Fantasy Baseball Debate: Trevor Bauer vs. Carlos Carrasco

Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco are real-life teammates, but fantasy rivals. Who is the better starting pitcher?
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The Debate Series pits two of our writers against one another on opposing sides of a decision many fantasy owners will face during their drafts. In this installment, Michael Shapiro and Michael Beller debate a couple of teammates who double as top-12 fantasy starting pitchers: Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco.

Michael Shapiro makes the case for Bauer over Carrasco…

Beller, I’m surprised you would bet against Trevor Bauer, MLB’s foremost believer in spin rate and sabermetric savant. Cleveland’s No. 2 starter isn’t an up-and-coming star like teammate Mike Clevinger—another Beller favorite—but only because he has already arrived. Bauer is a top-10 fantasy starting pitcher in 2019. He was a leading Cy Young candidate last year and might have won the award had he not lost about five weeks to a stress fracture in his leg. Bauer had another maniacally active and preparatory offseason, and will be back among the Cy Young contenders this year.

No less an authority than Bauer himself believes he would’ve won the Cy Young if not for that errant line drive off the bat of Jose Abreu. “[Chris] Sale was going to fade,” Bauer told Sports Illustrated’s Ben Reiter in February. “Like he always does, and I would have run away with it.”

The statistics back-up Bauer’s claim. The opinionated 28-year-old starter struck out 214 batters in his first 166 innings before August’s injury, holding batters to a paltry .581 OPS. He ended 2018 with the AL’s best FIP at 2.44, and led the majors by allowing 0.5 home runs per nine innings. His 11.34 K/9 trailed only Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. No pitcher allowed fewer home runs per fly ball, and only Jacob deGrom came close. There’s some debate as to what pitchers can and can’t control, but two things we know they can are strikeouts and homers. Bauer missed bats and kept the ball in the park at elite rates last year, and there’s no reason to expect that to change this year.

In fact, we should consider Bauer’s 2018 a sure sign that he turned a corner, unlocking his full potential. His embrace of training methods once (and, in some cases, still) anathema to baseball’s ruling elite, and the wealth of data they provide, separates him from a large share of pitchers throughout baseball. That is undoubtedly to his advantage. Bauer has modeld his mechanics to mirror Nolan Ryan, so it should come as little surprise that he saw a significant velocity bump over the last two years. He’s “electrifying” his brain with tools used by the U.S. military (seriously, read Reiter’s profile) to acquire and process new information at a higher rate. Bauer is a pitching obsessive, a single-minded—albeit prickly—competitor. His devotion to the craft should earn the trust of fantasy owners amid a crowded group of frontline starters.

Carrasco is likely to edge Bauer in innings in 2019, but while the additional volume is nice, that’s his only advantage over his teammate. Carrasco’s HR/9 was more than double Bauer’s last year. Ditto for their respective HR/FB ratios. Bauer induced more soft contact and struck out batters at a higher rate per nine innings. Carrasco’s ERA was more than a full run worse than Bauer’s in 2018, and that wasn’t some luck-based fluke. Bauer was the more effective pitcher last year. He will be again in 2019. Forget about being better than just Carrasco. Bauer will be the best pitcher in baseball’s best rotation, besting Corey Kluber and Clevinger, as well.

Michael Beller makes the case for Carrasco over Bauer…

I feel like I’ve been making the case for Carrasco over someone for years now. Last year, in fact, in one of these very debates, I backed Carrasco over Jacob deGrom. That, of course, didn’t turn out so well for me, at least in terms of ultimately winning the debate. But that’s only because deGrom decided to go all, “What if there were a Greg Maddux/Pedro Martinez hybrid?” on us. It wasn’t Carrasco’s fault that he couldn’t live up to that. He may not have been as good as deGrom last year, but he authored another chapter in a memoir tentatively titled, “The Most Underappreciated Pitcher of the 2010s.” Catchy? Hardly. True? Without a doubt.

Carrasco became a full-time starter in 2015, and since then has amassed a 3.40 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 3.03 xFIP, 28.2% strikeout rate, and difference of 22.6 percentage points between his strikeout and walk rates. Among pitchers with at least 700 innings since 2015, he ranks 14th in ERA, ninth in WHIP, third in xFIP, sixth in strikeout rate and sixth in K%-BB%. And yet, he’s been in the top-five in AL Cy Young voting once in his career. There are maybe five or six teams in the majors where Carrasco wouldn’t be the staff ace, and he happens to be on one of them. He may get less ink thank two of his rotation-mates, considering the attention paid to Bauer. Cleveland’s embarrassment of riches on the mound is typified by the fact that Carrasco can’t get out from behind Corey Kluber’s shadow. Don’t let that obscure his talent, though. He’s every bit a legitimate ace.

Unlike many of the pitchers we’ve written about in debates this week, Carrasco isn’t sexy or still ascending in his career. He doesn’t have Justin Verlander’s or Gerrit Cole’s ceiling, or the promise of Aaron Nola’s and Blake Snell’s youth, combined with their extreme success in their early-20s. What he does have is stability. In his four years as a full-time starter, he has enjoyed an ERA range of 3.29 to 3.63, WHIP range of 1.07 to 1.15, xFIP range of 2.66 to 3.32, and strikeout-rate range of 25% to 29.6%. He has pitched at least 180 innings in three of those seasons, and only a fluke injury caused by a comebacker in 2016 prevented him from doing it in all four. The last four years have covered Carrasco’s age-28 through age-31 seasons. He is who he is, a high-level starter who can be the anchor of a great fantasy pitching staff, but not quite an ace.

Can we say the same about Bauer? I readily admit that Bauer has the higher ceiling. We saw that last year when he pitched to a 2.21 ERA and 1.09 WHIP with 221 strikeouts in 175 1/3 innings. Bauer had a lower ERA and higher strikeout rate last season than Carrasco has had in any of the last four. If he finds another gear this season, he’ll outpace Carrasco. But will he find that other gear? And if he doesn’t, is there any guarantee he’s better than Carrasco? The answers to those questions are, “Who knows,” and, “No.”

I don’t mean to belabor the point, but go back a couple of paragraphs and look at those stat ranges that Carrasco has lived within the last four years. After that, re-read the paragraph before that one and consider what that has added up to over a sample of 722 innings. Carrasco is a stone-cold lock to be a top-12 fantasy pitcher this season, and he comes at the fair price of a mid-third-round pick in 14- and 15-team leagues. He’s not going to be a top-five pick, but the only thing that make him go bust is injury, and the only significant injury he has had since undergoing Tommy John surgery early in his career was the comebacker that broke his hand three seasons ago. He’s a sure thing, and making him your No. 1 starter allows you to get two elite hitters as the foundation of your team.