Cactus League Game 16, Indians at Mariners
Taijuan Walker vs. Carlos Carrasco, 7:05pm, Root TV, 710am Radio
The M’s play their first night game of the spring, and for those of you who can tear yourself away from March Madness, the game’s on TV. C’mon, Kentucky against the 16-seed can’t be more entertaining than the match-up we’ve got here – the M’s Taijuan Walker against the Tribe’s Carlos Carrasco. No one in baseball was better down the stretch in 2014 than Carrasco, whose final 10 starts were Kershaw-esque. Carrasco’s teammate, Corey Kluber, produced the most fWAR in the second half of anyone in the majors, and his 4.1 was higher than anyone since Randy Johnson in 2004, but once Carrasco moved in from the pen, he was essentially matching Kluber start for start. Carrasco had always been a high GB%, high velocity guy, but without the secondary stuff to keep in the rotation full time.
This wasn’t just a BABIP fluke – Carrasco’s K rate was up over 10 percentage points from where it was in 2011, and doubled from his mediocre bullpen season in 2013. His walk rate fell. His velocity was up significantly, and suddenly, no one could touch his slider or his change-up. In 171+ innings in 2011 and 2013, Carrasco gave up 8 HRs on his slider/change. Lefties feasted on his sub-par cambio, slugging .490 off of it. Righties struggled overall against his slider, but a FB/SL guy without a true weapon is going to be vulnerable to opposite-handed hitters, and that was Carrasco’s problem in a nutshell. It’s why he kept getting sent to the pen, and it’s why his stints in the rotation weren’t much to write home about. Suddenly, in 2014, his change-up was a devastating pitch – batters knocked one XBH, a double, on it. His whiff rate jumped, and when anyone did hit it, they beat it into the ground over 70% of the time. It’s important to note that it moves in essentially the exact same fashion – this isn’t a new or different pitch, and he uses it broadly the same way. He’s better at keeping the ball down, which is another example of his improved command (his walk rate is another). It’s all so simple, that it starts to seem implausible.
Carrasco’s stretch run brings to mind the 2012 finish from the Braves’ Kris Medlen. Medlen had been a perfectly serviceable swing man for a couple of seasons before closing 2012 by going 9-0 in 83 IP, riding an unhittable splitter to stardom. He was solid in 2013 before succumbing to TJ surgery, though he couldnt’ quite recapture the form he had in late 2012. The Indians know well that stretch runs aren’t always predictive, even when the core metrics rule out flukes. In 2013, the pitcher who racked up the most 2nd-half WAR was the Tribe’s Ubaldo Jimenez. A little ways back was his teammate, Scott Kazmir. The Indians let both leave in free agency, and while Kazmir impressed with Oakland, he wasn’t quite the dominant force he had been late in 2013. Jimenez was a mess for the Orioles last year, as his control left him again and he struggled to keep his ERA/FIP under 5. This isn’t to say that it’s *always* a fluke – Clayton Kershaw shifted into overdrive at the end of 2012 and he hasn’t stopped since. Still, Carrasco’s amazing results and extremely short track record of achieving them is a key reason no one really knows what to expect from the Indians rotation, and thus from the Indians.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Ackley, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Sucre, C
Substitute Zunino for Miller and that’s essentially your opening day line-up. This is pretty much how the M’s are going to look against righties.
Was going to wait until the M’s faced the A’s again, but this piece by Jason Wojciechowski about Oakland’s crazy offseason is worth your time. Every time people think they’ve figured out the A’s strategy (OBP! Fly ball hitters! Short pitchers!), they’ve moved on.