‘He knows how to exploit a hitter’s weakness’

Carlos Carrasco treated image Mets uniform grey Citi Field background

So what should the Mets expect from Carlos Carrasco in 2021?

The newly-acquired right-hander, who came over with Francisco Lindor in the trade with the Cleveland Indians, is well known for surviving a cancer diagnosis in 2019 and showing the fortitude to return to pitch in the big leagues the same season.

Scouts — particularly those who are ex-pitchers — love talking about Carrasco because they regard him as something of a thinking man’s pitcher, even an artist, in an era that is increasingly dominated by power.

“He’s a guy who really understands his craft,” one scout and former pitcher told me. “He knows how to exploit a hitter’s weakness by changing speeds and moving the ball around, and the stuff plays.

“He still throws 94, 95 and he’ll vary the speed on his breaking stuff, his curve and slider. And he’s got a really good change-up. He knows how to mix all four pitches. I enjoy watching a guy like that — it’s not all about velocity.”

Another scout who pitched in the big leagues seconded that assessment and took it a step farther, comparing him to Orlando Hernandez, better known as “El Duque” when he was helping the Yankees win championships during the Joe Torre dynasty years.

“Carrasco has better velo, but he has some of that El Duque deception,” the scout said. “He looks like he’s not afraid to experiment out there, maybe change angles on his slider, throw his curveball at different speeds.

“There’s an unpredictable nature to what he does that makes him fun to watch. I’m a big fan of any pitcher that commands his fastball and uses all of his pitches. He doesn’t throw as hard as he did when he was younger, but he uses his changeup more now. And for me, he looked as good last year as I can ever remember seeing him. That’s a tribute to him after what he went through the year before.”

In truth, no one knew how fully Carrasco would recover from his bout with leukemia in 2019. He was diagnosed in May after pitching poorly and feeling sluggish to that point in the season, and for months, he wasn’t sure when or if he’d be strong enough to pitch again.

He was on the Injured List for the next three months while on medication. But in June, he decided one day to try throwing in the bullpen just to see how his arm felt, with pitching coach Carl Willis there to observe.

And as Carrasco wrote in a first-person story for The Players’ Tribune later that year, he was devastated by the results.

“I was trying to throw like I normally would but it was like 20 or 30 percent of what I’m used to,” he wrote. “I couldn’t even get the ball to the catcher without it bouncing. I threw five pitches like that and Carl walked over to me…and before I knew it I was crying right there on the mound.”

It would be weeks before Carrasco tried throwing again, and yet as treatment and medication helped him recover from the cancer, he was able to regain his strength and return to pitch out of the bullpen in September.

However, he wasn’t the same, pitching to a 6.60 ERA in 11 appearances, so there were plenty of questions going into 2020 at age 33.

“I remember seeing him that September and his stuff wasn’t crisp,” one scout recalled. “I don’t think anybody knew if he’d get back to his normal self.”

Perhaps the delayed start to the 2020 season helped in that regard, but he looked like the same old Carrasco by the time games began in July, pitching to a 2.91 ERA in his 12 starts, averaging 5 2/3 innings per. He got better the more he pitched, as he put up a 1.97 ERA over his final five starts of the season.

Scouts say he changed his pitch usage somewhat in keeping with the trend in the game these days to counter the hitters’ launch-angle approach, throwing his four-seam fastball “above the hitting plane,” while also relying on his changeup 27.5 percent of the time, the highest percentage of his career.

In doing so, Carrasco racked up the most swings and misses per pitch of his career. His 15.1 swing-and-miss percentage was the seventh highest in the majors, and his strikeout ratio of 10.9 per nine innings was the highest of his career.

If there was anything of concern last season, Carrasco did issue 28 walks, or 3.6 per nine innings, the highest ratio of his career, and it remains to be seen if that was more than an aberration.

As for age, the right-hander turns 34 in March, but he has been very durable. His only baseball-related injury in the last several years was the result of a line drive in a game that broke a bone in his pitching hand in September 2016, forcing him to miss the Indians’ run to the World Series that year.

All in all, the consensus among scouts is that Carrasco should prove to be a very good fit behind Jacob deGrom in the Mets’ rotation.

“He’s a solid No. 2 starter,” one of the ex-pitcher scouts said. “The stuff is still quality and he has a very good feel out there. He just knows how to pitch.”

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