Second Thoughts Game #71: Angels 3, Indians 4
Noted greatest-player-on-Earth, Mike Trout, had a distinctly positive impact on the Angel's chances on the game - he went 1-3 with 2 BBs and 2 stolen bases. This performance was excellent for fantasy baseball owners, but irrelevant, ultimately, in the outcome of the game, as Cleveland managed to keep Trout from scoring either himself or others in a 4-3 victory over the Angels to begin a seven-game homestand.
All told, most of Monday's game was a continuation of other themes. Carlos Santana's only hit of the day was a pulled right-field home run, giving him a BABIP of .000 on the day... while still improving his batting average on the year. Trevor Bauer's outing (6.2 IP, 3 R/ER, 8 H, 4 BB, 6 K, 119 pitches, 60.5% strike rate, 9.2% swinging strike rate) was one of Bauer's worse outings in terms of peripherals, but given that two of those walks were to Trout - one of the more prolific walk-gatherers in the game - the strike rate confirms that his control was not as bad as it looked, and his whiff-inducing was above-average.
The most interesting aspect of the game came from that elusive bullpen pitcher who has shown up only sparsely of late, yet Carlos Carrasco's 2.1-inning shutout save was both dominant and revelatory in just how extreme an outing it was.
The Less-Enigmatic Carrasco
Carlos Carrasco, throughout his entire career, has been more effective out of the bullpen than in the rotation, and while this is almost universally true for pitchers, the starter-relief dichotomy has been absolutely striking. Before Monday, a 1.66 career ERA in 34.1 IP out of the pen compared to a 5.66 ERA in his 246.2 IP in the rotation - but ERA only measures results, not the processes that lead to those results. FIP and xFIP suggest that the gap is far closer - his career starter FIP and xFIP are 4.52 and 4.06, whereas his career reliever FIP and xFIP are 3.01 and 3.49; in other words, the more one remove the influences of less-sustainable results, the closer his starter and reliever results become.
It's true that xFIP has a much smaller spread than FIP, which in turn has a much smaller spread than ERA - there will be more players with an ERA under 2.00 than there will be players with a sub-2.00 FIP, which is in turn fewer than the number of players with an xFIP under 2.00 in any given season; the stats tend toward regression, so a smaller difference in the most-regressed stats (xFIP) indicate a greater difference in skill than an equally-sized gap in ERA. Yet even taking that into consideration, there's nothing to suggest in his starter-reliever xFIP gap that Carrasco benefits from being in the bullpen more than any other pitcher, and measuring 34 innings of ERA in the pen is nowhere near long enough to plausibly prove that.
That said, Monday's game, in which Carrasco went 2.1 IP allowing no runs and two baserunners, provided a most compelling argument as to why Carrasco would benefit from the bullpen more than other pitchers. Carrasco, throughout his career, has had an excellent whiff rate with his slider - 27.6%, per Brooks Baseball. Typically, the average swinging strike rate hovers around 9%, with the average breaking ball or out pitch hovering higher; a 27.6% whiff rate is nevertheless quite good even within that context.
On Monday, Carrasco threw 33 pitches and induced 9 swinging strikes - a 27.3% swinging strike rate for the game, which is a shockingly high ratio for any pitcher; for context, the most effective swing-and-miss inducer in 2014 has been Koji Uehara, who has induced whiffs at an extremely high 19.2% clip.
Carrasco's secondary pitches had praised effusively even outside of the Cleveland consciousness, and his fastball has historically been his least-effective pitch, despite an excellent velocity. True enough, the most striking facet of Carrasco's game was how he induced Monday's whiffs: all nine swings and misses came on his slider, and Carrasco threw his slider 18 times out of 33 pitch - 54.5% of the time. This represents not only the highest slider usage in any game Carrasco has ever pitched in the majors, but his second-highest game slider usage was 35.3% against Detroit on May 21st. Given the injury risk associated in the game's consciousness with high slider usage (this author cannot speak one way or another to the actual medical science), a 54.5% slider rate is shockingly high.
It's positively mind-bending to consider that the success of Carrasco's breaking pitch is what's keeping him out of the rotation, because typically, when discussing a pitcher's prospects in the rotation, one focuses on whether their secondary pitches will play at the major-league level. In Carrasco's case, his secondary pitches are excellent, and they always have been; even now, however, the efficacy of his fastball holds Carrasco back. Out of the bullpen, however, the typical safety concerns warning against excessive slider use are tempered, as a lower aggregate of pitches results in decreased elbow stress.
Carrasco has been one of the more interesting pitchers Cleveland has had - interesting, in this case, might be synonymous with frustrating or enigmatic. The parts - a solid whiff rate that before 2014 never corresponded with a high strikeout rate, and 2014 peripherals that did not correspond with the run prevention one would expect, a fastball that runs up to 99 but is one of the most ineffective pitches on the Indians roster - have not come close to equaling a whole, and any persistent dissonance of that sort is always interesting. Carrasco's taxing slider is an unequivocal weapon, a weapon that must be used sparingly out of the rotation, but one that can serve as the spearhead of a pitching assault from the bullpen. Monday's game is an outlier, and it's unlikely any other outing of this length approaches that slider rate, but it was only an extreme extrapolation of a true theme.
The bullpen's limited-duration outings accentuate Carrasco's strengths. The evidence had pointed that this fact was more true for Carrasco than for most pitchers; Monday's game showed why. And as is typical for Carlos Carrasco, knowing why only raises more questions.
John can be reached on Twitter at @JHGrimm. He can also be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.