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Getting to know Carlos Carrasco

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“Cookie” Carrasco has been one of the most consistent pitchers of the last decade, and has overcome a lot to get here.

2019 World Series Game 3 - Houston Astros v. Washington Nationals Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Francisco Lindor trade may always be known as just the “Francisco Lindor trade” for obvious reasons, the Mets also received veteran Carlos Carrasco in the deal, and he is not to be overlooked at all. The 33-year-old starter has put together one of the best résumés of any starting pitcher in all of baseball over the last seven seasons, and will slot right into a key position the Mets’ rotation.

Carrasco, nicknamed “Cookie,” has often been overlooked due to playing in Cleveland his whole career, and many are not familiar with his backstory. The right-hander was signed out of Venezuela by the Phillies as a 16-year-old in 2003. By 2007, he had worked his way up the minors and was widely considered the best prospect in the Phillies’ system, and easily maintained that honor through 2008 and into the 2009 season, when the Phillies dealt him to Cleveland as the prize of a package for Cliff Lee mid-year.

Cleveland gave the 22-year-old Carrasco a shot at the big leagues in 2009 as a September call-up. He didn’t quite stick, but he received another September call-up in 2010. He became a mainstay of Cleveland’s rotation in 2011 by posting a solid 4.62 ERA and 4.28 FIP over 124.2 innings pitched, but he went down in August of that season due to Tommy John surgery, which cost him his entire 2012 season. He returned in 2013 and had a devil of a time adjusting post-surgery, getting beat up to the tune of a 6.75 ERA in just 46.2 major league innings that year.

Carrasco started the 2014 season in the big leagues and once again got knocked around in his first few starts. His prospect shine had long worn off at age 27, and it was looking like he was a major bust. He was relegated to the bullpen in April, but it was there that he found something instantly. After being moved to relief, Carrasco tossed 43 innings out of the bullpen and held a shiny 2.30 ERA as a reliever, striking out over eight batters per nine innings, a rate he had never enjoyed as a starter. That performance earned him a promotion back to the rotation on August 10 of that year, and he only built on his success from there. In his final ten starts of the year, he had a 1.30 ERA and 1.73 FIP across 69 innings, striking out over 10 batters per nine. Carrasco had suddenly emerged as a force.

The reason for his sudden success was simple: Carrasco dramatically increased his slider usage in 2014. Before then, Carrasco relied mostly on his fastball and changeup combo, while only mixing in his slider about 10% of the time. In 2014, Carrasco more than doubled his slider usage to 21.4%, and threw it more often than any other offspeed pitch in his arsenal. That slider earned a FanGraphs Pitch Value of 17.2 that year, one of the best in the game. Just like that, Carrasco had developed one of the best secondaries in baseball.

Carrasco has continued to heavily feature that slider ever since, and he continues to make adjustments to his pitch usage to adapt to his age-related decline in velocity. His fastball usage has steadily declined every year, from 55.6% in 2015 to just 39.3% in 2020, while he’s bumped up his usage of his curveball and changeup to go along with that wipeout slider in recent years.

These adjustments have allowed Carrasco to be one of the most consistent pitchers in baseball. From 2014 to 2018, Carrasco amassed 856.0 innings with a 3.27 ERA, 3.01 FIP, and 10.13 K/9 over those five seasons. His fWAR over that span was 21.0, the seventh-best mark among all starting pitchers in that time, ranking in between Justin Verlander and David Price.

After 2018, Carrasco, still only 31 at the time, could have probably asked for a huge extension bordering on nine digits. But instead, he took what many would describe as a home town discount in order to remain with Cleveland for longer. It was a four-year, $47 million extension, far below market rate for a player of his track record to that point.

Now locked up for the next four seasons, Carrasco could presumably get back to focusing on pitching going into 2019. But he did not get off to a good start, and struggled throughout the entirety of April and May. He did not look like the same pitcher. He later admitted he had been feeling lethargic for several weeks, and was placed on the IL on June 5 with what Cleveland described as a “blood condition.” A month later, Carrasco revealed that he had been diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia.

Now tasked with a battle far beyond pitching or baseball, Carrasco received support from all over baseball. He was honored at the All-Star game in Cleveland, standing alongside his teammates in the annual Stand Up to Cancer moment. Thankfully, Carrasco had a treatable form of the disease and was able to get back on the field before the end of the 2019 season. He returned in Tampa, pitching in relief, and entered to a standing ovation. A few days later, he returned to Progressive Field in Cleveland to another rousing ovation. In September of that year, he penned an article in The Players’ Tribune about his experience with cancer from his diagnosis, to treatment, to his return. He won the 2019 American League Comeback Player of the Year award for his brave fight and swift return.

Being in remission, Carrasco would not have been blamed if he chose to opt out of the 2020 season after the pandemic hit for his own safety. But he braved the pandemic and returned to the field last year, reclaiming his place in Cleveland’s starting rotation. He handled a full starter’s workload in the shortened season—12 starts and 68.0 innings—and returned to his usual form with a 2.91 ERA and a 3.59 FIP, which should silence any concerns about his battle with leukemia continuing to impact his pitching at all.

Carassco, like Lindor, is also known to have an effervescent personality and is considered a very strong clubhouse presence. He has lots of fun and gets along with the media. In addition to his Players’ Tribune article about his cancer diagnosis, he previously wrote another Players’ Tribune article on how he adjusted to American life after coming over at age 16, which included an anecdote about how he ordered Domino’s Pizza every day for 90 days because it was the only thing he knew how to order.

Carrasco is also a notable humanitarian, winning the Roberto Clemente award in 2019 for his charitable efforts in both Venezuela and the U.S. He earned the “Cookie” nickname because former reliever Chris Perez saw him eating cookies in the clubhouse after a game in 2011.

Carrasco should fit in very nicely on this Mets team, both with his personality and with his talent. He may be entering his age-34 season, but he clearly knows how to make adjustments to fend off age-related decline. The Mets don’t even need him to be an ace; they just need him to fill a spot in the middle of the rotation, and he’s absolutely capable of that and more.