Compared to the craziness of 2014, Cleveland Sports in 2015 came off as uneventful. The Indians failed to make the postseason—again. The Browns are perpetually a disaster on and off of the field. Nevertheless, as the year comes to a close, just as we have done the last seven years, WFNY will take a look at what we view to be the ten biggest sports stories to grace our local sports scene over the last 12 months. Each day through the rest of the year, we will be counting down from ten to one. Do enjoy.
There were many great storylines during the 2015 Cleveland Indians season. Among the narratives, Corey Kluber struck out 18 St. Louis Cardinal batters, Jason Kipnis had one of the best months of May a hitter has ever had, the defense went from historically awful early to one of the best in MLB late, and the Indians became the first-ever MLB team to record six games giving up either 0 or 1 hits with four different starters (Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, and Trevor Bauer) contributing to the statistic. Even disheartening news of Tom Hamilton losing his mother and Mike Aviles daughter being diagnosed with cancer during the season was met with the community and team rallying behind them.1
However, the best storyline of the season flew a bit under the radar though it comes in at number eight in WFNY’s Top 10 Cleveland Sports stories of 2015; Carlos “Cookie” Carrasco navigated tumultuous health conditions to stake his claim as the ace of the team.2
Like all professional athletes, Carrasco’s 2015 season began the moment his 2014 season ended. However, Carrasco did not have a normal offseason to put his body into an elite athletic condition in which to attack the upcoming year. Instead, heart palpitations Cookie started experiencing needed to be corrected with a seven-hour surgery October 8 at the Cleveland Clinic. The only details about the condition and procedure were given to FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal shortly before the 2015 season:
The conviction in his voice, even with the language barrier, was unmistakable. The pitcher did not give many details about his condition and procedure, other than to say that doctors ran a tube from his leg to one of his back ventricles to increase the blood flow.
By the time Carrasco arrived in Goodyear, AZ for Spring Training, he was weaned off his heart medication. Unfortunately, his heart palpitations returned and his heartbeat rose to dangerous levels. Though doctors were able to stabilize him by putting him back on the medication, Cookie mysteriously only appeared in nine innings during Spring Training, while most other starters had well over 20 innings of preporatory work put in.
Carrasco’s heart was not the only reason he sought to ink a long-term deal with the Indians before the 2015 season began. His entire career had been a rollercoaster ride, and he desired to give his growing family the financial security of having his future locked in. Once one of the most prized prospects in baseball, Carrasco was the key piece returned from the Philadelphia Phillies when they acquired the reigning Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee in 2009. But, Carrasco’s star seemed to fizzle in MLB after he had Tommy John surgery and he was moved to the bullpen in 2014. He finally began to demonstrate his ability to be a dominant frontline starter over his last 10 starts of 2014, but it was still such a small sample size when measured against the rest of his career.
So, against the advice of his agents, against the advice of MLBPA, Carrasco signed a four-year deal worth $22 million in guarantees and with two team-options to put him under team control through 2020 for $40 million (with escalators it was reported the deal could rise above $50 million). Of note, Zack Greinke signed a contract after the 2015 season that pays him $34 million per season over those same six years, and there are now legitimate arguments Carrasco will be an equal or better pitcher over that period of time. The Indians were smart to bet on Carlos Carrasco, who was even a popular breakout candidate heading into the season.
Cookie’s 2015 MLB season started with a bang as he gave the Indians their first win of the season against what would prove to be a surprisingly good Houston Astros team. His final line from the April 8 game read that he went six and a third innings pitched with ten strike outs to one walk, but it felt even more dominant. Perhaps it was the first five batters in the Astros lineup going 1-for-15 with nine strike outs against him.
As had been the common refrain throughout his career, the high needed accompaniment of a low, which would follow quickly on April 14. Carrasco would leave his next start after amassing merely eight pitches against two batters. The eighth pitch of the night struck the bat of Melky Cabrera, thankfully grazed Carrasco’s glove, then smashed into his jawbone. Carrasco immediately collapsed to the ground and just lied there as medical personnel rushed onto the field. Adam Eaton knelt in prayer at second base, Cabrera abandoned his place at first base to check on Carrasco at the mound. All prayed and wished for the best, but could not help but have thoughts of the worst creep into their minds.
Somehow, someway, Carrasco avoided the worst fears. By grazing his glove and turning his cheek, he had managed to dodge receiving a concussion, head trauma, or even a broken bone. And, with a mixture of courage and stubbornness, Carrasco not only returned to the mound on April 21, but did so against the same Chicago White Sox with Melky Cabrera in the same 2-slot in the lineup. Cookie struck Melky out as he did for all three outs in the first inning. He recorded five strikeouts in the first two innings, and finished with eight strikeouts in five innings of work. At that point, the bullpen paraded out six relievers as Terry Francona did not want this game to slip away, and the Indians pitchers ended up striking out fifteen batters during the win.
Carrasco’s season wouldn’t go exactly according to plan though as he would struggle over the next 11 starts with a 4.67 ERA.3 Again, with Carrasco, for every ying there must be a yang. The 11 subsequent starts would render a 2.68 ERA as hitters .190/.237/.302 against him before he was put on the DL for shoulder soreness. And, up and down he goes.
Of course, one of those ups was particularly memorable. On July 1, Carlos Carrasco would have himself a ballgame against the Tampa Bay Rays. 124 pitches pitched. 30 swings and misses. 13 batters struck out out of 26 outs recorded. One batter hit by a pitch. Two batters walked. But, with two strikes and two outs in the bottom half of the ninth inning, there remained a big fat ZERO underneath the H on the Tampa line of the scoreboard. And, in an instant, it was over.
The next batter was Joey Butler, because of course it was Joey Butler. After being the only thorn in Carrasco’s side all night, Butler looped a spinning hit just a few inches over the fully extended Jason Kipnis, who did everything he could to will the ball down into his glove. The no-hit bid would end, the shutout would be over as Asdrubal Cabrera scored, and Carrasco’s night would come to a somewhat disheartening close.
But, none of that takes away from a truly special night.
What happened upon the no-hit bid being unceremoniously ripped out from his hands? Did Cookie cry? No. Did Cookie pout? No. Did Cookie look sullen? No. Few would have given much grief to the man known as Cookie had he done any of these things, but instead he laughed, pointed happily to Kipnis for the outstanding effort, and appreciated the moment. Even in the biggest of moments, Carlos Carrasco had proper perspective. As he left to a standing ovation in a visiting ballpark, he removed his cap with an appreciative nod before eventually being given a proper Gatorade shower.
And, what of Joey Butler? He had nearly ended the no-hit bid in the first inning4 , ended the chance at a perfect game with a walk in the seventh inning, and broke up the no-hitter on that fateful at bat in the ninth. If there were some hard feelings towards Butler, then it would be understandable. But, instead, Carrasco ensured all Indians fans knew he welcomes Butler to the team when the Indians acquired him in the offseason.
Even crazier than the grace and poise Carrasco was able to demonstrate is the game was only one of three in which Carrasco would allow a solitary hit. And, in the other two starts, Carrasco would finish out a full nine innings of work. Against the Los Angeles Angels on August 4, Carrasco followed up a complete game 2-hit domination of the Oakland Athletics on July 30 with a 1-hit nine inning shutout of the Angels. But, the Indians offense did not cooperate while he was pitching. The Indians would eventually win 2-0, but it would take a 12th inning home run from Giovanny Urshela to notch the victory. His September 25 start was just plain unfair to the hitters as he struck out 15 Kansas City Royals the day after they had clinched the AL Central division and rested many regulars.
By the end of the season, Carrasco had pitched well enough to pose the question of if he had become the staff ace of the Indians despite another dominant year from the 2014 Cy Young Award winning Corey Kluber. Ignoring pitching wins (Carrasco would “win” this category), the two pitchers nearly matched each other across the board.
Baseball is a game of many numbers, so the obvious thing to do is to compare some of those numbers between the two pitchers. As far as dominating performances,5 Kluber bested Carrasco with eight double-digit strikeout games to four, but Carrasco limited hits and runs to minimal amounts more often. And, if the arbitrary line of 10 is moved down slightly to eight strikeouts, Kluber does not hold an advantage there either.
Looking deeper into the numbers, Kluber’s perceived advantage due to a higher WAR was mostly propped up from the 40 extra innings he pitched in 2015, which has value. Otherwise, the numbers were nearly identical across the board with Carrasco holding a slim advantage in strikeout percentage and FIP, while Kluber held tight leads in ERA and WHIP.
However, the argument to decide the specific Indians ace does not matter because if the Indians are going to make another push at the playoffs in 2016, then they will need both of their aces to perform as well as they had in 2015. And, the team and fans are truly blessed for the ability to watch both of these pitchers frustrate the opposition one pitch at a time.
Of course, for the high point of Carrasco’s 2015 season, there seems to be a need for an accompanying low. Hopefully, that needed low point is merely the constant rumor and speculation through the MLB Hot Stove season of other teams attempts to acquire Carrasco through trade. Thus far, those attempts have been in vain. As they should remain.