Carrasco’s Growth Could Give Cleveland a Pair of Aces

To look at what Cleveland’s Carlos Carrasco did on the mound independent of any prior season in his professional career, it would be pretty safe to say he had a really quality year for the Indians.

For those who endured his ups and downs and his eventual banishment to the bullpen in the time from his acquisition from the Philadelphia Phillies in the Cliff Lee trade through the early weeks of the 2014 season, that quality season becomes a beautiful piece of art.

Outside of Cleveland, Carrasco likely does not get the credit for the pitcher he has turned in to. Indians fans know his growth and cannot help but to be encouraged about his prospects for the future while anchoring the Cleveland starting rotation.

Looking back on those moments just after the 2014 season, there was so much to be optimistic about regarding Carrasco’s strong finish, but given the suspect track record that preceded it, it was difficult to not proceed with extreme caution.

He had shown flashes in the past. But never had he been able to put everything together in a complete season. To find the success he did this year, while flirting on two separate occasions with baseball history, is an utter shock and makes him one of the biggest surprises of the Indians season.

Last year, Carrasco made four starts in April and allowed 17 earned runs in 22 innings for a 6.95 ERA. Opposing hitters batted .286 off of him and he was dealt three losses. Out of options and needing an opportunity to find himself, he remained on the roster but was lost in limbo in mop up duty in the bullpen.

His initial transition to reliever came with some bumps, including back-to-back outings with a pair of earned runs allowed in some lopsided contests. But as the season improved and he continued to work with pitching coach Mickey Callaway and bullpen coach Kevin Cash, he became one of the Indians’ more effective relievers and worked himself into some higher leverage roles.

His growth was so pronounced that the coaches insisted that manager Terry Francona give Carrasco another chance in the rotation. The rest has been history. He made ten starts down the stretch, allowing a .179 batting average while earning a 1.30 ERA. He struck out 78 batters in 69 innings and threw a complete game, essentially earning his spot in the rotation for 2015.

This season, Carrasco was at times dominant and even unhittable on the mound, but he did have his scares and did fight injury some.

He pitched into the seventh and struck out ten batters in his first start of the year, earning the Indians their first win of the season and erasing some of the concerns the detractors had that he could not maintain the momentum gained by ending the previous season so strongly. But on just the second batter of his next start, Carrasco took a liner to the head off of the bat of Melky Cabrera and had to leave the game. He escaped serious injury but was dealt an unfortunate and unfair loss as the bullpen allowed both men to score and the Indians lost, 4-1.

He returned to the mound a week later and struck out eight over five innings while on a bit of a pitch count. After a tough outing with Detroit to end the month, he buckled down in May. He went 4-2 with a 4.10 ERA and struck out 43 batters, one of three months of the year he would accomplish that.

While his win total would not reflect it, he continually got better and better through the summer months. His ERA decreased from 4.60 in April to 4.10 in May to 4.02 in June to 3.72 in July. In August, it hit a season best 1.47 in four starts, but he went 1-1 despite giving up just five runs. His strikeout-to-walk ratio followed a similar progression, after a big April. From May’s 4.30 K/walk rate, he improved it to 5.17, to 5.38, all the way to 6.60 in August.

The deeper into the season, the stronger it appeared he was getting.

In one of the biggest highlights of the season, Carrasco went out on July 1st and took a no-hitter within one strike of completion while flirting to end a hitless drought by an Indians pitcher dating back to Len Barker in 1981. Instead, Carrasco had to settle for a combined one-hitter over the Tampa Bay Rays, 8-1, a feat still remarkable in effort.

He had a rough start on the 25th and may just have been affected by some of the trade rumors that were circulating about him. The Indians were looking like sellers heading into the trading deadline and would move four veteran bats (David Murphy, Brandon Moss, Nick Swisher, and Michael Bourn) and one reliever (Marc Rzepczynski) off of the club. But would they seriously consider trading Carrasco?

The “cookie” did not crumble on July 30th, as the righty threw a complete game gem in Oakland against the A’s, allowing just a run on two hits with seven strikeouts. With the deadline passed, the pressure may have been off but he was possibly even more dominant on August 4th, allowing just a single to new Los Angeles Angels outfielder Murphy in the fifth inning while logging nine total innings of one-hit ball. It took a game-winning two-run homer from Giovanny Urshela in the top of the 12th to finally give the Indians the edge.

After an eleven strikeout start against the New York Yankees on the 21st, he hit the disabled list with inflammation in his right shoulder. His 158 innings pitched at that point of the season were already 24 more than his Major League career high in 2014 and just four outs short of the most he had logged in any professional season (159 1/3 with Lakewood of the South Atlantic League in 2006).

He returned on September 8th and did not last long, giving up a pair of homers and four runs in total in two and two-thirds innings. He bounced back in the next two starts, striking out nine in each game in a combined eleven innings before he chased history again.

His 15-strikeout one-hitter over the Kansas City Royals, spoiled only by an Alex Rios seventh inning single, was historic on multiple levels. All 15 whiffs were swinging. He joined Corey Kluber in the 200 strikeout club, becoming the second pair of Indians pitchers in team history to accomplish the feat, only otherwise done by Sam McDowell and Luis Tiant in 1967 and 1968.

He also became the first pitcher in Cleveland history to throw a one-hitter with as many strikeouts as he notched in the outing.

Further fun with statistics showed that he became just the fifth pitcher to ever throw a shutout with one or fewer hits allowed and 15 Ks while on the road. Max Scherzer accomplished the feat in his no-hitter earlier in the season. Curt Schilling (2002 – Arizona), Nolan Ryan (1973 – California), and Tom Seaver (1970 – New York Mets) were the other three members of that elite company.

Carrasco finished the season with a 14-12 record and a 3.63 ERA in 30 starts. He threw three complete games, including one shutout, and ended the season with 216 strikeouts in 183 2/3 innings pitched. He walked just 43. His 1.07 WHIP was fourth-best in the American League and his strikeout total was fifth.

He struggled in Cleveland, something the whole team did for great stretches of the season. He was just 5-8 at home in 15 starts, posting a 5.03 ERA and allowing the opposition to hit .283 against him. On the road, he was a dominating 9-4 in 15 starts, striking out 125 versus 24 walks, registering all three complete games, and holding the home team to a .179 mark at the plate in their own park.

He is set to begin his seventh season on the Indians pitching staff in 2016. He debuted with the club at the age of 22 in 2009 and spent parts of three seasons with the club before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2011 that cost him all of the 2012 campaign. He returned with a shaky 15 games in 2013, going 1-4 with a 6.75 ERA.

Carrasco, who will turn 29 in the days just before the start of the 2016 season, had non-invasive surgery on a heart condition following the 2014 season. He dealt with heart palpitations during the spring this year and was prescribed medications to control his heartbeat.

Rumors will undoubtedly swirl again in the offseason as teams inquire as to the availability of the Indians’ most productive pitcher of the season as the club focuses on the trade market as a means of upgrading the roster. While Carrasco now sees his value at an all-time high and is locked up on a team-friendly four-year, $22 million deal through 2018 with a pair of team options to follow, the Indians may not be able to afford to move him, based on his dominance on the mound.

In a business where few players are deemed “untouchable”, Carrasco is an interesting card for the Tribe to hold, especially following a season where he filled the role of staff ace while reigning Cy Young Award winner and Opening Day starter Kluber struggled at times throughout the year with home runs, a lack of run support, and injuries of his own.

While teams ideally deal from depth, quality starting pitching is hard to develop and harder to find affordably in free agency. That is one of the many factors that will have opposing teams asking about him, but all the more reason that Cleveland may be best suited holding on to their second ace.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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