fastballs right down the middle and I couldn’t hit them.

One wonders what a 97 mph fastball looks like when it’s been surrounded by those breaking pitches, when you’re expecting the bottom to fall out and it just doesn’t. Look how disappointed Jon Singleton is that he let what is generally a hittable pitch go by. Look how Gomes can’t even hang on to it.

carrasco_fastball

At one point, Carrasco threw 22 of 23 pitches for strikes. His walk rate for the season is just 5.3%, down considerably from last year. That’s partially because he’s putting the ball where he wants to, and the strikeout-happy Astros last night certainly didn’t hurt, but it’s also because this is the plan. “Strikes thrown,” in a game, aren’t about where the ball is placed. It’s about the outcome. Carrasco gets strikes because he’s throwing ridiculous secondary pitches that hitters can’t lay off of, and because he’s throwing his fastball for strikes. The slider & change make the otherwise flat fastball more effective. The velocity on his fastball makes the other pitches more effective. This is how it’s supposed to work.

For Cleveland, this is what they’d hoped they’d get from Carrasco. They just didn’t think it would take more than five years to happen, just another reminder that we have been completely and unendingly spoiled by the immediate splashes young stars like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Jose Fernandez and others have made. It doesn’t usually work like that. Patience, sometimes, is required.

Really, though, all Carrasco has done is give himself yet another chance. There’s absolutely no guarantee that he doesn’t come back next season and turn back into the pumpkin he was. If not, though, maybe Cleveland has something here. He’s not even 28 until March, Kluber is arguably the best pitcher in the American League and isn’t 29 until April. Trevor Bauer is still just 23, and looks like he’s found his way this year. Danny Salazar’s year has been an enormous disappointment, yet he’s not 25 until March, remains immensely talented, and has been giving reasons for hope. Even the lightly-regarded T.J. House, 25 later this month, has shown that he could maybe be a decent back-end starter.

That’s a young rotation with a lot of talent. Not all of them will work out, because they never do. But at least for Carrasco, years after being traded for Lee, he’s finally put something impressive together. Something, perhaps, extremely impressive.

We hoped you liked reading Carlos Carrasco Brings A Bullpen Ace To The Rotation by Mike Petriello!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

newest oldest most voted
tz
Guest
tz

That “split-change” sure looks like an old-fashioned forkball. And a pretty good one at that.