Carlos Carrasco could opt out of the 2020 campaign if he wanted to.
The Cleveland Indians pitcher’s ongoing battle with leukemia places him on MLB’s immunocompromised list, meaning he can step away this summer without losing salary or service time. Considering the continuously worsening nature of the pandemic, it’d be impossible to hold it against him if that’s the route he chose to take.
For now, Carrasco is full steam ahead when it comes to the 2020 season. Cleveland’s long-tenured starter has returned to his place in the rotation, ready to put an incredibly emotional 2019 behind him.
It would’ve been preferred if the only struggles Carrasco endured last year were the ones which took place on the mound. His ERA (5.29) and FIP (4.41) were by far the highest they’ve been in six seasons, while he allowed his worst HR/9 since 2009 (2.02).
Unfortunately, these numbers became a mere footnote when Carrasco announced his cancer diagnosis last July. Though a triumphant return via a late-season bullpen role wasn’t as successful as everyone hoped, the fact he was healthy enough to get back on the mound was a win on its own.
Now, Carrasco is ready to log starter’s innings again. Currently slotted third in Cleveland’s rotation, he’s hoping to prove last year’s spikes were merely an anomaly.
Luckily, there’s plenty of evidence indicating as much.
As noted a few months ago, Carrasco actually displayed more consistency last year than his high ERA and FIP indicate.
There was no notable velocity drop-off on any of his pitches, while his K/9 (10.80) was on par with what he’d been putting forth over the past few seasons. Also worth highlighting is the fact his BB/9 (1.80) happened to be the best of his career.
Likewise, the stats with which he did see severe upswings appear to be abnormalities when compared to his career averages.
Last year marked the first time in over five years Carrasco allowed a wOBA above .303. The average launch angle generated against him increased by 31.6% compared to 2018. His barrel rate more than doubled from the year before.
Essentially, everywhere you look, you find reason to believe last season was the exception for Carrasco, not the rule.
When attempting to find an explanation for his struggles, you obviously have to consider the toll his leukemia diagnosis took on him. However, when digging a little deeper, it appears there was another culprit behind his on-mound issues.
Primarily, his changeup wasn’t nearly as effective as it’s been historically.
Season after season, the change is often Carrasco’s third-most utilized pitch, behind only his four-seamer and slider. This was no different last year, as 18.6% of his offerings were changeups.
It’s not hard to see why Carrasco throws it as frequently as he does, as it’s a pitch hitters have struggled with in the past. Below is a better look at how opponents have fared against his changeup over the past few seasons.
Last year, this trend came to a screeching halt.
Opposing hitters were suddenly able to thrive off Carrasco’s change. He allowed an opposing batting average of .313, a slugging percentage of .612 and a wOBA well above average (.393). The average launch angle off his changeup was higher than ever before (12), and the same can be said for average exit velocity (90.2).
Overall, nine of Carrasco’s 237 changes were barreled last year. For reference, in the previous four seasons combined, he allowed only five barreled balls off a total of 2,002 changeups.
As mentioned, none of Carrasco’s pitches saw velocity drops last season, and his changeup was no exception. However, said pitch spun far less frequently than usual.
From 2015 through 2018, Carrasco’s changeup averaged a spin rate of 1,614 revolutions per minute, good enough to hold hitters to the underwhelming numbers mentioned above. Last season, his change spin rate dropped to 1,447 revolutions per minute, over 10% less spin than what he averages.
No other pitch of his saw a decrease in spin this dramatic last year. Outside of a curve he only threw 21 times, no other pitch of his saw such significant inflation in opponent success rate.
While this may not be the only reason Carrasco endured setbacks last season, it certainly stands out as a red flag.
At the same time, it also lends further credence to the idea last year’s hardships were nothing but a deviation from the norm.
It’s impossible to guarantee last year was a fluke for Carrasco. While almost all projection outlets see his ERA dropping back into the high 3’s, we won’t know what the year holds for him until he returns to the mound.
However, with many of his 2019 stats standing out as freak occurrences, it’s not lofty to assume this summer will feature the consistent Carrasco we all remember.