Indians, Indians Playoff Chess

Indians Playoff Chess: Carrasco Matches Up With Astros

(Leah Klafcynzski/TNS)

Opportunities to pitch in the postseason are scarce. Perhaps no starter is more familiar with this concept than Carlos Carrasco. Robbed of participating in the infamous 2016 run by an errant line drive and plagued with a loss despite sheer brilliance in his lone 2017 outing. There is no doubt he is relishing the opportunity to go toe to toe with the defending champions on Saturday. Salvaging a split prior to heading back to Cleveland is at the forefront of his mind, but the start in general has assuredly been gnawing at him since last October.

After watching his running mate Corey Kluber get chewed up and spit out by a prolific Astros offense on Friday, you can bet he’s counting breaking balls tonight in lieu of sheep. See, Kluber threw less than 25 percent breaking balls in his outing, which turned into a mock-up of what not to do against the Astros. Carrasco’s repertoire is molded for the occasion.

Since his breakthrough as a starter, Carrasco has incrementally upped his breaking ball usage each year. Against right-handed hitters, it has been the slider that has seen ramped up usage, even in 2018 alone. This is especially important in Saturday’s ALDS showdown, as the Astros will likely trot out seven right-handed bats. Righties make their offense tick, from George Springer to Jose Altuve to Alex Bregman. As seen in Game 1, keeping that trio relatively quiet is more than half the battle en route to toppling the Astros.

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball

As we hone in on how Carrasco likes to attack righties, the slide piece sticks out like a sore thumb. After adding in a handful of curveballs, it’s likely that we see breaking balls on close to forty percent of Carrasco’s offerings. It’s also likely that a hefty portion of these breaking balls will stay true to Carrasco’s bread and butter against righties – down and away, down and away.

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball

Three batters – George Springer, Jose Altuve, and Alex Bregman – will be the pivotal watch points. Be sure to monitor his plan of attack tomorrow, perhaps while biting your nails or any other nervous ticks. It will surely be carefully calculated with the idea of using pitch mix to maximize his input.

George Springer

As far as major league hitters go, most are adept at covering two-thirds of the strike zone. Even some of the best hitters, such as Jose Altuve, have a glaring weakness on the other third. Springer, however, is a tad different. He adequately covers the plate, showing very little weakness. The only noticeable kink in slugging percentage is in the upper-middle, which is essentially no man’s land for opposing pitchers. No matter what the numbers say, pitchers want to avoid upper-middle parts of zones for an obvious reason – it’s usually a nitro zone and leaving balls there is a ticket to the showers.

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball

To limit the damage against Springer, slider command is key. Fittingly, this is where Carrasco excels. His slider is not overwhelming in nature, but usually sequenced well and well-placed. The important part of battling Springer is keeping it down and away. Additionally, you want to walk the line of keeping it close enough to the zone to induce a swing but not permit it to catch too much plate.

Jose Altuve

As previously mentioned, this bat control wizard has a slight weakness. Pitches on the outer third are the 2017 AL MVP’s kryptonite. Corey Kluber did well exploiting this in his first two Game One plate appearances, but the pitch that yielded a homer in Altuve’s third plate appearances could most favorably be described as a spinner that leaked back into the heart of Altuve’s sweet spot.

Courtesy of Baseball Savant

Again, the exploitable area is down and out. Again, this is where Carrasco lives with his slider. The difference with Altuve is there is more room for error within the confines of the strike zone. In the quest for success against Altuve, Carrasco must stay away, away, and further away. He might have to leak back inside against these hitters occasionally, but it is imperative that he prevents them from turning on anything.

Alex Bregman

Raise your hand if you laughed when Bregman unloaded on the lame duck offered by Kluber in the fourth inning of Game 1. Perhaps I am alone in that regard, but you can file it in the ‘What Not to Do’ section of the soon-to-be-released guide book Pitching Against the Astros for Dummies. Sure, it was a mistake and that was hardly the intention, but that’s the point here – it was the type of mistake that cannot be made in the small window of playoff opportunity.

Avoid middle-middle at all costs or else give up 107.1 mile per hour rockets into the bleachers. The trick to mitigating Bregman is in the off-speed. He hunts out and demolishes fastballs. Heavy doses of slider down and away, as with Springer and Altuve. If you can do so, the probability of limiting his power is favorable.

The plan is quite simple against the three major cogs of the Astros lineup – somewhere in the neighborhood of forty percent breaking balls (with a heavy emphasis on the slider) – and can be extended to most of the other hitters in the projected Astros lineup, loaded with right-handed sticks.

As far as executing this plan, I’m not sure there is a more suited pitcher on any of the playoff rosters. Finding breaking balls that are as effective as Carlos Carrasco’s is a tough task in isolation. The further qualifier of breaking ball command put Carrasco in the elite class across the league. For all the characteristics that make the Astros offense great, plate discipline is one that can’t be understated. Only the Indians struck out less as a team in 2018. Carrasco balances the tight rope between swing-and-miss stuff and command better than most pitchers throughout the league.