All it takes is one pitch to change a season. Just ask the recently injured Carlos Carrasco. A 95 mile per hour fastball to Ian Kinsler became a 101 mile per hour missile heading straight for his hand. And when it connected, the bones in the hand did not survive the attack.
It was discovered after testing that Carrasco suffered a non-displaced break of his fifth metacarpal (broken finger), and the Indians have no idea when he will be able to return. That means his hotel reservations for October need to be cancelled and replaced with reservations for physical therapy.
Just add it to the list of unexpected occurrences for the Tribe’s number two starter.
Before the season started, expectations were high for Carrasco, who was coming off an excellent 2015. Three ESPN experts predicted he would win the Cy Young Award and he was always mentioned alongside Corey Kluber as the second part of Cleveland’s 1-2 starting pitching punch.
Over his first three starts, he’d done pretty well to fulfill those expectations. He posted a 2.79 ERA and had an 18:5 strikeout-to-walk ratio while holding opponents to a .208 batting average.
Then disaster struck during his fourth start. Cruising along, Carrasco had allowed only one hit in two and one-third innings of work. As he was covering first on a grounder to first baseman Carlos Santana, something he’s done hundreds of time in the past, he appeared to pull his hamstring and laid on the ground for several minutes after tagging first to get the out. It was announced later that Carrasco strained his left hamstring and would be out four to six weeks.
He returned after five-and-a-half weeks, within the initial timeframe. Carrasco pitched so well after his first start back on June 2, it was as if he had never even left the rotation. For the month of June, he posted an ERA of 2.61 while striking out 9.36 batters per nine innings.
His last two starts of the month were pure domination. He threw a complete game shutout in his first start back at the scene of the crime, Comerica Park, only allowing four hits and one walk while adding seven strikeouts. In his last start of the month, he struck out 14 Blue Jays in seven and a third innings and helped the Tribe extend their winning streak to 13.
Carrasco’s July was just as good as his June. Despite not having the strikeout pitch going as much (7.31 K/9), he still managed to lower his ERA from 2.56 to 2.45. It was safe to say Carrasco was living up to his preseason expectations and that his early season injury did not seem to affect him.
However, there were warning signs of a possible regression. In addition to a dip in strikeouts, Carrasco’s walk numbers began creeping up, from 2.78 BB/9 in June to 3.49 BB/9 in July. As a result, his FIP (which is used to predict ERA) went above 4. Though he wasn’t getting hurt by the free passes yet, the lack of command was something that needed to be addressed.
The walks caught up to him in August, as he suffered through his two worst outings of the season. The first was an eight-run shellacking at the hands of the last-place Minnesota Twins, when he only lasted three and two-thirds innings. In the other, it was Carrasco’s defense that failed him. He gave up seven runs (three earned) in a loss to Texas at the end of the month, the penultimate game on the Tribe’s terrible road trip. In three of his four other August starts, Carrasco gave up at least five hits and three earned runs. The dog days were not kind to him.
Luckily for the Tribe’s number two starter, other members of the rotation were also struggling during August. Namely Josh Tomlin, who went 0-5 with an 11.48 ERA and 7.11 FIP during the month, earning him a bullpen demotion. Tomlin’s terrible month kept the focus off of Carrasco, something that every athlete needs when they are going through a rough patch.
The Indians, though, did not really need him or Tomlin to perform as well as they had at the beginning of the season. On August 1, they had a four-game lead over the Detroit Tigers, and despite finishing the month with a .533 record (16-14), the Tribe expanded the lead by half a game as the calendar flipped to September.
Even during his abysmal August, Carrasco still pitched a gem. It came near the end of the month against Oakland, and the right-hander struck out nine A’s over eight shutout innings while only giving up four hits. The strikeouts never abandoned Carrasco, as during the month of August, he posted an 11.39 K/9 ratio.
In his first September start, he turned those strikeouts into a quality outing. Facing the Marlins, Carrasco lasted seven and a third innings, striking out eleven and walking one. Four hits resulted in no runs and the Tribe cruised to a 6-2 victory. In each of his next two starts, Carrasco gave up four earned runs and the man they call Cookie was looking to get himself back on track against the Tigers.
As luck would have it, he would not last more than one batter. Broken fingers are pretty hard to pitch through and Carrasco left his start after being struck on the hand.
Carrasco finished the year with strong overall numbers despite missing what will be two months because of injury. He’s currently third on the team in Baseball Reference’s version of WAR (3.7) and will finish no lower than fifth. He racked up 150 strikeouts in only 146 innings and limited opponents to a batting average of .238. Carrasco’s 3.32 ERA is 11th best in the AL among starters with at least 140 innings, while his K/9 (9.23) was seventh best.
Even though Carrasco’s roller coaster season ended at a low point, the highs were certainly worth it. He pitched like a high-quality pitcher. A broken finger is not like a nagging shoulder or elbow injury. Carrasco will be back next year at full strength, ready to dominate again and ride the roller coaster higher than before.
Photo: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast