To say 2019 was a trying year for Carlos Carrasco would be a massive understatement.
Uncharacteristic struggles from the Cleveland Indians’ longtime starting pitcher played a part in the team’s sluggish start to the season. However, these took a backseat in July when he announced he had been diagnosed with leukemia.
Instead of letting such a devastating moment derail him, Carrasco did everything he could to get back on the mound, eventually rejoining his teammates in a bullpen role during the final month of the season. It was a truly inspiring effort to prove – in his own words – that he may have cancer, but cancer doesn’t have him.
The current plan is for said relief role to be temporary, as GM Chris Antonetti claims Carrasco is set to return to Cleveland’s rotation in 2020. Obviously, this will be dependent upon how much workload he can handle, as his health is far more important than baseball.
However, should Carrasco return to form – something projections favor – it would be exactly what this Indians rotation needs.
As previously noted, there are a few question marks hovering over Cleveland’s starting five this spring. Nobody is doubting what aces Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber can offer the Tribe. Once you get past those two, though, you run into some uncertainty.
While Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale flashed potential in 2019, both need to prove their rookie debuts were no flukes. Meanwhile, Adam Plutko is out of minor league options and faces what could be his last shot to earn a starting role in Cleveland.
All in all, this is no longer a rotation so stacked it can slot Bieber in as the fifth starter.
Which is why a bounce-back season from Carrasco would be much welcomed by the Tribe.
It's admittedly difficult to hold Carrasco’s 2019 campaign against him. His numbers weren’t nearly as good as what we’re used to, as he finished the season with a 5.29 ERA and an FIP of 4.41. At the same time, it’s impossible to analyze his performance without noting the health concerns he endured throughout the year.
With that said, there’s still reason to believe Carrasco can rebound in 2020. This is due mostly to the fact that, despite fighting through fatigue all season, many of his numbers remained consistent to what we’ve seen from him.
Carrasco didn’t see any notable drops in velocity with any of his pitches in 2019, while his strikeout rate only decreased by 1.3%. Meanwhile, his walk rate (4.7%) was the lowest of his career.
His 40.8% ground ball percentage looks out of character when compared to his career numbers (48.5%). However, his Skill Interactive ERA (SIERA) – which estimates what his ERA should be by comparing his strikeout rate, walk rate and ground ball percentage to pitchers with similar numbers – came in at 3.53.
Essentially, this indicates Carrasco’s ERA wasn’t as bad as it looked.
The main issue he struggled with was keeping the ball in the park. While Carrasco’s fly ball percentage slightly increased in 2019 (36.3%), his HR/FB rate was the highest it's been since he became a starting pitcher (22.2%). Baseball Savant has both his barrel percentage (12.8%) and hard-hit percentage (45.8%) ranked in the bottom 1% of the league.
Overall, Carrasco allowed 18 home runs in 80 innings pitched. For context, that’s three less home runs than he allowed in 2018, on 112 fewer innings.
It’s worth noting, though, that these numbers are an exception.
Carrasco’s HR/FB rate, barrel percentage and hard-hit percentage all represent sizable spikes. This wasn’t any sort of upward yearly trend, or anything which should have you believing these struggles are the new norm.
Prognosticators agree, as Carrasco’s home run issues hardly dissuaded anyone when developing his 2020 projections. Though Steamer predicts slight regression with his strikeout rate (26.3%) and walk rate (5.9%), significant improvement is expected with both his ERA (3.81) and FIP (3.80).
It’s safe to say these are numbers the Indians would gladly welcome in the year ahead.
The obvious wild card is Carrasco’s health. We haven’t heard anything suggesting he’s had any setbacks in his bout with leukemia. Still, this isn’t the same as recovering from routine soreness. Carrasco’s fight with cancer remains top priority, and will be far more important than his providing a rebound on the mound.
When it comes to said fight, Carrasco has made it clear he’s going to stay relentless. His goal is to return to the rotation, and there’s reason to believe said return will feature numbers we’re used to seeing from him.
It goes without saying this would be a huge boost for the Indians, in more ways than one.