Is Fausto Back?

Fausto Carmona’s descent is well known. He had a 4.2 WAR season in 2007, thanks to a 2.55 BB/9 and a miniscule 0.67 HR/9. Even though that sounds like he may have had some luck with regards to home runs, xFIP would disagree, as he had a 3.88 xFIP against a 3.94 FIP. Carmona had the perfect formula for a low strikeout pitcher: keep runners off the bases and throw a ton of ground balls, as he posted a ridiculous 64.3% ground ball rate that season.

Carmona couldn’t keep the walks down in 2008, as he walked nearly twice as many batters on a per inning basis. The ground ball rate was still high, at 63.5%, which was the only thing keeping him above replacement level, as he posted a K/BB well below 1.00. The 2009 season was equally as bad, as an increase in strikeouts wasn’t enough to counteract a drop in ground ball rates. Both seasons saw xFIPs around 5.00 and FIPs in the same range.

This season, Carmona is having what appears to be a rebirth, as he’s running a 3.53 ERA through his first 11 starts. Looking slightly deeper, we see a similar K/BB rate to Carmona’s great 2007, but the ground ball rate just isn’t there any more. Still, with a ground ball rate as high as Carmona still runs, like his 56.2% rate this season, even a little luck can turn a mediocre season (4.18 FIP, 4.59 xFIP).

Those advanced metrics suggest that Carmona is back in the sense that he’s a Major League quality starting pitcher again, but he’s by no means an ace or even a number two. That shouldn’t be terribly surprising, as he simply doesn’t have strikeout stuff, and it’s very hard to be consistently successful in the major leagues when contact is made as consistently as it is against Carmona. Still, he also proves that a pitcher with a high ground ball rate can be very useful.

Carmona is under contract for the 2011 season at $6.1 million and then the Indians hold $7M, $9M, and $12M club options for the next three years. Even though Carmona isn’t an elite pitcher, the market for starting pitching can be thin, and $6.1 million for an average or even slightly below average starting pitcher isn’t a bad deal. Either Carmona wears out his usefulness by 2012, or the Indians can play the market for the next few years and see if he still fits into their plans.

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Other things to note about Carmona’s performance this year…

.271 baBIP is the lowest of his career, averaging .299. It was .281 when he had a great season a few years ago. His SO% is still way down, his GB/FB is 0.5 lower than it was in 2007 and his contact rate is up several percent. Also, he’s getting more looking strikes than usual, throwing fewer strikes than league average and his first-strike percentage is also lower than usual (and 3% below league average).

Carmona’s little rebirth is nice, but one can’t help but wonder if the various luck factors are playing a role here. His control still isn’t good and his peripherals don’t really look anything like they did 3 years ago, with noticeable drops just about everywhere.

I think he’s having a good run that isn’t sustainable and that he’ll regress soon enough.