Carlos Carrasco: Finding Success as a Reliever
Once a top-50 prospect, Carlos Carrasco had front-of-the-line starter potential. Traded to the Cleveland Indians in the Cliff Lee deal, Carrasco was expected to be a top starter. Now he's in the bullpen, finding success as other converted starters have before him.
Tommy John surgery caused Carrasco to miss all of 2012, and coming back, he completely fell apart. Back from surgery in 2013, Carrasco didn't make the team out of spring training and ended up making just seven starts in the majors, posting a 7.82 ERA, 4.55 FIP and 4.51 expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP), based on a 10.5 percent fly-ball percentage. And even before Tommy John, Carrasco wasn't looking good. In 2011, he made 21 starts, but posted a 4.62 ERA, 4.28 FIP and 4.07 xFIP. His strikeouts were down, walks were up and he was giving up a lot of hits. And with no minor league options left, the Indians stuck Carrasco in the bullpen.
Precedent for a Starter to Reliever Transition
The Indians hoped Carrasco could find success in the bullpen. Sometimes starters just don't have the stuff or the stamina to throw six or more innings, but when they transition to the bullpen, they see an uptick in their velocity, as they have less pressure and don't have to conserve anything for later in the game.
One of the most famous to make the transition is Mariano Rivera. Brought up through the Yankees minor league system mostly as a starter, Rivera made just 10 starts in the majors in 1995. He posted a 5.94 ERA as a starter, before being moved to the bullpen, where he became arguably the greatest closer of all time with a 2.06 ERA and 652 saves, the most all time.
But Rivera isn't the only one, and he wasn't even a top prospect. Wade Davis was the 17th-ranked prospect by Baseball America in 2007, but as a starter, he never posted a sub-4.00 ERA, FIP or xFIP in 58 starts in 2010 and 2011. So the Rays moved him to the bullpen in 2012, where he quickly found his place. In the Rays bullpen, Davis had a 2.43 ERA, 2.78 FIP and 3.24 xFIP with 11.13 K/9, over five strikeouts higher than as a starter. His velocity increased from 91.8 MPH to 93.7 MPH, and his opponent batting average dropped a full 60 points, from .262 to .188.
And after being traded to the Royals along with James Shields, Davis has continued his bullpen success, along with another converted starter, Luke Hochevar. And while Hochevar is out this season due to Tommy John surgery, he's another top prospect, No. 32 according to Baseball America in 2007, who found success after being converted to a reliever. Hochevar, in 70.1 innings pitched last year, had a 1.92 ERA, 2.96 FIP and 2.90 xFIP after never posting an ERA below 4.50 as a starter.
After being moved to the bullpen in late August 2013, Carrasco pitched well, with a 2.08 ERA, 2.12 FIP and 3.54 xFIP in 8.2 IP. And aside from one appearance, in which Carrasco gave up two runs in two thirds of an inning pitched, he didn't give up a run the entire rest of the season. Carrasco seemed right at home in the bullpen. His fastball velocity was up a mph, from 94.8 MPH to 95.9 MPH and his pitches all had positive values, as compared to negative when he was starting.
However, the Indians gave him another go in the rotation this year, but Carrasco, as many predicted, flopped again. In just four starts, Carrasco put up a 6.95 ERA, 3.73 FIP, 3.69 xFIP.
So again, the Indians moved him back to the bullpen, where he continued to thrive. In 37.2 innings pitched this year, Carrasco has a 1.67 ERA, 2.79 FIP and 3.11 xFIP. Opponents are batting .191 against him, compared to .276 as a starter. He's walking less, 1.91 walks per nine innings (BB/9) compared to 3.68 as a starter, and striking out a few less, 7.88 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) compared to 9.41.
But the most telling stat is his ERA-, a stat used measure how a player performed in relation to the league average. As a starter this year, Carrasco had an ERA- of 183, meaning he was pitching 83 percent worse than the average MLB pitcher. Last year, as a starter Carrasco had an ERA- of 200, so he was pitching 100 percent worse than the average MLB pitcher. But as a reliever last year, Carrasco posted an ERA- of 106, and this year, it's down to 44, meaning Carrasco is pitching 56 percent better than the average pitcher, a complete turnaround from his starting woes.
As a starter, what really plagued Carrasco was facing hitters a second, and even a third time. As he went through the order a second and then a third time, his opponent batting average significantly increased.
|1st Plate Appearance||.321||.250||.246|
|2nd Plate Appearance||.371||.406||.344|
|3rd Plate Appearance||.500||.150||.320|
But in the bullpen Carrasco only has to face a hitter once and his opponent batting average on their first plate appearance has dropped to .180 this year.
With his success from the move to the bullpen, Carrasco has salvaged his career and turned it around. The once failed prospect now ranks among the top 20 relievers in ERA. He has a nasty slider - 4.1 wSL - along with an above average arsenal of pitches that's helped him throw over 30 shutout innings this year. The transition from starter to reliever allowed Carrasco to use his stuff effectively, rather than trying to save it as a starter. There was even talk of him possibly closing, before Cody Allen took possession of the closing job.
Following in the footsteps of Hochevar, Davis, Rivera and others, Carrasco has become an excellent reliever from the ashes of a failed starter. Not even arbitration eligible yet, Carrasco gives the Indians just another excellent and cheap bullpen arm to use down the stretch and into the future.