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Carlos Carrasco’s season makes no sense

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The Indians hurler has been amazing and hideously bad. What’s the deal?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Carlos Carrasco’s season is not going quite as well as many would hope. He’s long been a fun choice for a Cy Young, and he’s been the second best pitcher behind Corey Kluber for the Tribe since about 2015. Not this year though. He’s been as good as he’s been bad, depending on the day. I feel like I’ve mentally drafted a “What’s wrong with Carrasco?” piece at least two or three times. Each time I’m about to put finger to key though, he comes out and throws some kind of double digit strikeout start that utterly ruins the whole conceit of the piece. It doesn’t eradicate the bad times, but it muddles the message. He’s still a solid pitcher. But there’s been a curious bipolarity to Carrasco’s season.

Carrasco has started 13 games this year for the Indians. Ranked by Game Score, he has thrown the fourth, fifth and sixth best games of the year for the Tribe. If you trim out games where the starter didn’t make the fourth inning, he’s also thrown five of the six worst. Which only eliminates Josh Tomlin’s first, and worst, start of the season. And we’re all better off not thinking about that, aren’t we. So fully nine of Carrasco’s 13 starts have been on one end of the spectrum or the other. This harsh oscillating has resulted in a perfectly average 99 ERA-, right in the middle of the road. It’s perhaps the most exhausting kind of pitcher to watch, a total trick-or-treat start every time out.

His advanced stats to suggest he’s doing better than that. His FIP sits at 3.63, 20 points above his career rate but still a decent 35th among qualified starters. . Both his 24.4 percent strikeout rate and 5.9 percent walk rate are a smidge better than his career averages. The only real trying thing in his rates are a career high 35.9 percent fly ball rate and a career low 41.6 percent grounder rate. That, and the career high in Hard Hit Rate – 37% - make one wonder if he’s doing anything differently this year. At least, sometimes. I looked at his raw pitch counts for his stinkers and his gems, giving me this:

Carrasco’s pitch mix in bad and good starts

Game Four-Seam Sinker Change Slider Curve
Game Four-Seam Sinker Change Slider Curve
Stinker 31.3 12.8 12.6 33.7 9.4
Gem 34.9 18.4 12.3 25.5 9.0

That’s five total games for the bad ones, but only two for his best games. He had three in the Indians’ top 10, but one was in Puerto Rico, where they don’t have pitch tracking technology in the park so we don’t know what he threw that day. So the sample isn’t quite as strong, but there’s a considerable difference in the two slates of games.

The real question though, what kind of chicken/egg situation are we looking at here? Does he throw more sliders in his bad games htan good ones because he’s just searching for something that works and his sinker isn’t biting? Does the sinker use rise on days he’s getting a lot of success with this four-seam? Perhaps at the end of the day, it really is about that “pitching off the fastball” that old baseball men say until it’s lost all meaning.

Of course, there’s also this:

Carlos Carrasco’s recent games

Date Opponent GameScore Team wRC+ League Rank
Date Opponent GameScore Team wRC+ League Rank
Stinkers -- -- -- --
6/1/2018 Twins 22 95 15th
5/3/2018 Blue Jays 30 91 22nd
4/28/2018 Mariners 34 105 8th
3/31/2018 Mariners 39 105 8th
5/26/2018 Astros 41 108 4th
Gems -- -- -- --
5/9/2018 Brewers 82 93 18th
4/11/2018 Detroit 81 93 17th
4/18/2018 Twins 77 95 15th

Yes, three of his five terrible games were against top 10 offenses. The clunker against the Blue Jays is a little head-scratching, but they have a few good hitters still. So he struggles a bit against good hitters? That feels like whatever the opposite of a breakthrough is. And as good as he was against everyone last season, it feels a little empty.

One big difference to his general approach this season is his slider usage compared to previous seasons. In the offseason I wrote about how he should throw it way more in effort to become more lethal. He evidently listened because he’s throwing it 30.5 percent of the time, more than ever in his career. Between that and his four-seam, he’s throwing one of two pitches more than 60 percent of the time. His best attribute, the one that separates him from Bauer and even Kluber to a degree, has in the past been a Jack of All Trades type of pitch mix. He probably has the second best of each type of pitch on the team, or has in the past. By throwing a lot of different things he’s been able to keep hitters way more off balance. Thi year, throwing either a fastball or slider nearly two thirds of the time (and then his sinker another 13.3 percent of the time) he’s living in a very narrow velocity window compared to when he threw his high 70’s curve and low 80’s change nearly as much as the slider and sinker.

The moral of the story? Don’t ever listen to me. Or perhaps “be yourself”, in this case be the guy who can throw anything for a strike and a strikeout at any time. Not everyone has to be Kluber or Bauer, dropping hideous breaking balls that make people look the fool. Carrasco living in a world of deception is a nice change of pace with what his teammates do. If things even out a return to form could be hoped for. Or he can use that crazy super-speed camera Bauer did to steal pitches from other stars. Either is fine. But whatever he does, some of those stinkers need to fade into the wind.