On my non-Let's Go Tribe affiliated podcast, I had to select an all-time rotation in a segment we were doing to fill time, the biggest role of any podcast. While my co-host and I mostly selected the usual names — Maddux, the two Johnsons, Gibson, Pedro, and what have you — my last section was, of course, Carlos Carrasco.
No, in case you thought for a second otherwise, he is not the best pitcher ever, or the fifth or tenth. He's not even the best pitcher on the Cleveland Indians. On a per-pitch basis he's probably, like, third. Doesn't matter. he's my favorite pitcher to see work. Maybe it’s the pitch mix, maybe the classic 12-6 curve, or just those times he’s utterly unhittable, I’m not sure. The Indians Twitter celebrates Kluber Day, but my Carrasco Celebrations are a once-every-five-day barnburner. It does get expensive, but it's worth it. And in 2017, those celebrations were the best yet.
Carrasco had the best year of his career in 2017, no two ways about it. For what seems like a decade, but is more likely just half that, we've been promised and shown glimmers and glimpses of the 1-A starter, the second ace that Carrasco could be. Whether through lack of maturity, injury or just bad luck, his ascendance to his destiny has been waylayed time and again. But he outran all of it. Finally, Carrasco was healthy, effective, and downright dominant, and it was a pleasure to behold.
What went so right for Carrasco in 2017? For starters, health. He made 32 starts, dotting the “i” on 200 innings for the first time in his career and boasted a 28.5 percent strikeout rate that was topped only by his 2015 breakout. And that had the bonus of his being a reliever for half the year. He also walked 5.8 percent of batters, 10th best among qualified starters, and somehow logged his lowest HR/FB ratio since 2014 in perhaps the most home run-happy era in baseball history. He was very good in every way you want to measure a pitcher. Why? How?
I'm going to compare Carrasco's 2017, his best ever, to his 2016, which was a very good season, but fell short of expectrations in many ways. The injuries didn't help, missing the playoffs didn't help, but after talk around baseball that he was a dark horse Cy Young candidate, his putting up an only very good 3.72 FIP, a 3.32 ERA that was bare points above his 2017 number, and an actually better DRA at 3.14 compared to 3.36 this year. Only striking out 25 percent of batters last year didn't help either. Again, it was a great season, but perception was built on a dazzling 2015, too.
Anyway, Carrasco took a leap forward as a pitcher in 2017, and it didn’t take some mega change. He didn't add or subtract from his repertoire, but he took another step away from being a thrower:
He demonstrated a comfort wiht pretty much all his pitches, and it made him very dangerous. More than that, he refined his mechanics, bringing his release to a much more focused point than even a year ago:
By refining his release point, Carrasco has more control, and is able to locate the ball down in a harder to hit location more:
Al this means that he can get hitters more off-balance and throw hard to hit pitches without risking getting into hitters counts. In fact, he pounded the zone more than ever, but was more unhittable than ever:
Carrasco Batted Ball Data
When a guy can pound the zone, drop his contact rate, and get more strikes looking than ever before (or at least more than he did the last year he was a full-time starter) he's doing something very right.
As with the team as a whole though, it wouldn't be a successful season for Carrasco without a strong showing in the playoffs. The team as a whole did not do that, but it was no fault of the pitcher. In his first career playoff appearance, Carrasco too the mound at Yankee Stadium and was, if not great, at least everything you could hope for. He got two outs in the sixth, struck out seven, and handed Andrew Miller a zero on the scoreboard. Then everything went wrong, but that wasn't Carrasco's fault. These things happen. He made Indians fans wonder why the hell he didn't get the Game 2 start, or barring that, the Game 1 start. What could have been though, huh?
Carrasco's 2017 sets the scene for a truly stupendous 2018. He grew and got better throughout the year in every respect:
Carrasco 2017 splits
Something clicked, specifically finding his slider. He started throwing it more, by September throwing it 25.8 percent of the time, more than any other pitch. He allowed seven runs in six starts in September and other than an egg he laid against the Kansas City Royals in early August(1.2 innings, 6 earned runs), he lasted at least six innings in every start but one. Every start seemed to be better than the last. He's created an expectation again, and if he "merely" pitches next season like he did this year, it would be great, just a smidge disappointing. We always root for growth and improvement, and he's shown that this year. It was fulfilling. A winter of study, rest, working out and getting better and we may see a new kind of beast in 2018. Carrasco is an easy pitcher to root for, it's satisfying to see him become truly great. Hopefully 2017 was just the beginning.