The 2017 campaign has not started off in sterling fashion for Carlos Carrasco. The Cleveland Indians right-hander and shadow ace had an elbow issue of some sort in Arizona. While he’s probably going to make the rotation to open the season according to Mickey Callaway, this isn't great news for a guy who's had the injury bug loom over him the last few years. Each one has been a very fluky, odd injury that with no connection o any other, but it’s still troubling because that’s how baseball sports go.
Guys that get injured just seem to keep getting injured. It’s why we’re still worried about Michael Brantley. Last year was supposed to be Carrasco’s year, but a pair of unfortunate incidents waylaid that. Perhaps it's too bullish to expect, but 2017 should finally be the year that Carrasco puts it together and maintains those stunning glimmers we've seen so many times.
Like I said before, it's not starting out as good as it could be. Any time the elbow becomes a focus of the medical staff, you have worry. But it's not the shoulder. Any whisper of problems there is effectively the first death knell. The Indians don't seem to be overly worried, so there's no reason for outsiders to be. He’s slated to start game two, after all. It's not like they've been overly opaque in reporting past injuries and recovery times, particularly ones related to arms.
But as to why he's likely to finally actually put it all together, one has to merely look back to last year to understand why that's possible. Before he hurt his hamstring in late April last year, he was already looking incredible. After a rocky first start (five innings, four earned runs and three homers against the Boston Red Sox) he followed up with 17 innings of two-run ball, and if anyone remembers that day he got hurt against Detroit, it was obvious he was off to his best start yet. Apocryphal? Maybe, but there's a reason it was so distressing beyond just losing a good pitcher. So this year is like a second chance for Carrasco.
Last year, Carrasco's second full season as a starter, saw him experience a bump in line drive rate (up one point to 20 percent), hard hit ball rate (36.7 percent, up nine points from 2016) and his highest home run to fly ball rate (16.4 percent) in his career as a starter. Those are three trends that are not wanted for any pitcher. if you look at it first half to second half though, something starts to become clear.
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Something happened in the second half of the season that saw Carrasco become more hittable than he had been to open the year, and the ball kept going in the air. It didn’t leave the park, but the ball did more damage. The first culprit we want to blame is obviously just the long season. Pitchers get tired, and they lose velocity or just become increasingly hittable. The table below tells the exact opposite of this story, though — Carrasco was throwing hard as ever in September.
But pitching isn't just speed. It's important, but it's not everything. One of the aspects of Carrasco that makes him so excellent is his variety of pitches. He doesn't have the best of any one pitch on the staff, but he probably has the best mix of very good pitches. Whether his fastball, chance, slider, sinker, his ability to keep batters off balance is a mighty positive. Here's his pitch usage throughout 2016:
For whatever reason, Carrasco became much less multifaceted in August, and it only got worse in September. Then he got hurt again so we don't know how that would have worked out in the playoffs, but that's just pointless wondering.
The reason this is heartening, if at all, is that one must hope that he saw this, and will start to lean back the other way. In fact, if anything his elbow twinge could be a blessing in strength. No pitch stresses the elbow more than the slider, and if a pitcher is trying to not aggravate an issue it stands to reason that he'd back away from throwing that pitch for a bit. That means more sinkers, change ups (his best pitch) and maybe he learned a curve, who knows. Corey Kluber leapt to the elite by having versatility and variability in his pitch selection. Carrasco has shown flashes of that. He just got pulled back to poor tendancies late last year, and needs to adjust back.
Another issue though, he left the ball up in the zone in the second half. Check this out.
This is a problem for obvious reasons. Fastballs in the middle of the zone get crushed. Sliders that aren’t down just kind of spin. Non-sinking sinkers are meatballs. Carrasco wasn’t putting the ball where he wanted to, and it led to dreadful outings.
This was on display in most obviously early August. The worst start of the season came against the Minnesota Twins in a game that made many of his batted ball rates, not to mention ERA, take a leap.
On August 2, Carrasco took the mound and less than four innings later he'd allowed eight runs on nine hits. It was hideous; his worst outing of the year. For whatever reason, the Twins squared him up hard. Nine of the 20 balls put in play (or hit for homers) were line drives, along with several deep fly balls that included one Max Kepler home run. He simply wasn't getting any ground balls, which any Indians pitcher must do to succeed. He did mix it up pretty well that day, throwing 60 fastballs along with 11 change ups, 12 curves and five sliders. Looking back to his pitch usage table, this looks pretty close to that inflection point where he started throwing way more fastballs. Perhaps that day he just lost faith in those other offerings, and decided to rely on the basic fastball/slider combo. His other worst start, September 12 against the Chicago White Sox, the only hits came off sliders and four-seamers, while he had success with the sinker and curve. So maybe it was a feel, even if that feel was wrong. He's coming into a new season. Hopefully he understands what works for him, even if it's not comfortable.
Eventually it has to work out for Carrasco, right? It's not like he has the same problem all the time. He just keeps having his learning get stunted by missing a few games here or there. If he can stay healthy, and that shouldn’t be as big of an 'if' as some might suggest, he will be fearsome. He's potentially such a complete pitcher, has only occasional fits of minor madness when he can't help but throw over to first, and he's already shown us all so much. This is going to be the year though. Everything is lining up. He's seen what doesn't work. Time to do what does, every time out.