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August 16, 2007
After a 2006 season in which Chien-Ming Wang was declared to be a unique hurler with outcomes only reproducible by Wang himself, we seem to have possibly found another edition, a pitcher just as capable of succeeding in the face of sabermetrically-orthodox expectations. That's because the Indians have stuck Fausto Carmona into their rotation with similar results. Other than Carmona's extra few punch-outs, the two do almost the same things to succeed. Is this enough for Fausto to survive round two in the majors as a big-league starter in 2008?
Fausto Carmona was signed as an undrafted free agent in December of 2000 out of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, but he wouldn't make his Stateside professional debut until 2002, when he turned 18 years old. Carmona would pitch all but four innings of his season for Rookie League Burlington before earning a promotion to the New York-Penn League, but in 11 starts he already displayed some of the tendencies in his peripheral stats that would help make him the pitcher he is today:
Carmona did not strike out many batters during his early days in the minors, but he was still as stingy as they come with free passes, which sometimes helps to negate a high hit rate. Thanks to the sink in his heavy fastball, home runs are not usually an issue either. Granted, it's tough to get excited about a pitcher who doesn't strike guys out at the lower levels, and many pitchers who depend on grounders for their outs end up as liabilities in the minors, that despite the multiple success stories in the majors nowadays. This is why it's no surprise that Carmona did not show up on anyone's radar initially.
In 2003, Carmona would make 24 starts for Single-A Lake City in the Sally League, and then one start for Double-A Akron:
Even after adjusting his ERA for the 12 unearned runs he allowed--more than a few the likely products of misplaced grounders--Carmona still comes in under three runs allowed per nine because of some nifty peripherals. The five strikeouts per nine isn't so unimpressive, but you have to love a guy who walks fewer than one batter per nine while keeping the long ball out of the equation. The Indians were interested in seeing what he could do, so they threw him up to Double-A for one start; Carmona went six innings, giving up a homer and three runs while striking out three and walking nobody. Overall, his 2003 is very impressive for a 19-year-old in just his second year of pro ball.
Fausto jumped from nonexistent on Baseball America's organizational prospect list all the way up to #3, shooting ahead of multiple pitchers in the process:
Nobody in the organization made more dramatic progress in 2003 than Carmona, who emerged as a breakout candidate last spring…The Indians could have promoted him but wanted to ease his transition to the United States as a teenager. Carmona threw a higher percentage of strikes than any pitcher in the organization last year. He has uncanny control of his 92-95 mph fastball, which he drives downhill in the zone, making it difficult for hitters to lift the ball. His athleticism allows him to repeat his delivery efficiently. His changeup is an advanced pitch. Carmona needs to further develop his his slider, which will dictate how quickly he moves. He pitches to contact by design, but has good enough control to pitch out of the zone more often and draw more swings and misses. Carmona profiles as at least a quality No. 3 starter.
There's a lot to like in that paragraph, especially with the benefit of hindsight at our disposal. Baseball America was quick to recognize just what Carmona was good at, and why he was good at it, and their prediction is pretty spot on as well. Baseball Prospectus 2004 also recognized Fausto's abilities, and even had a suggestion for who should play defense behind him for dual-benefit purposes:
The minor league leader in wins with 17, Carmona put himself on the map as the Sally League's best control pitcher. Beyond the great command, he's got a high-velocity sinker and some decent breaking stuff that combines to force plenty of grounders, and he knows how and when to mix in a changeup. With his youth, the Indians are being sensibly cautious; it might make sense to pair him with Ivan Ochoa at Kinston, so that he works with a plus shortstop while also learning how to finish hitters.
Both scout and spreadsheet thought Carmona could be a solid starter given the proper development time. PECOTA projected Carmona for a PERA of 4.18 in the majors as of 2004, and that's despite also forecasting 3.6 strikeouts per nine. Quite simply, his control and ability to avoid walks was that good in Low-A work.
Carmona would split 2004 between High-A Kinston and Double-A Akron, with a single start at Triple-A Buffalo thrown in:
Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA 2004 Kinston(A+) 70.0 7.3 2.6 2.9 0.8 8.6 3.60 2004 Akron(AA) 87.0 6.5 2.2 3.0 0.3 11.8 5.38
The stint at Kinston went very well, with improved strikeout numbers to help offset the increase in walks. Akron was a different story though; although his homers and walks dipped, his hit rate skyrocketed. Given Carmona's tendency to keep it on the ground coupled with the fact that he allowed just three homers, you have to think his .397 BABIP that led to his high Run Average is more the defense's fault than his own.
Baseball America was still excited about Carmona, but again mentioned he would need to fix his slider to compete at higher levels:
Carmona pounds the ball down in the zone with good command of a heavy 90-95 mph sinker. He upgraded his deceptive changeup into a plus pitch with improved late action in 2004…While he induces a lot of groundballs, his strikeout totals won't increase until he tightens his slider. It's a slurvy breaking ball and hasn't been an effective third option for him. After coddling him early in his career, the Indians were more aggressive in 2004. That won't stop in 2005, as they plan on assigning him to Triple-A.
PECOTA wasn't nearly as optimistic following Carmona's problems with hittability at Double-A, forecasting a PERA of 5.12 and a VORP of just 5.6 in 66 1/3 innings in the majors. Even so, Fausto split his season between Double-A and Triple-A as a 21-year-old:
Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 QERA 2005 Akron(AA) 90.2 5.7 2.0 2.9 0.7 10.0 4.05 2005 Buffalo(AAA) 83.0 5.3 1.6 3.3 1.1 8.2 4.03
That hit rate at Akron is really high for someone you want to project toward the major leagues, but Carmona's QuikERA (QERA) lets you know that his peripherals were all headed in the right direction for success. He remained stingy with walks despite facing more advanced hitters, and although the total homers were higher than you would like once he was throwing at the Triple-A level, you have to remember his youth relative to the competition, and that there was no one on base.
One thing to note about groundball pitchers in the minor leagues is that most of the defensive support they're going to get is, in a word, bad. When scouts discuss the defensive abilities of a player, they're talking about what he will be capable of when all is said and done, and whether his instincts match up with his athleticism. Obviously there are defenders in the minors who are already excellent at what they do, but overall the fielding is poor. This makes life tougher for pitchers with stuff that requires a solid defense behind them--someone exactly like Carmona--and that helps explain why his hit rates were so sky high, yet everyone was raving about how his heavy sinker and how great he was going to be. It's one of the few areas where aggressive promotions may end up making a pitcher like Carmona appear to be a better pitcher than they were at the lower levels, simply because the balls in play are going to be properly fielded as he rises to levels stocked with better-fielding teammates. You have to wonder who gets lost in the shuffle along the way because the defense behind Joe Grounder can't keep a ball in the infield.
Baseball Prospectus 2006 really liked Carmona's work in the higher levels of the minors, and PECOTA forecasted Carmona to be a capable back-of-the-rotation guy were he to throw 160 2/3 innings in the majors:
Carmona is a classic sinker/slider groundball pitcher with fantastic control (1.6 BB/9 in 565 1/3 minor league innings to go with a 3.5 K/BB ratio and a 1.6 groundball/flyball ratio). He only got better after a late-June promotion to Triple-A as his velocity continued to increase, though there were some concerns about the continued downward trend in his strikeout rate. Like Andrew Brown, Carmona has yet to make his big league debut, despite twice being called up to the big club. The Indians are hoping he'll do that by earning a spot in the rotation this spring.
Baseball America also expected big things from Fausto, saying, "Carmona has the necessary pitches to become a frontline starter, but he still has plenty of development remaining before he's ready." That comment proved to prescient. On the surface, his 2006 and 2007 seasons look as different as night and day, but the difference would really just be in his hit rates:
Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 QERA 2006 Buffalo(AAA) 27.2 9.1 2.6 3.5 0.7 9.3 3.33 2006 Cleveland(MLB) 74.2 7.0 3.7 1.9 1.1 10.7 4.28 2007 Cleveland(MLB) 159.2 5.6 2.5 2.2 0.7 8.6 4.07
When Carmona strikes out more hitters, he seems to issue more walks; the small sample from Buffalo in 2006 the exception. He's better off letting his stuff do the work for him, rather than trying to overpower hitters at the plate. Despite a QERA that's saying that Carmona was basically the same pitcher in 2006 and 2007, his hit rates in 2006 screwed up his ERA; despite a 0.21 difference in QERA, his ERAs are 2.26 runs apart. PECOTA deserves a pat on the back for this one, as it forecasted an ERA of 4.08--just under his current QERA--for Carmona over 105 innings in 2007.
Granted, Carmona has been somewhat lucky this year with so many of his grounders getting scooped up by the defense and turned into outs. He has also managed to strand over 77 percent of the baserunners he does let reach base. Looking at this chart shows you the distribution of his batted balls (from First Inning):
The opposition is hitting just .196 on balls hit to the right side; that helps account for some of the difference between his QERA and his 3.16 ERA that has him in contention for the Cy Young award in the AL, along with his 14-7 record and placement on a potential playoff club. What I find interesting about Carmona are his similarities to the aforementioned Wang, especially when you hear about how unique the two are. Carmona throws harder than Wang, and goes up and in or up and away more often, which helps to account for some of the additional strikeouts, but besides those distinctions, they're basically the same pitcher. Take a look at a few charts and tables to see what I mean. These first two are taken from ESPN.com:
Carmona is on the left, Wang on the right. Both of them work heavily inside and low to hitters, although Carmona works on the outside part of the plate more often, as I mentioned. They also rely on similar pitches-a heavy sinker (with Carmona winning the velocity battle), a slider to mix it up, and a changeup used primarily against left-handed batters. This information also courtesy of ESPN.com:
Fausto Carmona Pitch Type All Early 2-Strikes Ahead Behind vsRHB vsLHB Fastball 79% 79% 71% 64% 89% 75% 83% Slider 14% 13% 22% 27% 6% 24% 4% Changeup 6% 6% 6% 8% 4% 1% 11% Chien-Ming Wang Pitch Type All Early 2-Strikes Ahead Behind vsRHB vsLHB Fastball 77% 77% 66% 65% 89% 74% 80% Slider 15% 14% 22% 22% 6% 24% 3% Changeup 8% 8% 12% 12% 6% 2% 16%
Except for their first pitch--Wang trusts his slider and changeup more in that situation--the two have very similar profiles when it comes to pitch distribution, and we've already seen that the location and philosophy match up well. The results of these pitches are similar as well:
Carmona Year P/PA FB% LD% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Diff. 2006 3.7 27.1% 13.3% 59.6% 7.7% 13.8% .341 .253 -.088 2007 3.6 21.4% 13.8% 64.7% 5.6% 11.2% .286 .258 -.028 Wang Year P/PA FB% LD% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Diff. 2005 3.3 22.0% 14.1% 63.9% 9.3% 10.5% .270 .261 -.009 2006 3.4 20.3% 16.9% 62.8% 4.5% 7.8% .291 .289 -.002 2007 3.5 23.8% 18.0% 58.2% 7.8% 6.1% .298 .300 +.002
Wang gives up more line drives than Carmona, but that probably has to do with his use of his slider (16 percent) and change (seven percent) as a first pitch as compared to Fausto (seven percent sliders and four percent changeups, respectively). This also makes sense given Wang's slightly lower tally of pitches per plate appearance during his time in the majors.
Overall, you have two pitchers with slight differences in their repertoire and approach who generate similar results. Pitchers like this often don't get long enough looks in the minor leagues for various reasons: a lack of stuff outside of their sinker, numbers that make them out to look overly hittable, etc., but there are a few gems out there that will produce given the proper developmental track. Not every groundball pitcher needs to be Brandon Webb in order to succeed, but having less stuff than Felix Hernandez is fine when you know what you are doing with what you have on the mound.
We shouldn't be surprised by the success of this pitcher type, given how well others who have been in the majors for years now-Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt anyone?-have done as they became more efficient pitch-to-contact guys rather than the strikeout pitchers they came up as. I'm not about to anoint Justin Germano as the successor to Jake Peavy as staff ace in San Diego, but pitchers like this certainly fill the middle or back of a rotation better than some flamethrower who can't hit a target from 20 feet away. The fact that Carmona can hit 95 with pinpoint accuracy on his heavy sinker just adds to his appeal, especially with an improved Indians defense behind him for the bats he doesn't miss.