Will the real Carrasco please stand up?

CarrascoYellWhat are we to believe when we look at Carlos Carrasco’s 2014 season? Or, for that matter, what should be believe when we try to examine the trends established throughout the course of his rocky career path with Cleveland?

Should we toss his pre-August career numbers as a starter out the window? Maybe we shouldn’t be putting too much stock in two-months worth of a sample, which includes just 10 starts (albeit, they were really, really good starts) from Aug. 10 through the end of last season.

Here’s what we know right now: Carrasco headed into this offseason with his head held higher than it has been at any point in his career and he projects as the Tribe’s No. 2 starter for ’15. He and the Indians both felt that the pitcher finally turned a corner and figured it out. All those years of faith shown by the team, trial-and-error by the pitcher, and all those drastic highs and lows, it all finally — finally — paid off.

The Indians kept trusting that Carrasco would put it all together.

“Now I trust myself, too,” said the pitcher, following his final start of 2014.

There you have it. Are you sold?

Many prognosticators are indeed sold, at least when it comes to projecting how good the Indians’ rotation can be in 2015. Obviously, it helps to have breakout start and American League Cy Young-winner Corey Kluber leading the charge. Then comes Carrasco, followed by veteran Gavin Floyd, and a young, promising, developing trio in Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar and T.J. House.

As we sit here today, Fangraphs.com believes Cleveland’s rotation has the potential to be the fourth-best group in all of the Major Leagues (second in the American League). Only the Nationals (now with Mad Max Scherzer), Dodgers and Mariners rate higher under the projections used on the site. Click here for a look at how Fangraphs breaks down baseball’s rotation depth charts.

Projecting a player’s statistics is hardly an exact science, and it’s even more difficult to do when looking closely at a player such as Carrasco.

Remember, prior to his surge through August and September, when Carrasco posted the second-best ERA (1.70) in the Majors among pitchers with t least 60 innings, the right-hander had a considerable drought on the mound. Now, I’m not an advocate of pitcher wins as an evaluation tool, but it can lead you in a direction. This is why it’s worth noting that Carrasco had precisely zero wins in 17 straight starts in a stretch from 2011-14. That was tied for the longest such winless streak in franchise history. In that span, Carrasco went 0-12 with an 8.09 ERA.

That’s your No. 2 starter, folks.

Now, this is where we note that Carrasco posted a pristine 1.30 ERA over his final 10 starts of the season. In that awesome stretch of outings, the righty struck out 78, gave up 45 hits and walked 11 in 69 innings. Across August and September, Kluber and Carrasco were arguably the best one-two punch in baseball.

Now, that’s a No.2 starter, folks.

Herein lies the rub, though. What should we expect from Carrasco in 2015? Is there any way to even try to project his numbers, considering the polarizing nature of his career as a starting pitcher? Well, we can at least try, and I’ve done so by combining some elements of his career (10 starts based off career averages), his pre-2014 performances (top five and worst five starts based on Game Score, prior to ’14) and his stellar late-season run last fall (10 starts).

That’s a 30-start sample in which two-thirds is influenced by his 2014 to some degree. I felt that was important, because much of Carrasco’s success in the bullpen (late April through early August) and in the rotation over the final two months was due to a shift in pitching style on the mound.

“His mentality, I think, was the biggest difference,” Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said this week. “We’ve seen Carlos throughout his time as a pitcher, he’s always had very good stuff. He took the time in the bullpen and really focused on his mind-set and how he wanted to attack hitters. He was very aggressive from almost Day 1, really, out of the bullpen. And then when he had the opportunity to start again, he maintained that same aggressive mind-set and attacked hitters. He was able to obviously be very, very successful with that type of approach.”

Not only did Carrasco adopt a more aggressive mentality, he pitched out of the stretch exclusively and altered the manner in which he featured his pitches.

Based on my basic formula, Carrasco’s projection included: 3.61 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 2.5 BB/9, 8.1 K/9, 182 innings, 176 hits, 50 walks, 163 strikeouts. I did this prior to checking out what the Steamer projection on Fangraphs included. That projection system spit this out for 28 starts: 3.58 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 2.6 BB/9, 8.6 K/9, 163 innings, 150 hits, 47 walks, 155 strikeouts.

Going off what I came up with, I identified eight pitchers over the past five seasons who registered between 180-190 innings with an ERA in the 3.50-3.70 range. That list includes Zack Wheeler (2014), Tim Hudson (2014), Jarred Cosart (2014), Wei-Yen Chen (2014), John Lackey (2013), Paul Maholm (2012), John Lannan (2011) and Johnny Cueto (2010). Combined, that group comes with a 106 ERA+ for those particular seasons. That means, on average, they performed at a level six-percent higher than league average.

Going off the Steamer projection, Carrasco is pegged at 2.7 fWAR. Two pitchers who registered a 2.7 fWAR in 2014 were Alex Cobb and Yordano Ventura. Whether looking at the names I came up with from the past five years, or the ones who turned in that same fWAR last season, it’s a solid group.

On the whole, Carrasco had a 2.55 ERA and 146 ERA+ last season in 40 games (14 starts) and 134 innings. That is one season’s body of work, but it still comes with the SAMPLE SIZE! warning. The most starts that Carrasco has logged in any one season is 21 in 2011, and he finished with an 85 ERA+ while dealing with elbow issues that eventually necessitated Tommy John surgery.

Also, Carrasco was not the same style of pitcher back in 2011. Not only has the right-hander changed the use of his pitches since ’11, he did so within the confines of ’14. In the graph on the right — courtesy of brooksbaseball.net, which was also the source for the following percentages (all rounded) — you can see how Carrasco’s pitch usage changed throughout the ’14 campaign.

CarrascoGraphCarrasco’s use of his four-seamer has climbed from 36 percent in 2010 to 51 percent in ’14 (though down from 56 percent in ’13). His two-seamer percentage has steadily declined (22 (’10), 14 (’11), 6 (’13), 5 (’14)) since 2010. The same is true of his curveball (18-12-10-9). And his slider? He used it only three-percent of the time in 2010, but featured the pitch 22-percent of the time last season. His changeup was used 13 percent of the time last season — also down from previous levels in his career (between 18-21 percent from 2010-13).

Last season alone, Carrasco used his slider 13-percent of the time in April, but increased the usage to 29 percent in September. He used the curve 17-percent of the time in April and stuffed it into his back pocket (six percent) by September. Along the way, Carrasco slightly increased the use of his sinker (two percent in April, 10 percent in August and seven percent in September) and steadily decreased his four-seamer use (61 percent in July, 51 percent in August and 41 percent in September).

Those changes over the final two months last season are why I think it’s best to put more stock in Carrasco’s 2014 production when trying to assess what his 2015 could look like for Cleveland. I don’t think we can just dismiss the ups and downs of his previous stints as a starter, but those pre-August-2014 outings came with a difference in mound mentality and pitch usage.

With that in mind, it’s entirely possible that Carrasco surpasses the preseason projections attached to his name, because every formula will be influenced by his pre-2014 statistics. I think the reality is that we don’t really know for sure what the Indians have in Carrasco, but it could be something special. All Cleveland can hope for right now is that his final 10 starts were more of an indicator and less of a fluke.

–JB

3 Comments

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