(Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)
I recently examined the extreme curveball infatuation the current Cleveland Indians starting pitching rotation has. Carlos Carrasco is a key contributor to the curveball success. But despite featuring a breaker that ranks 7th among starters in pitch value the last two seasons, it’s not his most well-known pitch. His slider jumps to mind before the curveball, and possibly the same for his changeup. A pitch that ranks among the infamous curves of Lance McCullers, Corey Kluber, and Clayton Kershaw should reasonably receive more notoriety. Except for the fact that it doesn’t outplay his other secondary pitches.
Carrasco has established himself as a consistent second tier starting pitcher, sitting just outside the elite group. His 3.18 FIP over the past three seasons ranks 10th among qualified starters. Such success has been propelled by an impressive trifecta of off-speed pitches.
Here’s the percentile rank (starting pitchers) of each of his pitches in whiff rate (swings and misses), chase rate (swung at when out of the zone), and slugging rate in the 2017 season.
Carrasco has relied on his slider since he entered the league, and the pitch ranks incredibly well in every category. His changeup is an exceptional contact manager while remaining a quality punch out pitch. His curveball performs well across the board. What weaponizes this mix is Carrasco’s willingness to use any of them at any time.
Take a look at his pitch usage in various counts (not including fastballs):
Carrasco starts hitters off with an off-speed over 42% of the time. While he favors the curveball, it’s difficult to discern which lethal pitch may be coming. With two strikes on the hitter, the same thing occurs. He prefers the slider and curveball over the changeup, but anything is possible. He throws the slider and curveball nearly the same amount of time, and utilizes the changeup just enough to make it present while keeping it in his back pocket. Even when he’s behind in the count, Carrasco relies on his secondary pitches, throwing one 31% of the time. He tends to avoid the curveball in these situations, but still mixes up the three considerably. Take an at-bat against the Oakland A’s last season, facing Matt Joyce, as an example of his pitch mixing.
With a career walk rate over 12%, Joyce has solidified himself as a disciplined hitter. But Carrasco knows he can locate pitches. He opens up the count with a secondary offering, as he often does. He perfectly places an 88mph changeup at Joyce’s knees.
Ahead in the count, Carrasco throws an off-speed pitch again. This time a slider. The pitch does not look great, as he floats to the outside of the plate without much bite. He doesn’t execute the pitch as he intends, but keeps it around the zone without leaving it over the heart. Thus, he forces a swing from Joyce and gets a foul ball.
In an advantageous situation being up 0-2, Carrasco tries to break it home with a breaking ball. Missing with the slider on a previous pitch, he tests with his other breaker: the curveball. The pitch has good break down towards the bottom of the zone, and it very nearly draws a chase from Joyce. But as with the slider, Carrasco misses his spot and allows it to tail away from the plate, allowing Joyce to shoulder the bat.
Carrasco has thrown three straight off-speed pitches, all of different form. Still up at 1-2, he attempts to bring some heat that Joyce has not seen this at bat. He throws a 94mph fastball that tails to the inside corner of the plate, which can only result in a strikeout or jamming the hitter. However, it begins a little too far to the outside and isn’t quite able to catch the plate.
Remember that amazing changeup Carrasco threw all the way back four pitches ago? After getting Joyce’s mind on his breaking balls, Carrasco goes back to the changeup. Another just as good as the first. At 89mph with enough velocity to resemble a fastball, he throws a power change that begins at the knees closer to the inside. It ends up off the plate outside the strike zone and at the ankles. Joyce has no choice but to waive at the pitch and head back to the dug out.
As seen in the above sequence, not only does Carrasco have the ability to utilize his off-speed pitches at any time, but he also has the privilege of testing what is working and finding what he is executing. With multiple exceptional offerings, he can find his best options on a start to start and at-bat to at-bat basis. Take from one of his better starts of 2017, a six-inning, 9 strikeout outing against the Detroit Tigers.
Carrasco faces Miguel Cabrera in the first inning. He starts with a fastball, and a poor one. He leaves it right up there with little life, essentially asking Cabrera to crush it. Luckily, Carrasco’s 96mph bail him out and the hitter is late. Up 0-1, he tries another fastball. Another not great one, as it tails too far inside. At 1-1, after establishing his fastball, he tries to go in with a changeup. Wicked movement, but outside and in the dirt.
Back to the fastball, it looks pretty similar to the first, but Cabrera can’t catch up. With two strikes, Carrasco goes for the punch-out, but misses outside again. Full count. He tries to get one in the zone, but misses wildly for the walk. A very poor looking sequence.
Cabrera comes back up to face Carrasco in the third inning. This time, he open with an off-speed. A well-executed change that is fouled. He’s up in the count, and is yet to reveal his curveball. He tests it, but misses way inside. Carrasco then tries to get back in the zone with a fastball. Outside. Cabrera still hasn’t caught up to the heat, so back to the fastball. His opponent is a little late again and slices it foul. With two strikes, Carrasco knows what worked the first pitch. To get the strikeout, he throws a mind-numbing 89mph changeup that starts in the heart of the zone and ends up low and inside.
The third showdown with Cabrera. Carrasco tries to steal a strike with a curveball. It misses badly, though, and Cabrera nearly ends up on base on the first pitch. Down in the count, it’s back to the fastball. As in the other matchups, he can’t locate his fastball for a strike. At 2-0, Carrasco desperately needs to put one in the zone, but he continues to struggle with the fastball location.
Down 3-0, he pulls out a trick. Despite failing to execute it earlier in the at-bat, Carrasco confidently uses his curveball again and is able to loop it in for a strike. It just worked, why not again? Still down 3-1, Cabrera is looking fastball, but Carrasco loops another breaker into the zone, which Cabrera gets ahead of. The changeup is now long-gone in the hitter’s mind. With Cabrera now in position to be aggressive again, Carrasco whips out the changeup again. He throws a plain unfair 91mph change with incredible movement, ringing up Cabrera for the second time.
Carrasco alters his approach each time. Going from fastball-heavy in the first appearance, adjusting to a more balanced distribution in his second, then doing the absurd in the third by recovering from 3-0 with only off-speed pitches to get a strikeout. With the exceptional repertoire you’ve just seen, what could be keeping Carrasco from becoming a top-tier pitcher? This explains a lot:
That is Carrasco’s career fastball heatmap. The pitch possesses raw stuff, but he has shown little ability to control it. The heatmap displays it’s erratic nature, and a large portion sits right over the heart of the plate. For the first time in his career, Carrasco’s fastball usage dipped below 50%. With his proven ability to locate and dominate with off-speed offerings, he may benefit from a continual increase in his usage of those pitches. He’s right on the brink of elite. More of his wicked trifecta of slider, curveball, and changeup could put him there.
Carrasco can become elite if he gains control of his FB or he can go downhill because he does not have control of his FB. The idea of Carrasco going downhill stems from the philosophy that a pitcher bases their repertoire off their FB (pitching forward) opposed to pitching backwards (breaking stuff first). There is nothing stopping batters from realizing that Carrasco focuses on off speed pitches, so batters can plan on laying off breaking pitches and waits for a FB. Or is Carrasco’s breaking stuff so nasty that he will have success until his breaking pitches lose movement or (knock on wood) injury from throwing so much filth?
I’m not sure how to map out future success for him. He decreased fastball usage last season and had his best season of his career. But he also increased his strike zone usage of his fastball and threw his off-speed in the zone less of the time (especially his slider, from 48.9% in 2016 to 37.6% in 2017). With the zone increase of the fastball, it was absolutely crushed last season to a .632 slugging and probably the worst showing of his career for the pitch. But working the zone with his heater may be what allowed him to be so successful with his off-speed, leaving them out of the zone and drawing chases. I think he’s demonstrated enough command of secondary pitches to warrant an argument that he should throw them even more and utilize them to establish the strike zone rather than his fastball. But perhaps he does not believe he can do such. Maybe sacrificing any success with his fastball by using it to set up his other offerings is the best approach for him. It certainly worked well enough last year. That approach will likely be successful until his off-speed command diminishes.
Your description of Cookie screams volatility because he is so dependent on off speed pitches. It’s a recipe for failure if Carrasco can’t rely on his fastball when off speed pitches aren’t close to the strike zone. Predicting anything in the future is tough. We can only make educated guesses. Do you have any comparable pitchers in mind? It will be interesting to see how this season goes for Carrasco because with a year, the book may be out on Carrasco’s (and the Tribe’s) pitching strategy to be off speed dependent. So why wouldn’t teams this year make greater conscious effort to swing less at off speed pitches? Teams could dig into the data that tells how often Carrasco’s off-speed pitches are outside the strike zone and base their strategy on that.
It definitely screams volatility, and you can see it as his volatility rate was 71.9% last year. Take a guy like Lance McCullers, who relies on his curveball as much as the fastball, and he’s as volatile as they come. There really isn’t a good comparison for Carrasco. In terms of hard-throwers with versatility in their off-speed repertoire, Sonny Gray and Gerrit Cole feel like the closest comparisons. But both are more fastball reliant and have significantly better fastball’s than Carrasco, while neither comes close to his success with secondary pitches across the board. I don’t think there is any pitcher in baseball who has such a vast and incredible secondary group and can shake up his pitch usage at any point in time with success quite like Carrasco. About teams just swinging less, that’s where his ability to command off-speed pitches comes into play. Off-speed pitches are often out of the zone, but hitters swing at the good ones because they don’t recognize them. It’s difficult to tell a hitter to not swing at an off-speed pitch because he can’t always discern it to be an off-speed pitch if it’s thrown well.
Then time will only tell if Carrasco can keep this up. Comparing Carrasco to McCullers, S. Gray, and G. Cole makes him a SP3 rather than an SP2 and agree because of the risk factor (health and pitch selection).
Agreed, it’s easier to say that a batter will lay off than putting it into practice. My statement was assuming that Carrasco’s strategy was not clear to the ball clubs. Your right up was insightful and in depth.
Thanks! And I liked hearing your insight.
Great article, man!