After the implosion of John Axford earlier this season, the Tribe has been deploying the ever-increasingly popular closer by committee, with Cody Allen receiving a majority of the recent save opportunities. However, the Indians could greatly benefit with some stability at the back end of the bullpen, and Carlos Carrasco is an interesting, and not often discussed, option to do that.
The Indians have a number of relievers who from time to time were seen as the successor to Chris Perez; however, none of these options seem poised to take the reins. The most popular “closer-to-be” just two years ago was Vinnie Pestano. Pestano has been an enigma since his time on the 2013 USA World Baseball Classic team. In 2011 and 2012, Pestano had a 2.32 and 2.57 MLB ERA respectively. His MLB era in 2013 and 2014: 4.08 and 13.50. He is pitching pretty well for the Clippers now, sporting a 2-3 record with five saves and a 1.88 ERA with 31 strikeouts in 24.0 innings pitched. That said, until he can survive even a couple of months on a major league roster, it is hard to see him as the ninth-inning guy.
The other oft-rumored successor to the ninth is C.C. Lee. However, Lee has never been able to transfer his potential to the bigs. He earned the badge as potential closer due to his minor league success, posting an ERA no higher than 3.35 from 2009 through last season. However, in six minor league seasons, he has just 3 saves. This lack of experience closing out games and absence of MLB success is not promising.
Enter Carlos Carrasco. Certainly, he has been terrible as a starter. Carrasco has not won a Major League game as a starter since 2011. However, his stuff is incredible, and the Indian’s clearly value him. Earlier this season, Carrasco was moved back to the bullpen where he is currently stuck somewhere between long and middle relief, although, yesterday, he pitched the final 2.1 innings in the Tribe’s win. His scoreless performance resulted in his first big league save. Was this save the first of many?
As a reliever this year, Carrasco sports a 1.96 ERA with 22 strikeouts in 23.0 innings. As a starter, he is 0-3 with a 6.95 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 22.0 innings pitched. The first time through the lineup, Carrasco is dazzling. In his career as a starter, batters in their first plate appearance of the game bat just .246. During their second time up, the opposition’s average jumps to .344. This steep decline in performance could be physical fatigue, mental fatigue, predictability, or any number of causes, and, as a closer, this limiting factor would be eliminated. Carrasco certainly would not face batters more than once in a game, and it would limit the total number of plate appearances individual opponents would have against him.
Moreover, there is precedent to take a young or faltering starter not quite ready for the rotation and use him to anchor the bullpen.
One of the Mets top young arms, Jenry Mejia, started the season in their rotation, but after posting a 5.06 ERA, the 24-year-old was moved to the back of the pen. He has since sported a stellar 2.76 ERA and has notched 7 saves as a closer, including multiple saves of an inning or more – one of the luxuries of having a former starter in the closer position.
In Baltimore, Zach Britton was the Orioles third round pick in 2006. Team officials hoped he would have a career as a starter, toeing the rubber as a SP from 2011-2013. In 2014, he is now locking down the ninth for the O’s. As a career starter, Britton was 18-17 in 46 starts. He had an ERA of 4.86 and averaged 5.9 strikeouts per nine innings. This year, he has been the Orioles closer since Tommy Hunter went down with an injury. As a reliever, Britton is 3-0 with a 0.76 ERA and 7 saves, averaging 6.6 K/9. He is pitching so well in the ninth, there is significant debate as to whether or not Hunter should be handed the closer’s role back.
Going back historically, what Tribe fan does not have fond memories of Jose Mesa manning the mound in the ninth through the latter half of the 1990s. However, many forget that Mesa was originally a starter, thanks mainly in part to his above-average fastball. In his career as a starter, he was 27-40 with a 5.07 ERA and 4.5 K/9 innings. Contrast that with his line as a reliever: 53-69, 321 saves, 3.95 ERA and 6.9 K/9 innings. In Mesa’s first full year as a closer, 1995, he was 3-0 with 46 saves, a 1.13 ERA, and 8.2 K/9 innings. Carrasco appears to be on a very similar trajectory as Mesa, and that could be a great thing for both he and Tribe fans.
Finally, for those not ready to anoint Carrasco as Cleveland’s closer of the future, it cannot hurt to at least see what he can do. Reference the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals. Adam Wainwright made the club out of Spring Training as a reliever despite only having minor league experience as a starter. He took over the closer’s role in the waning days of the season due to an injury to Jason Isringhausen. He saved three regular season games, and went on to save four postseason game en route to the Cardinals winning the World Series. Arguably, one of the biggest moments of that 2006 run was Wainwright earning a game 7 save in the NLCS by striking out Carlos Beltran with the bases loaded in the ninth.
Ultimately, whether or not yesterday’s save for Carlos Carrasco was an aberration or the start of a renewed career is yet to be seen, but the evidence suggests that he may have found a home in the ninth inning.