There are a million reasons to be excited about the Cleveland Indians as 2017 approaches. They're defending a league crown, just bought a neat new bat, and have precisely one Francisco Lindor. They also have perhaps the best pitching rotation in the American League. More specifically, they have at least two Cy Young Award contenders. The front man is Corey Kluber, just off a third-place finish in that award voting and already holding another. The other is Carlos Carrasco. For a short time, he looked to take the crown of Most Underrated Pitcher from Jose Quintana, but a handful of writers decided to label him as the Dark Horse for 2016. It didn't work out, but I wonder if we haven't yet seen the best of Carlos Carrasco.
Between pulling his hamstring early in the year, the established greatness of Kluber when Carrasco finally broke out broke out, and Danny Salazar's hot start to 2016, Carrasco just never had a chance to fully showcase himself last year. It's a little amazing that despite his being with the Tribe since 2009, we've only seen him make 30 starts once. The number of circumstances and bad luck and being a headcase that have gotten in his way are enough for a career, though, and he must be itching to fully demonstrate his dominance in a campaign. So as much as we have numbers to judge him from (134 ERA+, 3.00 FIP and 9.8 K/9 the last three years), his vacillating from bullpen to starter, from injured to healthy, we have a snapshot that doesn't tell the whole story of what might be.
What might be is, as stated, dominance. Carrasco's arsenal might be the best on the entire staff from top to bottom. Kluber may have the curve, Salazar the split-change and fastball, but everything Carrasco throws is great. Of pitchers who threw more than 140 innings last year, Carrasco's curve, two-seamer, change and slider all rated in the top 30. His curve was sixth in all of baseball, ahead of even Clayton Kershaw. This in addition to sitting 95 with his four-seam and 94 with his two-seamer. Particularly when he's commanding his two-seamer he can be truly great, as he can take advantage of the Lindor Effect. But his growing use of the curve, from 13% two years to 16 % last year, this means he's taking advantage of hitters. Remember the playoffs, and how the Indians curved their way through the Blue Jays and nearly the Cubs. Modern hitters hate the curve, because nobody throws it. They aren't used to it, and it takes such practice that only the best can truly dominate with one. Carrasco throws one of the five or six best in baseball. This signals toward greatness.
Beyond all this supposition and near-groundless hope for the best though, is the fact that Carrasco is going to be 29 this season. He already is, but it just happened in September. Every aging curve and expectation of an athlete’s performance circles the 28 to 29 age seasons as that apex, that time when physical ability and veteran wiles meet to create a perfect storm of excellence. His last season was cut short but even then we were starting to see glimpses. He had a 2.45 ERA when he got hurt in April, and was in the process of obliterating the Tigers. Once he returned and rounded back into form, he had a 1.86 ERA over 58 innings from mid-June to the end of July. Then he got jumped by the Twins, but that’s the Twins’ way. He sputtered down the stretch a bit, a 3.71 ERA from August 13th till he got hurt in mid-September, but despite that he was getting boatloads of strikeouts. He had 56 K’s from August 7th to September 13th, a period of 40 innings. If he could string these stretches together, that’s worldbeating level of excellence. He's a grown man now, yet can still hump it up to 98 on a warm day. He should have easy pickings of most lineups
A pitcher of Carrasco’s ilk is only held back by happenstance. One would hope all hist happenstance is out of the way after the last couple seasons. He’s reshaped himself into a perfect compliment to Kluber. Fangraphs projections suggest a 193 inning season out of him, worth 4.4 WAR. I think he could go more. Avoiding freak injuries and silly steps on bases takes luck more than anything, and it’s probably about time Carrasco had that Good Luck season and topped 200 innings with 5 or 6 WAR. He’s already developed a strong ground ball game (50.8% for his career) to help tamp down that BABIP, and if he really tightens up that curve and change up, Lindor and Kipnis will have a lot of work to do out there. If he has a healthy 2017, all those claims of dark horses and dominance should have every chance to come true.