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Moving Carlos Carrasco to the bullpen in October isn’t as crazy as you might think

Despite the big move to bolster the bullpen, October demands creativity. The Indians have a tool to make it happen.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

With the Brad Hand deal, the Indians have dealt with their biggest weakness in 2018. Had he been in the fold just a week prior, that final series against the Yankees probably would have ended with the Tribe taking it it if not a clean sweep. The rotation is just that good, and the ‘pen was just that bad.

They’ve all but sealed the division now, so the mind turns even more firmly towards October, when the tactics and strategies of the regular season are totally tossed out. It demands creativity, and finding an X-factor to push you over the edge. Perhaps Hand is just that. Perhaps our own Chris Davies is right, that Shane Bieber will teach national audiences a new song come fall. Perhaps Mike Clevinger could to relief in October, being the junior member of the big 4 in the rotation and the one to most recently pitch from there consistently. But what about another man who made his rise to the rotation from the bullpen?

What about Carlos Carlos Carrasco?

As many remember, following his arm surgery and as he mounted his comeback, a struggling Carrasco was relegated to the bullpen in 2013. The difference in performance following the move was stark to say the least:

Carrasco as reliever vs. starter 2013

Role IP ERA K% BB% GB% HardHit%
Role IP ERA K% BB% GB% HardHit%
Starter 33 9.00 11.3 7.7 48.9 31.1
Reliever 13.2 1.32 22.0 10.0 55.9 23.5

The logical move after a development like this is, of course, try to get him to be the starter he was supposed to be. Everyone wants more good starters. So he made four starts in April of 2014 and was quite dreadful. He pitched 22 innings and posted a 6.95 ERA, hit a couple batters and walked 9.2 percent of the men he faced. The 23.2 percent strikeout rate was encouraging, but he was still in his own head. That last was the real problem, he seemed to struggle when things didn’t go to plan and was fighting mechanical changes. So back to the bullpen he went.

And suddenly, it all clicked. The man we now see each fifth day was born. The firm hand of Mickey Callaway succeeded in pushing Carrasco where he needed to go. He started exclusively pitching from the stretch, simplifying things, and living only for the batter he was facing at the moment. He became, in a word, great. In twenty-five appearances between April 30th and his next start on August 10th, Carrasco posted a 2.30 ERA over 43 innings, allowed 43 total baserunners with a 39/9 strikeout to walk ratio and hit just one batter. The emotions along with the pitches were in control. He pitched multiple innings 14 times, first as a mop-up guy but becoming a fireman for Terry Francona like relievers of old. He was good enough that he got back to the rotation and pitched excellently in August and September, where he’s stayed ever since. He’s earned it. But sometimes, necessity demands innovation.

So the Indians likely found their third head of the hydra in Hand this week. A role once filled by Bryan Shaw in years past,now it’s hand along with Andrew Miller and Cody Allen that can be the guys to end the game early. But there are question marks. Miller is still on the DL. Allen has been a shadow of his former self. What if one of them doesn’t improve back to where they once were? That’s where Carrasco steps in. It’s a role he could have found himself in permanently, but was too good, to limit to a mere 70 innings a year. His impact can be too great over the long season.

This year though, it feels like we’re merely waiting for the season to end. With the Central as bad as it is and the Indians as good as they are despite their bullpen woes, everything matters in October. That’s where Carrasco could make his mark, kind of like Tim Lincecum in 2012 for the Giants. That postseason, Lincecum threw 17.2 innings, allowing five runs. Four of those came in his Game 3 start in the NLCS, meaning over the 13 other innings he pitched, he allowed a run.

Carrasco at this point is much, much better than Lincecum in his career. Even with his merely middling campaign to this point. Perhaps he’s not as good as Miller circa October 2016 (19.2 innings, 30 strikeouts, 3 earned runs), but he could certainly be a dominant force, blazing out of the pen for two innings in three games rather than getting just one start, maybe two if the series stretches on. In 2014 he had two instances of back-to-back appearances, but pitched with only one day of rest between appearances six different times. It’s not as if he isn’t capable of a reliever’s schedule.

With Hand joining Allen as a true one inning guy in the bullpen, the idea of a pair of roving elite relievers in Miller and Carraco is simply exciting and a resource only a couple teams have, if that. The Rays have turned starting pitching on its head with Sergio Romo this year. The Tribe can go further. They have a host of elite pitching that can throw two or three innings at a time. It’s not often you have this level of uniquely talented and versatile pitching. And Miller can’t go every night anyway even with the stretched out schedule. Having that option would be like catnip to Terry Francona.

The main reason I thought of this was twofold. First, he pitched in relief last Sunday, striking out two in one inning’s work and it was the heart of the Yankees lineup. It reminded me of what he once was. Then on Tuesday, while watching the All-Star Game, I was reminded how hard these guys can throw if they can just air it out. Max Scherzer, already a high velocityguy, was sitting at 98 because he only had to pitch an inning or two. The first five pitchers, all starters, were hitting 98 or so on the gun with regularity. This is the talent level of these guys if they aren’t trying to throw 100 pitches and 200 innings. In 2014 when he went to the ‘pen, Carrasco saw his fastball velocity bump from 94.6 to 96.7 mph. That would be going from the 101st fastest four-seam in baseball among pitchers who have thrown at least 20 innings this year — so, relievers and starters — to 30th. That’s tickling elite, and we haven’t even touched on the rest of his incredible repertoire. It’s a level that other names mentioned in passing to revert to the ‘pen like Clevinger or Bieber have shown only sparingly, if at all. He would become, at least by sheer stuff, one of the elite relievers in baseball with this one simple move.

This probably isn’t the best idea. I do think it’s a good idea, though — he’s a great pitcher with bullpen history, and has shown he could pitch on back to back days even if it was four years ago. October is about posting zeroes as much as possible, not just eating innings. And unlike with Danny Salazar, he didn’t need an especially long warm-up period when he was a reliever. He could be available at a relative moment’s notice and rely on just a couple pitches, or just throw the whole repertoire at a guy and break the batter’s brain.

But perhaps resources are better allocated elsewhere. The Indians no longer need a bullpen arm. And after all, his start in the ALDS last year was probably the best of any Indians pitcher in that series, and I want to see that again. But abnormal situations call for novel ideas. Again, they need to post zeroes, not just find someone to start 30 games. He’s been alright this year as a starter, even if he hasn’t been as electric as in the past. Perhaps the bullpen could find some Cookie Magic once again.

It’s not the most conventional thought process, but it’s at least an idea to keep at least in the back pocket.