At the conclusion of a Herculean 10-start run (1.30 ERA with a 78-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 69 innings) over the final two months to close out last season, there was virtually no doubt that Carlos Carrasco was on the precipice of a monster fantasy campaign heading into the year.
If the stellar statistical results down the stretch weren’t enough reason for optimism, they coincided with legitimate adjustments (pitching exclusively out of the stretch, enabling him to consistently repeat his delivery) implemented by Cleveland pitching coach/wizard Mickey Calloway, which only bolstered the legitimacy of his breakout.
Even the industry “experts” bought in this past offseason. Carrasco went for $20 in Tout Wars (AL-only) and $17 in LABR (AL-only), making him one of the most expensive pitchers in both expert auctions. Unfortunately, no matter what your expectations were coming into the year, he’s been a major disappointment. Despite some flashes of brilliance, most notably his near no-hitter in Tampa Bay on July 1, this season hasn’t followed the widely anticipated narrative fantasy owners envisioned for Carrasco in the offseason.
It’s shouldn’t come as a surprise that investing in young pitchers who possess gaudy strikeout upside, but have struggled to realize their immense potential, is equivalent (at times) to shopping blindfolded in a liquor store. Sometimes you end up with a well-aged Max Scherzer, other times a watered-down case of Ricky Nolasco. Fantasy owners heavily invested in Carrasco, especially those in long-term dynasty leagues, must feel like they’re sipping a bottle of vintage Brandon Morrow right now (the taste is bitter and it leaves you feeling empty inside).
As his dismal 2015 campaign drags on, the burning question for Carrasco going forward isn’t if he can find a way to salvage his surface stats over the remainder of the season. It’s whether or not he can overcome some of the recent developments (including a concern voiced by Carrasco himself that he may be tipping his pitches somehow), which cast serious doubt on his ability to make the jump into elite tier of fantasy starters in the future. The talent is there, without question. However, as the results (statistically) continue to lag behind, it becomes harder to keep overlooking them without a valid explanation.
You Can’t Always Get What You Want (or Deserve)
In his last start, Carrasco served up six runs over four innings against the Chicago White Sox, marking the fifth time this season he has allowed five or more runs in a single outing. Through 20 starts, he owns a ghastly 4.26 ERA, which is nearly three full runs worse than mark he posted over the course of his dynamic run to close out last year.
Not only is his grossly inflated ERA well above the AL average (3.82) a season ago, it makes even less sense when you factor in that his strikeout rate (10.12 K/9) ranks eighth out of 92 qualified starters this season and his walk rate is nearly identical (1.98 BB/9) to the mark he posted a year ago during his breakout campaign.
According to Baseball Prospectus cutting edge pitching metric, Deserved Run Average (DRA), which measuring a pitcher’s actual responsibility for the runs that scored while he was on the mound, Carrasco has pitched much better than his ERA would indicate. His 3.75 DRA currently ranks 41st out of 93 qualified starters this season in addition to being half a run lower than his ERA.
Among qualified starters, who rank 50th or better in DRA this season, the only pitchers with wider gaps between their bloated ERA and their actual DRA are: Cole Hamels, Yovani Gallardo, Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Aaron Harang, Anibal Sanchez and Colby Lewis. Not only is it terrifying to find three Indians starters on this list, but also the common variable between the majority of these pitchers appears to be the toxic defenses behind them.
The Silent Killers: BABIP and Strand Rate
It would be easy to scream inflated BABIP (.341) and preposterously low strand rate (69.9%) from the top of a mountain (if possible) as the primary causes for Carrasco’s ugly surface stats, but it’s not that simple. Let’s not gloss over the fact that his BABIP is nearly 50 points higher than the AL average (.296) a year ago, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle.
It wouldn’t be unfair to assign a significant portion of the blame (especially on the BABIP front) to the Indians putrid defense, which according to Baseball Prospectus fielding metrics, ranks 26th in defensive efficiency. However, that still doesn’t explain why Carrasco’s performance hasn’t improved since far superior defenders Francisco Lindor and Giovanny Urshela were permanently inserted onto the left side of the infield in early June.
Let’s not undersell how historically porous Cleveland’s defense was early in the year, but don’t completely overlook the fact that Carrasco is giving up more home runs (12.4 HR/FB rate) and hard contact (31.9% which is up from just 24.6% last year, according to Baseball Info Solutions) than he did down the stretch last year.
Another factor in Carrasco’s struggles this season has been his performance with runners on base, which has left much to be desired. Not only has his strand rate has dropped considerably from the 75.9% mark he posted last season, but his current strand rate (69.9%) is one of the worst marks of any qualified starter in baseball this year.
About That Tipping Pitches Thing Again
On the latest edition of the Flags Fly Forever podcast, our special guest, Steve Gardner of USA TODAY Sports, discussed his latest piece, which featured interviews with some of this seasons biggest fantasy breakouts at the MLB All-Star Game just a few weeks ago. The biggest takeaway from reading his piece and listening to our conversation again is that the mental side of baseball cannot be understated. We don’t know whether or not Carrasco is tipping pitches, but if he truly believes that he is, you can guarantee it will adversely affect his performance until he fixes the problem.
Aside from some bad luck on batted balls mixed with poor defense behind him, which is a recipe for disaster, there isn’t anything noticeably wrong with Carrasco, which makes his struggles even more perplexing to assess. His fastball velocity has remained the same, while his ground ball and swinging strike rates are virtually identical to the one he posted while dominating opposing lineups a year ago. The uptick in hard contact and increase in home run to fly ball rate are equally concerning, but if the explanation for it is tipping pitches, it wouldn’t be a shock.
It was easy to blame Carrasco’s early season struggles on a ballooning BABIP and predict a second half rebound on the way, given his impressive strikeout totals, but after watching him continue to struggle, it’s getting more and more difficult to envision him turning it around and becoming the pitcher that stole our hearts over the final two months of last season. It’s foolish to judge a pitcher on any single start, but Carrasco’s next one, on the road in Oakland, is going to go a long way towards unraveling the mystery behind his lackluster performance this season. If he and Calloway can put the pitch tipping issue to bed once and for all, it will go a long way to helping fantasy owners determine whether or not they should be concerned about his long-term future.
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