The Mets missed the playoffs for the fourth straight season in 2020, due in large part to their rotation’s struggles. Even with Jacob deGrom having another tremendous season, the starters posted a horrid 5.37 ERA in the 60-game season. To their credit, the front office made the rotation a priority, bringing back Marcus Stroman and signing Taijuan Walker while also acquiring some depth. They also picked up Carlos Carrasco, a veteran hurler from Cleveland, as part of the Francisco Lindor trade.
Adding Carrasco was one of the team’s more under-the-radar moves, mainly because it was overshadowed by Lindor. The right-hander came to New York with a career 3.77 ERA, 3.42 FIP, and 1.20 WHIP in 11 seasons, posting a 19.5 bWAR to that point. He was especially terrific from 2015-2018, pitching to a 3.40 ERA, a 3.12 FIP, a 1.11 WHIP, 28.3% K% and a 5.7% BB% in 722.0 innings. He finished 13th in American League Cy Young voting in 2015 and fourth in 2017 after leading the AL with 18 victories and posting a 3.29 ERA and a 3.10 FIP in 200.0 innings. His numbers dipped in 2019, which is completely understandable given his leukemia diagnosis, but he thankfully beat the disease and had a tremendous 2020 campaign, posting a 2.91 ERA and 3.59 FIP in 12 starts.
That brings us to 2021, where Carrasco was envisioned as a mid-to-top of the rotation arm to pair with deGrom and Stroman. Along with Walker and David Peterson, the club had hoped they had done enough to put an end to their rotation woes. Unfortunately, Carrasco was bit by the injury bug early on, and never really bounced back. Elbow soreness kept him out of the early stages of spring training, and while trying to ramp up, he tore his hamstring. The initial diagnosis called for him missing six-to-eight weeks, which would have kept him out through mid-May.
He was eventually transferred to the 60-day IL on May 6, which pushed his anticipated return back to May 31. That plan never materialized, as he continued to suffer setback after setback, despite the club’s refusal to refer to them as such. The 34-year-old finally began a rehab assignment in July, right as the club was starting to slip. His rehab results varied from start to start, and he struggled with his control in some outings. Despite not being fully ready, the Mets made the decision to bring Carrasco up to plug some of the holes in their rotation that were left by recent injuries.
204 days after he was acquired by New York, Carrasco finally stepped on a big league mound in a Mets jersey (a black jersey, no less). The right-hander was capped at around 60 pitches and was expected to stretch out over the coming weeks, but there was still excitement in seeing one of the team’s big offseason acquisition take the hill. His Mets’ career got off to an inauspicious start, as Jonathan India of the Reds took Carrasco’s first pitch and sent it over the left field wall for a home run. First inning struggles would become a running theme for the veteran this year, and would plague him in pretty much every outing. He settled down to pitch four strong innings in his first start off the IL, allowing three hits, striking out four, and walking one while tossing 58 pitches.
His next start against the Marlins yielded a roughly similar stat line, though he did manage to keep Miami off the board in the first (something he would only do in one other start in 2021). He actually cruised through four innings but hit a snag in the fifth, allowing two runs before getting pulled after 4.1 innings of two-run ball. His next time out, he was bombarded in the first inning of a game against the Nationals that, quite frankly, should have never started given the bleak weather forecast. He ended up allowing four earned runs over one-plus innings, but the rain suspended play and cut his outing short. His next start against the Dodgers was his worst, as he surrendered three home runs in two innings and was tagged for six earned runs on six hits before being lifted. To that point, Carrasco owned a 10.32 ERA and 7.59 FIP in four starts.
That was the low point of his season, and he managed to turn it around somewhat. Over his next six outings, he put together his best stretch in orange and blue (and black), and resembled something much closer to the pitcher the Mets thought they were getting. It started with a better outing against Los Angeles, albeit one that resulted in his second straight loss. That start was a milestone for Carrasco, as it was the first time he pitched five innings, as he reached a season-high 78 pitches. His next time out against the Giants, he went seven and allowed just two earned runs on three hits. It remains his best start as a Met, but it was still not good enough to earn him his first victory.
That moment came two starts down the road, as he finally got in the win column against the Marlins on September 7. He went five and allowed four runs (one earned), which was enough on that evening. Two starts later, he picked up his second quality start in an outing against the Phillies in which he went six innings and allowed two earned runs, though he was still saddled with the loss. Over those six starts from August 20 through September 18, he posted a 3.51 ERA, a 3.74 FIP, a 1.08 WHIP, a 22.1% K%, and a 6.7% BB% in 33.1 innings. He managed to drop his ERA by five runs, from 10.32 to 5.24, and he was generally more effective than he had been up until that point.
He couldn’t end on a high note, however, and he took a step back over his final two starts against the playoff-bound Brewers and Braves. In each of those starts, he allowed five earned runs on seven hits, walking four while striking out three against Milwaukee and walking two while striking out five in Atlanta. With that, his final line of 2021 was set at a 6.04 ERA, a 5.22 FIP, a 1.44 WHIP, and a -0.9 bWAR in 53.2 innings. His 21.1% K% was his worst since 2013, while his 2.0 HR/9 was the third-worst mark of his big league career.
His numbers were inflated by his ineffective first innings, which really hurt him and the team. Of the 36 earned runs he allowed, 18 came in the first inning. In total, he pitched to a 13.50 ERA in the first inning while posting a 3.89 ERA in innings two through seven. He owned an 8.18 ERA in innings one through three, while posting a 2.61 ERA after the first three. His early struggles remained a mystery, despite Luis Rojas’ insistence that it was fixable. At least for this year, the club and the right-hander were never able to fix it. In total, he allowed runs in the first in 10 of his 12 starts, and allowed multiple first inning runs in half of his outings.
It’s truly unfortunate that Carrasco, who is one of the most beloved players in the sport, couldn’t have the year he is capable of. So what does that mean for 2022? Carrasco, who turns 35 in March, is still under contract for two years, so barring anything unforeseen, he will be part of the team’s plans. It’s hard to trust him to be that top-of-the-rotation arm the club envisioned he would be when they acquired him, but there is no reason to think he can’t be a reliable back-end starter. His arm seemed fine upon his return*, and his freak hamstring injury will likely not be a concern. Ultimately, the hope is that this year will just be an aberration and Cookie will once again prove to be a dependable starting pitcher. And if that happens, it would be a sweet treat for the Mets.
*Approximately 24 hours ago, it was revealed that Carrasco underwent successful surgery to remove a bone spur in his right elbow. As of now, he is expected to resume throwing “later this winter”, and all signs point to him being ready for spring training. Aside from the usual Mets nonsense about withholding information on injuries and making someone pitch under less-than-ideal circumstances related to his health, this could explain some of the difficulties he experienced in 2021. His injury issues will be a big concern heading into next season, but he can leave them in the past, he should be able to return to his form from his Cleveland days.