That is Carlos Carrasco. Stealthily surging up the Fangraphs leaderboards year after year. Racking up high strikeout totals, inducing boatloads of ground balls, and commanding the strike zone at an exemplary level. These characteristics are a dead ringer for the profile of an elite, sabermetrically seductive new-age starter, but the love has not matched the performance.
There are a few obvious reasons for the underappreciation. His teammate, Corey Kluber, has a pair of recent Cy Young awards to accompany a stoic personality that amuses many. His other teammate, Trevor Bauer, was in a dead heat for this year’s Cy Young award prior to a fractured ankle which is paired with a personality on the other end of the Kluber spectrum, which also attracts attention. A third teammate, Mike Clevinger, has flowing locks, a unique wind-up, and goes by the name of ‘Sunshine’. Every fifth day, though, Carrasco goes out and delivers.
Looking into the drivers of Carrasco’s success reveals a propensity to induce whiffs. Buoying this is the usage of his breaking balls, in which his portfolio has diversified in 2018. He has made a conscious choice to lean more heavily on the bending stuff, whether it be the slider or the curveball. The two are intertwined because various pitch tracking systems have conflicting views of which is more heavily utilized. So, for argument’s sake, we are going to lump them into one package and just refer to them as benders. The exact classification of the bend is unimportant.
Two things are immediately obvious when scanning the relationship between Carrasco’s bender usage and the number of swings and misses he induces. First, he made a significant adjustment that unlocked the elite whiff rates while moving into the 2014 season, which coincidentally (or not) resembles the timeframe of teammate Corey Kluber’s affinity for his breaking ball. Second, it is a conscious effort by Carrasco to lean heavily on the benders – he is depending even more heavily on them in 2018 than ever before. It is an inefficiency he, and other teammates like Bauer and Kluber, has recognized and sought to take advantage of until that well runs dry. Provided the swings and misses keep piling up, Carrasco will continue to leverage his bender usage into success.
At face value, the method in which Carrasco has maintained effectiveness through ticking past the age of 30 is impressive. What’s even more impressive, however, is that he has maintained that effectiveness despite steadily decreasing velocity outputs. For a pessimist, the velocity drop-offs are alarming. For an optimist, they are astounding.
Since reaching peak velocity levels in 2014 (at the age of 27), Carrasco has lost two miles per hour on his fastball, sinker, and curveball. Additionally, he has slowed down his slider by five miles per hour. The former drop-offs seem consistent with aging as they all follow gradual, year-by-year decreases. The latter is more intriguing, as it either indicates a conscious effort to slow it down or pitch tracking systems conflating it with his much slower curveball. Either way, the cumulative velocity losses are staggering, and would likely be backbreaking for an ordinary pitcher on the wrong side of 30.
Carlos Carrasco continues to be a different breed. Aging curves haven’t applied to him – yet. As we migrate towards an October that is likely to be high in drama, his path will likely collide with the high-octane offense of the Houston Astros. The Astros lead the league in wRC+ but have a very exploitable weakness – they are merely mediocre against sliders and curveballs, as indicated by pedestrian xwOBA marks against those pitches. You can bank on Carrasco leaning heavily on his dependable benders.
Indians fans can only hope for maximum utilization of the underappreciated this October.