Zach McAllister’s Attempt at the Carlos Carrasco

Carlos Carrasco is probably not the first to pull off the Carlos Carrasco, so perhaps I shouldn’t be terming it as such, but, recency wins over everything. Carrasco, for quite some time, was a frustrating and incomplete potential starting pitcher. Early last year, he worked out of the Indians’ rotation. He was subsequently moved to the bullpen, where his game unsurprisingly picked up. Then he moved back to the rotation, where his game more surprisingly maintained. Early as a starter, Carrasco’s fastball averaged about 93. Out of the bullpen, it averaged almost 96. Back in the rotation, it averaged about 96. Carrasco is now a sleeper who might be way too good to actually qualify as a sleeper.

Topically, Carrasco has this teammate, named Zach McAllister. Like Carrasco, McAllister has worked out of the Indians’ rotation in the past. Like Carrasco, he’s also been bumped to the bullpen. McAllister was just recently named the Indians’ No. 4 starting pitcher for 2015, prevailing over guys like Danny Salazar and the re-injured Gavin Floyd. Salazar’s the one with all the hype, on account of his extraordinarily electric arm. McAllister, though, might be something more than you figured. His assignment might not be only temporary, as there are signs he, too, is pulling off the Carrasco.

A few things to hit first. Terry Francona announced that McAllister will start the Indians’ fourth game, but he didn’t make any guarantees from there. McAllister was pretty much always going to make the Indians in some capacity, because he’s out of options. Uncertainties about the early schedule and weather have left the Indians in a position where they don’t know how their rotation is going to line up for actual games. McAllister will start, first, but he might still pitch in relief if the Indians need him to do so. He has not impressed to such a degree that the organization has committed to him 30 starts. He has impressed.

And about that second thing — right now, in spring training, McAllister ranks tied for fourth in strikeouts. He’s even with David Price and ahead of Max Scherzer, so that’s fine company, even in a month where we’re instructed not to put any stock in this stuff. It’s good enough advice, but you can’t help but notice when a pitcher is striking out more than a batter an inning. Spring training stats are at least worth a brief and deeper examination, and while they don’t make it easy by limiting data, we can usually manage.

As you understand, there’s hardly any PITCHf/x information coming out of March. Analysis, then, feels relatively primitive, given what we can do during the year. What we have isn’t too different from what we had a decade ago, and this spring there’s just about nothing on McAllister’s actual pitches. Something we do have, however, are words, on top of the numbers. I clicked through a few recent McAllister videos on Some quotation excerpts:

My velocity has maintained what I did in the bullpen last year — that’s always a plus when you have a little bit extra. (McAllister)

Throughout my entire career, I’ve always thought that I’ve had a little bit more in there, and could maintain it[…] (McAllister)

Real good velocity — he held it through his last inning. (Francona)

Clearly, these are promising words. We don’t have actual velocity information, but we do have indirect velocity information, by way of remarks about impressive and consistent velocity. We have the simple fact that the Indians have given McAllister a starting job, instead of a gig in relief. It appears there’s something going on here, and it appears there was also a sign of this last September.

Through last August, McAllister started, in Cleveland and also in Triple-A. When he returned in September, he almost exclusively relieved, but some of those assignments were fairly long, and he also mixed in one six-inning start against the Astros. With the caveat that one start is one start and certainly not two starts or any more than that, you can see what might’ve been a first sign of promise. It’s not just that McAllister threw harder out of the bullpen. Most pitchers do. When he made a spot start, he didn’t give much back.

Previous to September, McAllister had a fastball that, according to our pages, averaged 92.2 miles per hour. This is a pretty good fastball! Among starting pitchers, it would’ve placed McAllister around the 68th percentile. This was consistent with McAllister’s earlier work. In his first game in relief, on September 1, McAllister’s heater averaged 95. The second time, it averaged 95.4. Then McAllister made that spot start, throwing 91 pitches. The average fastball: 95.1. That would’ve placed McAllister around the 97th percentile. Or, if you prefer names, there are names like Jose Fernandez and Zack Wheeler. And Carlos Carrasco.

McAllister stretched out and didn’t lose anything. More encouraging, he didn’t really lose anything over the course of the outing. Through July, McAllister’s average fastball the third time through the order was about four-tenths of one tick slower than the first time through the order. In that one start in September: three-tenths of one tick slower. Straight from Gameday, here are velocity readings for a sixth-inning at-bat against Chris Carter:

  • 95
  • 94
  • 96
  • 95
  • 81
  • 83
  • 96
  • 97
  • 96
  • 95

When McAllister returned to the bullpen afterward, he was throwing 95+. He did enough in relief to demonstrate his usefulness. And he did enough in the one spot start to raise a few eyebrows. Those eyebrows apparently haven’t come down.

As is so often the case, sample size tempers all the optimism. We’re talking about information from one start many months ago. We don’t have numbers for this particular month. Yet this is, at least, reason to give McAllister a little more benefit of the doubt than before. Already, he was an acceptable fourth or fifth starter, probably. And while every pitcher is different, and velocity isn’t the most important thing, there tends to be a very direct relationship between velocity increases and performance improvements. It seems McAllister might throw harder now as a starter than he used to. It’s almost impossible to see how that wouldn’t help. Maybe — maybe — it increases his probability of getting hurt, too, but who here can claim to know when an arm is going to break down? Improve, first. Then worry.

McAllister doesn’t credit anything in particular. He’s made vague references to adjustments, but it seems this is about better conditioning, better prep, and more consistent mechanics. In the game against the Astros, McAllister threw almost exclusively fastballs and curveballs, but he does also have other pitches, and Francona this spring has noted a few quality splitters. There’s always been a decent pitcher here, and now there could be something more, right in the nick of time.

Helped by Mickey Callaway, and also helped by himself, Carlos Carrasco learned some lessons in the bullpen and has been able to apply them to his work as a starter. Zach McAllister might now be able to tell a similar story. His stuff picked up in the bullpen and, based on indications, he hasn’t given much back upon going back to starting. The Indians haven’t yet made a big extended commitment. Nor should they, given their relative wealth of rotation depth. But, it doesn’t look like McAllister is just keeping a rotation spot warm for Danny Salazar. McAllister has earned this. All he had to do was learn a Jose Fernandez fastball.

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.

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Matthew Tobin

Praise be to the baseball gods: JEFF IS BACK!