Carlos Carrasco’s Wednesday night ended with a smile, but few others were smiling, as Joey Butler broke up a would-be no-hitter in the ninth with two outs and two strikes. Throw in the fact that Butler’s liner just barely sailed over Jason Kipnis and you could argue Carrasco came as close as you can come to a no-hitter without pulling it off. Still, it was rather obviously the performance of a lifetime — Carrasco struck out Rays hitters 13 times, and he missed a full 30 bats. The line-drive hit came on pitch no. 124; Carrasco’s previous season high was 114.
A performance like Carrasco’s is interesting on its own. Yet in this case, it’s even more interesting in context. Carrasco dominated the Rays on July 1, just missing a no-hitter. Carrasco got knocked around by a very similar Rays lineup on June 19, getting pulled with a 10-hitter. The Rays, in other words, got to go up against Carlos Carrasco twice in two weeks, and the first time around, they got the better of him. But it turned out that didn’t give them an advantage. In the second game against the same team, Carrasco simply pitched like someone else.
The easiest way to show all this is by pulling heat maps from Baseball Savant. By making a .gif, it’s simple to compare between different baseball games. In the following .gif, all of Carrasco’s pitches, from June 19, and then from Wednesday. Seldom do you see pitchers working so differently within a short span of time.
Just looking at that, you could probably guess which game featured more hits allowed. But we can break this down further. Here’s a plot of Carrasco’s fastballs:
Now we can take a page from Brooks Baseball. Carrasco throws two kinds of fastballs — a straighter fastball, and a runnier, sinkier fastball. In this way Carrasco isn’t unique, but the plot above hints at what Carrasco did differently Wednesday. The first time Carrasco saw the Rays, he threw 53 four-seamers and 10 two-seamers. The second time, he threw 26 four-seamers and 37 two-seamers. Four-seamers tend to be somewhere over the plate. Two-seamers, thrown by righties, break arm-side, in on right-handed hitters. Carrasco wanted to feature that two-seamer heavily, and he wanted to live around the strike-zone border.
And now, Carrasco’s secondary pitches:
Instead of a clump over the plate, with other pitches scattered around, Carrasco shifted the grouping over, such that it would be low and away to righties. Between the outings, Carrasco dropped from 12 changeups to six. Meanwhile, he went from 24 sliders to 38, and from five curveballs to 17. Carrasco was feeling his breaking balls early on, and that feel stuck with him for the duration. So he barely made use of his change, even though it’s been a good weapon for him in the past. Against Tampa Bay, it was for the most part unnecessary. The threat of it still existed.
It’s evident that Carrasco mixed up his pitches differently. It’s evident that his location also changed, that on Wednesday he simply had better command. In the first game against the Rays, Carrasco allowed six hits on pitches over the plate, in the middle of the vertical strike zone. He threw 20% of his pitches in that area. In the second game against the Rays, he threw 8% of his pitches in that area. Carrasco stayed away from hittable spots, and outside of those spots, his stuff is good enough that he’s practically unhittable.
And for fun, there’s also velocity. Carrasco’s average four-seamer, the second time around, was a tick faster. The average curve was a tick faster. And the average slider was two ticks faster. This despite a longer outing. Carrasco frequently throws heat, but his heat Wednesday was even hotter, and he didn’t give Rays hitters much time to identify which pitch was on the way. None of them could be eliminated.
Put everything together and you get a whiff plot that looks something like this:
Carrasco got at least one strikeout with all five of his pitches. The first time around, he got strikeouts on only his four-seamer and slider. In that game, he threw three two-strike curveballs; Wednesday, he threw 11. Here’s what the curveball looked like:
Since we’re having fun, here’s what the two-seamer looked like:
And, the slider:
You see that “90” show up. Maybe in this way Carlos Carrasco’s really easy to explain — he throws four pitches near or above 90, and then his big sweeping curveball functions as the crazy change of pace. So when you throw in good mixing and even half-decent command, you get one of the more unhittable pitchers in baseball. I know Corey Kluber just whiffed a bunch of Rays too, earlier Thursday, but, I mean, that’s Corey Kluber. A team can have two of these guys. (Or more. Like the Indians.)
The way it all ended wasn’t even that bad. I mean, it was bad, in that Carrasco allowed an 0-and-2 hit instead of clinching a no-hitter, but for all Carrasco has said about the pitch to Butler being a mistake, he didn’t hang it that much:
The pitch was almost on target, and Butler has a lot of swing-and-miss in his game. Carrasco wanted the pitch to be a little lower and a little more away, but this is what he threw at 0-and-2:
You don’t expect many righties to stay back, stay short, and line that pitch over the second baseman’s head. Especially not righties with Butler’s history. Most of the time, that doesn’t lead to a hit. I don’t know about all the other pitches Carrasco threw on the game, so it’s not fair to just isolate one in particular and say Carrasco deserved to make history, but he didn’t leave one hanging right down the middle. Even the one pitch Carrasco will never forget was a perfectly adequate pitch. Butler just did a great job of hitting it. He’s batting .314.
Within two weeks, the Rays saw Carlos Carrasco twice. The second time, they did hardly anything, because Carrasco reflected upon the first time and decided he didn’t want to go through that again. I can’t speak to Carrasco’s actual plan. But the way he pitched Wednesday was considerably different. What people will remember is the hit that busted it up. But that one hit does nothing to change the fact that Carlos Carrasco is one of baseball’s better starting pitchers. Maybe he was right to smile.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.