SEATTLE -- Indians manager Terry Francona’s message to Carlos Carrasco before Wednesday's 1-0 win over the Mariners: be mean. And it appeared that Carrasco embraced that direction.
On the heels of one of his worst career starts, Carrasco followed with one of his best, at least on the young 2019 season. He marched the Tribe to a tight victory to cap a three-game sweep of the Mariners in Seattle, striking out 12 for the second time this season while showing his best polish thus far on each of his three pitches. Carrasco was aided by only three Indians hits and one run of support, via a solo home run from Jake Bauers in the fifth.
Five days prior, Carrasco failed to get out of the first inning in Kansas City, retiring only two of the eight batters he faced while giving up six earned runs in an 8-1 loss to a Royals club that had lost 10 straight. On Wednesday, he overcame the issues that plagued him in that game, most notably with his four-seam fastball.
The performance uptick wasn’t just luck or determination. Carrasco said that he pitched with a faster tempo on Wednesday, after diagnosing that a slower pace may have hindered him during his bullpen session earlier this week. He said that moving at a quicker rate with his delivery helped him pitch out of a higher and more optimum arm slot, leading to better command.
“I just want to throw with conviction and I didn't have that in my last game,” Carrasco said. “That's something I worked on for this game. It's my delivery. Mentally, I'm there. I think it was my mechanics a little bit, and that's what I fixed in my bullpen [session].”
Entering Wednesday, Carrasco’s fastball had been arguably the most glaring root of his issues. Opposing hitters were batting .533 (third worst in MLB among qualified pitchers) with an average exit velocity of 99.1 mph on his four-seam fastball (fifth worst). That trend did not continue, as the only two hits Carrasco gave up while using the four-seamer were a sixth-inning double that Domingo Santana had to lean across the plate to hack at and a seventh-inning single to Edwin Encarnacion. Mariners hitters finished 2-for-12 against the pitch, with five strikeouts and two walks.
Carrasco also generated three punchouts each on his changeup and slider, exhibiting balance across his arsenal.
“He's got to trust himself a little bit. His stuff is too good,” Francona said.
Part of Carrasco’s pitfalls before Wednesday could be attributed to bad luck. Opposing hitters had a .613 batting average on balls in play against him, but he had also been the victim of hard contact. Opponents were averaging a hard-hit ball (classified by Statcast as anything with an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher) against Carrasco.
The hard-hit balls were still present; half of the 10 batted balls against Carrasco said as much. But as a swing-and-miss specialist, he asserts that his game is predicated on location and getting into two-strike counts. Once there, he’s among the best at generating a punchout.
Highest putaway rate among MLB pitchers in 2019 (entering Wednesday)
Minimum 25 two-strike pitches (351 pitchers)
1. Edwin Diaz: 48.1%
2. Carlos Carrasco: 39.5%
3.(tie) Matthew Boyd: 36.4%
3.(tie) Robert Stephenson: 36.4%
5. Colten Brewer: 34.5%
Putaway rate is the percentage of two-strike pitches resulting in a strikeout
"He was throwing all his pitches well in the zone with some really nasty shadows behind him,” Mariners third baseman Ryon Healy said. “Tough to pick up spin out of his hand initially. A couple pitches that maybe we missed throughout the lineup that normally we don’t. But hats off to him. He threw really well today."
The Indians’ sweep came at a time in which they sorely needed length from their starters. After a three-game sweep against the Royals, during which Carrasco and Corey Kluber turned in a combined 3 1/3 innings, Cleveland brought a taxed bullpen to Seattle, where the Mariners and their patient power-hitting lineup awaited.
With Brad Hand unavailable after pitching three straight days, Francona deployed Nick Wittgren in relief of Carrasco for a six-out save. After Thursday’s off-day, Indians relievers should be rested and at full strength when they open a three-game series against the Braves in Cleveland.