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Carlos Carrasco: Better than you might think

Cleveland Indians pitcher Carlos Carrasco has a 4.35 ERA this season, but how has he still managed to be as effective as he was in 2014?

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

As a child, my parents taught me not to judge a book by its cover.

That saying has fueled my personality. I strive every day to be as open-minded as possible. I try to look at every issue from every angle possible. But who would have guessed that my parents weren’t teaching me to be an informed decision maker with that saying? Who would’ve guessed that, instead, my parents were prophesying a future event? Forewarning me that in 2015, Cleveland Indians starter Carlos Carrasco would have a drastically better season than his ERA would suggest.

Here we are in 2015, and it turns out they were right—Carrasco has been better than his 4.35 ERA indicates.

That ERA tells an adversely different story than his impressive 2.91 FIP and 2.87 xFIP. Although those numbers are not lower than the sterling 2.44 FIP and 2.66 xFIP he posted last season, they are still a strong indication that he is pitching well.

So what’s the cause for Carrasco’s high ERA—is he not striking as many people out, or could he be walking too many? Even though strikeouts and walks are usually good indicators of success (or lack thereof), neither appears to be the problem this time.

In 2014, Carrasco struck out 26.5 percent of the batters he faced while walking only 5.5 percent. So far this year, the 28-year old has struck out 26.7 percent of the batters he has faced while walking only 5.3 percent. Clearly strikeouts and walks are not where Carrasco’s issues lie.

What about the veteran’s BABIP, LOB%, or HR/FB percentage—the three ‘luck’ indicators for a pitcher?

Gettin' (Un)Lucky?
BABIP LOB% HR/FB
2014 .274 75.9% 7.1%
2015 .347 70.0% 11.1%
Career .315 70.3% 11.2%

A BABIP of .347? Ah ha! We have probable cause. Now, just like the police, we have the go-ahead to search Carrasco in order to find out why his luck indicators are so high and how it affects his ERA.

Although the Venezuelan-born righty is stranding runners at virtually the same rate he has his entire career, it looks like he is the latest victim of a high HR/FB percentage and high BABIP, which is why we are going to focus on those two explicitly.

FanGraphs does a great job of describing why a pitcher's HR/FB percentage can be a good indicator of how unlucky a pitcher has been if he has given up a lot of home runs. With Carrasco it’s not as much that he has started to give up more home runs; instead he has regressed to his career average of 11.2 percent.

This is largely because he is giving up a hard-hit ball 33.5 percent of the time—the highest total he has had in his career since his first 22.1 MLB innings in 2009. But the oddity here is that pitchers usually don’t give up more home runs just because they are giving up harder contact. The hard-throwing righty has also seen a rise in the percentage of fly balls he has given up—about five percent—and a slight increase in the amount of line drives he has given up. So in Carrasco’s case, it is the harder contact combined with the type of hits he is giving up that has resulted in an elevated home run rate.

But what about Carrasco’s abnormally high BABIP?

Although good or bad luck is hard to quantify, BABIP is one of the ways we can measure whether a players’ performance is sustainable. BABIP can usually be written off because it does not have highly predictable behavior like other statistical options out there. However, this is one instance in which BABIP should not be so easily overlooked.

What makes BABIP for pitchers more revealing than for hitters is that it can be an indicator of how their defense has played behind them. And herein lies the problem for Carrasco. If you’re Chris Rose, or an Indians fan in general, this next part might not be what you want to see. The Indians defense is just plain bad. It’s because of this poor defense that Indians pitchers, especially Carlos Carrasco, are suffering.

Here’s just how bad the Indians defense has been so far in 2015:

Defensive Indifference
rPM RngR DRS UZR UZR/150 Def
Indians -13 -13.1 -7 -14.8 -5.5 -13.8
MLB Rank 24 26 t-19th 27 27 27

I understand that playing defense at the major league level is no easy thing when you face guys that can constantly hit the ball over 100 mph. I will also concede that one of the areas in which sabermetrics might have the most room for improvement is in its attempt to quantify defense. But for the majority of all defensive statistics to agree that the Indians are playing below average defense, well that should say something.

While it is poor overall defense that is haunting the Indians and causing the rise in Carrasco’s BABIP—and ERA in general—it has really been their lack of range that has been their biggest foe. An overall -13 Plus Minus Runs Saved (rPM) and a -13.1 Range Runs (RngR) describes just the lack of range that Indians fielders have expressed this season. Because fielders don’t get penalized for being unable to get to a ball, i.e. a below-league average range, pitchers do. Pitchers will give up more hits and/or runs than they should, leading to a higher BABIP and ERA.

Like any team, though, a blanket statement doesn’t stand up for every player on the team. Not every Indian is playing below average defense this season. Jason Kipnis has enjoyed a good year defensively—as 3 Defensive Runs Saved and a 3.4 Ultimate Zone Rating suggest—and so has Lonnie Chisenhall—8 DRS and 3.1 UZR. With that being said, there are also some standouts in the other direction. Here are the positions where the Indians defensively haven't been up to par:

The Other Side of the Coin
rPM RngR DRS UZR UZR/150
Outfield -7 -13.4 -3 -11.6 -10.3
Shortstop 2 -2.2 2 -5.3 -14.1

It’s tough for a pitcher to be successful, as far as run prevention goes, when there are weaker fielders at the positions where defense is more of a premium. What’s interesting is that Carrasco has not been the only Indian to deal with this issue in 2015. Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer, for example, are two of many pitchers that have a significantly lower FIP and/or xFIP than their respective ERA’s. Clearly defensive issues aren’t just a problem Carlos Carrasco is facing.

It is not a stretch of the imagination at all to say that Carrasco—who signed a four-year contract extension before the season—has been good in 2015. He is striking out and walking guys at almost exactly the same rate as he did one year ago, though he is giving up home runs at a rate closer to his career average. However, it is the things that he cannot control that are the main cause for the 4.35 ERA he has. It is his teams’ defensive issues that are the main cause for the heightened amount of runs that Carrasco and the Indians pitching staff, in general, have given up.

. . .

Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a sophomore pitcher at Howard Payne University majoring in Business Management. He has the current misfortune of being Red Sox fan. If you would like to get a hold of him, please feel free to email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody.