With the 2017 season now officially in the rearview mirror, and with the Houston Astros first-time champions, we turn our attention to the 2018 fantasy baseball season. Each week, I will be evaluating one player’s stock for next year. This week, a starting pitcher whose reputation has never quite lived up to his track record of stuff and results.
Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland Indians
2017 statistics: 32 GS, 200 IP, 18 wins, 3.29 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 226 Ks, 3.10 FIP
Among qualified starting pitchers over the past three seasons, only Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom have thrown more innings with a lower Fielding Independent Pitching than Carlos Carrasco. When looking strictly at run prevention, he falls behind Jake Arrieta, Zack Greinke, Madison Bumgarner, Dallas Keuchel, Justin Verlander, Carlos Martinez, and Jon Lester, as well. In short, all of Carrasco’s recent company (with the potential exception of Martinez) have largely been viewed among most fantasy owners as the league’s true aces. However, Carrasco seems not to garner that level of attention, perhaps because of the quality of the other pitchers on his team. Not only has he proven to be consistently excellent, he reached a new level of performance in 2017 thanks to some changes with his pitch mix. Still, entering his age-31 season, he profiles at the front-end of the second tier of the league’s starting pitchers, just behind the top quartet of Kershaw, Scherzer, Kluber, and Sale.
After a few years of inconsistent strike-throwing and a curious inability to miss bats relegated him to the bullpen, Carrasco showed signs of a breakout in 2014, logging 134 innings with a stellar 2.55 ERA and the peripheral statistics to match in a hybrid starting-relief role. Beginning in 2015, Cleveland transitioned Carrasco back into a full-time starter, and he has shined ever since. From 2015-2016, he racked up 330 innings with a 3.49 ERA and a fantastic 4.75 strikeouts per walk. Unfortunately, his 2016 season came to a premature end in September, when he was struck on his pitching hand by an Ian Kinsler line drive, which deprived him of an opportunity to work in Cleveland’s somewhat improbable 2016 postseason run. Perhaps because he was not at center stage during those playoffs (when Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller, and four-plus innings of Ryan Merritt stole the show), he was overlooked a bit among the league’s elite arms entering 2017.
Carrasco’s 2017 season went on to be unquestionably his best, as he set career-highs in innings pitched, ERA (among seasons where he worked exclusively as a starter), and both main wins above replacement metrics (one of which evaluates his run prevention, while the other evaluates his strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed). He narrowly missed setting career-best marks in strikeout and walk rates. Only his ground-ball rate dropped off somewhat, continuing a slightly disturbing trend of four consecutive years of decline. Even so, his 45.2% ground-ball rate in 2017 was slightly above the MLB average for starting pitchers, making Carrasco one of the league’s select few pitchers with average or better marks in terms of strikeouts, walks, and grounders. Even further, his 87 MPH average exit velocity allowed in 2017 was his lowest mark among the three seasons that Statcast has been in existence. Plus, the .227 expected batting average against him (based on the contact quality that he allowed) was even lower than the .235 mark that hitters actually mustered, indicating that there was little to no batted-ball luck involved in Carrasco’s success. To top it all off, he tossed 5.2 scoreless innings with seven strikeouts in Yankee Stadium in Game 3 of the ALDS, making the most of his only postseason opportunity of the year. In short, Carrasco delivered — and deserved — absolutely stellar results last season, and an interesting trend with his pitch mix, particularly with regards to his slider, could perhaps explain his continued ascendance to new heights.
Carrasco has long been comfortable using five different pitches at least semi-frequently, featuring two fastballs along with a standard repertoire of a changeup, curveball and slider. Despite consistent velocity, which he has mostly maintained into his late-20s (he has averaged 95 MPH on his fastball in each of the past three seasons), his fastball has never rated as a particularly strong pitch, perhaps because its spin rate is mediocre for a pitcher with his level of velocity. He has, however, long featured a trio of plus secondary pitches, with his slider his general put-away option. After a slight drop-off in his ability to generate whiffs on the slider in 2016, he increasingly incorporated his other pitches into his repertoire, most specifically relying more heavily on his fastball. In 2017, however, his slider reached peak levels in terms of movement, adding about two inches of drop and two inches of glove-side run, a significant improvement that had opposing hitters less successful than ever at reaching it when he located out of the strike zone. While a good bit of attention was placed on Justin Verlander’s lengthening out and slowing down his slider at the end of this season, Carrasco performed much the same trick in 2017 with similar fantastic results.
Interestingly, Carrasco mirrored what appears to be a team-wide philosophy to adopt the breaking ball more often. His fastball rate fell from 53% in 2016 to only 48% in 2017, a development that would seem intuitively, based on the quality of his offspeed stuff and his history of generating poor results on the fastball, to benefit him enormously. Cleveland as a team cut its fastball rate by six percentage points despite possessing a rather similar personnel group, a likely indication that the front office or the coaching staff determined that their pitching staff was uniquely situated to attack opposing hitters with breaking pitches. (Given the stellar results this year of Corey Kluber and Carrasco, as well as the breakout of Mike Clevinger, it appears that they made the correct decision in that regard.) With his slider more consistently generating swings and misses, and with his decision to move slightly away from a fastball that predictably was responsible for the hardest contact against him of any of his pitches, Carrasco seemed to find the optimum pitch mix for combining strikeouts and desirable ball-in-play results.
Carrasco profiles as a clear top-10, and arguably top-five, fantasy starting pitching option for 2018. His combination of strikeouts and walks, while also generating a fair number of ground balls and soft contact, make him one of the best pitchers in baseball, particularly if the slider that he featured last season (the best one of his career) returns in full force next year. Even if the pitch regresses to its pre-2017 levels, Carrasco has demonstrated a very rare diversity to his repertoire, having succeeded before even with his best pitch diminished, when he thrived in 2016 despite his slider being off somewhat. Additionally, few teams in baseball look more likely to provide ample run support and opportunities for a pitcher to accrue wins than Cleveland. And Progressive Field, while somewhat hitter-friendly, is not unbearable for pitchers. While Carrasco may still not get the mainstream attention that he deserves, whether because of his Cy Young teammate or because of an ill-timed injury that caused him to miss his organization’s most visible postseason run, he has cemented himself as a true ace. Fantasy owners should have him firmly within, if not fronting, that second-tier of starting pitchers come next March.