Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Cleveland Indians @ Tampa Bay Rays, 7:10 PM ET
CLE: Carlos Carrasco (5.0 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 3 HR, 1 BB, 5 K – 96 pitches, 63 strikes, 23 BF vs. BOS on 4/6)
TBR: Drew Smyly (6.2 IP, 6 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 3 HR, 1 BB, 5 K – 98 pitches, 62 strikes, 27 BF vs. TOR on 4/4)

Brian Blanco & Jason Miller/Getty Images North America

Brian Blanco & Jason Miller/Getty Images North America

After breaking into the majors as a 22-year-old in 2009, Carlos Carrasco struggled along for the next few years, missing all of 2012 while recovering from Tommy John surgery and posting a career 5.29 ERA and 4.48 FIP in 238.1 innings through 2013. To that point in his career, Carrasco’s career H/9 was 10.8, K/9 was 6.2, BB/9 was 3.1, and his opponent’s BABIP was .325, about 25 points higher than league average.

Carrasco began 2014 in the Indians’ rotation but allowed four or more earned runs in each of his first four starts, prompting a move to the bullpen. Carrasco improved mightily in his time in the bullpen, and when he returned to the rotation on August 10 of that season, he made 10 starts and pitched 69.0 innings to the tune of a miniscule 1.30 ERA and 1.73 FIP, posting a WHIP of 0.81 and a 78:11 K:BB ratio. In 2015, Carrasco finally had his first successful season as a full-time starter, throwing 183.2 innings over 30 starts, racking up a 3.63 ERA, 2.84 FIP, 1.07 WHIP, and a 216:43 K:BB ratio (5.02 K/BB).

Carrasco first outing of the 2016 season, however, was far from what fans had come to expect from the Venezuelan right-hander after the past couple season. From the stat line, the most immediate red flag is the three home runs allowed in just five innings. All three of those home runs were served up by fastballs high in the zone.

The first was a dead-center, full-count, 92.8 mph fastball that Brock Holt lined into the right field bleachers in the second inning. Leading off the sixth inning, again with the count full, Carrasco threw a 92.3 mph fastball belt-high and slightly away from left-handed slugger David Ortiz, which the man nicknamed “Big Papi” had no issue turning on and yanking into right-center for a solo blast. The next batter, Hanley Ramirez, ahead in the count 2-1, promptly ended Carrasco’s outing by muscling a middle-in, 91.8 mph fastball the other way to right-center for his first home run of the season. The location of all these pitches can be seen below:

Besides the home runs, Carrasco’s pitches themselves were a bit worrisome. His velocity was down ever so slightly from where it was last season, but that’s not terribly concerning so early in the season. What was concerning, however, was the movement patterns of his pitches. Some days, a pitcher will come out, struggle, and say he felt “flat” on the mound. Unfortunately for Carrasco, he was not just figuratively, but literally flat against the Red Sox. Every single one of his pitches, except the curveball, had significantly less downward movement than normal. Take a look at the PITCHf/x vertical movement readings from Carrasco’s pitches in 2015 versus last week, provided by Brooks Baseball:

As you can see, every pitch is up on the chart, indicating they had less “sink” than normal. With less plane change to disrupt a hitter’s hand-eye coordination. it’s not surprising that Carrasco struggled to avoid hard contact and get swings-and-misses in his outing. Going forward, this should be monitored to see if it was simply one lousy outing or if it is becoming a trend.

University of Arkansas product Drew Smyly broke into the majors with the Detroit Tigers in 2012, and has had a fairly successful career since, racking up a career 3.24 ERA and 3.53 WHIP in nearly 400 innings from his rookie season through 2015. After he was sent from Detroit to Tampa Bay in the three-team trade that sent David Price to the Tigers in 2014, Smyly made seven starts with the Rays, posting a 1.70 ERA and 0.76 WHIP in 47.2 innings. 2015 could’ve been his “breakout season” had he not missed over three months rehabbing from a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. Despite the injury, Smyly managed to make 12 starts for Tampa Bay, working 66.2 innings with a 3.11 ERA, 3.91 FIP, and 1.17 WHIP.

Similar to Carrasco, Smyly’s 2016 debut was a bit of a letdown, as he allowed home runs to Josh Thole, Michael Saunders, and Josh Donaldson in 6.2 innings of work. However, Smyly was a bit more unlucky than Carrasco, as none of the pitches hit for home runs were particularly egregious errors on his part:

The worst of those pitches was the fastball that Thole lined to right-center on a 2-1 count, but it was still relatively low in the zone despite catching a bit too much of the middle of the plate. Then again, it’s Josh Thole, so not many would blame Smyly for wanting to be aggressive when behind in the count.

Smyly’s biggest issue on the day, however, was his cutter, which is his third-most-frequent offering behind his fastball and curveball, according to FanGraphs. Normally, a good cutter has a fair amount of glove-side movement a bit more depth than a four-seam fastball. Last season, Smyly’s cutter was pretty good, and what it lacked in horizontal movement it made up for in sinking action. However, in his last outing, it has considerably less of both when compared to 2015:

smyly cutter

Due to the relative straightness of Smyly’s cutters, Toronto hitters has no issue putting bat-to-ball on the pitch. Of the 19 cutters Smyly threw according to Brooks Baseball, none were swung at and missed, with nine of those pitches going for strikes; however, all nine of those strikes were put in play. Of those nine. four went for base hits. Moving forward, Smyly will have to improve the effectiveness of his cutter if he wants to continue using it as a legitimate weapon the way he has in the past.

Among a relatively weak crop of starting pitching matchups on Wednesday, this game features a pair of number two starters with legitimate upside hoping to rebound of off shaky season debuts. With each pitcher showing troubling signs in their first outing, this game will provide more insight into whether the lack of effectiveness was just a fluke or something more significant. Hopefully for each pitchers’ team, they can right the ship and take steps in the right direction, as both will be crucial to their teams’ success this season.

Honorable Mentions:

Atlanta Braves vs. Washington Nationals, 7:05 PM ET: Matt Wisler vs. Stephen Strasburg – Now in his second season as a part of the Atlanta Braves rotation, 23-year-old left-hander Matt Wisler takes the mound after allowing four runs on seven hits and walk with six punchouts over 6.2 innings in his season debut. Stephen Strasburg looks for a rebound start for the Nationals after striking out four while walking three and allowing six hits in six innings against the Braves in his season debut.

Baltimore Orioles vs. Boston Red Sox, 7:10 PM ET: Ubaldo Jimenez vs. Joe Kelly – Jimenez looked strong in his season debut against Minnesota, striking out nine with no walks and allowing two runs (one earned) on eight hits over seven innings. Kelly, on the other hand, was lit up by the Toronto Blue Jays, who pounded out seven runs on seven hits, a walk, and a hit batter over three-plus innings of work by the Boston right-hander.

Cincinnati Reds @ Chicago Cubs, 8:05 PM ET: Alfredo Simon vs. John Lackey – In his first start back with the Reds, Simon struck out seven over five innings, allowing two runs (one earned) off of five hits, two walks, and two hit batters. Veteran John Lackey hopes to bounce back from a rough Cubs debut in which he surrendered six runs in six innings off of eight hits, including two home runs. Lackey walked one and struck out four Arizona hitters.

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