Chris Carpenter is going to take the hill for St. Louis tonight in Game Two of the NLCS. During the game, you’re going to hear about Carpenter’s postseason track record — it’s very good — and about how he’s come back for the playoffs after missing most of the season. Carpenter is both often excellent and often injured, so those are the two things he is understandably most famous for.
But, perhaps there’s one other thing that Chris Carpenter should be well known for, because he’s probably better at this than he is at just about anything else – shutting down the running game.
Back in September, I commissioned some research that was inspired by Johnny Cueto‘s ridiculous pickoff move, wondering where his ability to catch runners off base ranked in baseball history. As it turns out, Cueto did have the best CS% of any starting pitcher (minimum 40 SB attempts) since 1974, as he’d nabbed 65.9% of all would-be base-stealers. Number two on that list — and with a remarkably larger sample of data — was Chris Carpenter, who had watched an absurd 77 of 124 attempted base stealers against him get gunned down. His 62.0% CS% wasn’t far behind Cueto, but he’d done while having three times as many attempted stolen bases against him, making it perhaps an even more impressive total overall.
Now, of course the first thing that comes to mind when you see that Chris Carpenter has a very high CS% is that he’s been fortunate to throw a lot of innings to Yadier Molina, who is the best defensive catcher of his generation. And it’s certainly true that any pitcher throwing to Molina is going to have an advantage in this area. Since he took over as the Cardinals regular backstop in 2005, opposing base stealers are just 15 for 46 against Carpenter. To put it another way, there has been a successful steal of second against the Carpenter/Molina tandem just once every 78 innings.
However, Carpenter didn’t come up with the Cardinals organization, and he got to St. Louis before Molina, so we have some data on how well runners stole bases off of him without the benefit of having Yadier behind the plate. From 1997 to 2004, base stealers were successful against Carpenter in just 32 of 78 attempts, giving him a 59% CS% that’s not too terribly different from what he’s put up with Molina.
In reality, the difference is how often they’ve tested him. From ’97-’04, opposing runners attempted a steal off Carpenter once every 13.5 innings. From 2005-2012, that’s been once every 25.3 innings. Interestingly, the stolen base attempt rate took a dramatic fall upon his switch to St. Louis, but Molina wasn’t yet the regular catcher – Mike Matheny, now his manager, was his backstop for the first year in St. Louis. There were three stolen base attempts off Carpenter/Matheny that year, and each of them resulted in a caught stealing.
Again, you might be tempted to give most of the credit to the catcher, as Matheny was also pretty well known for his defensive prowess, and was able to turn those skills into a 13 year career despite not being able to hit. But, it appears that Matheny got more of a rub from Carpenter than vice versa – his career CS% was just 35%, and in 2004, he only threw out 29% of base stealers that ran on him when Carpenter wasn’t on the mound.
Still not convinced that Carpenter has a huge effect on the running game? Consider this – a stolen base has been attempted against Carpenter with 11 different catchers behind the plate during his career. Every single one of those 11 catchers has a CS% over 50% when catching Chris Carpenter. The worst CS% for a Carpenter/catcher combination is a tie between Charlie O’Brien (2 SB, 2 CS in 19 IP), Mark Delasandro (1 SB, 1 CS in 31 IP), and Tony Cruz (1 SB, 1 CS in 22 IP). Among the guys who have been behind the plate for at least 100 of Carpenter’s innings, Darrin Fletcher has the worst CS% at 52.3%.
Yes, the same Darrin Fletcher who twice allowed 100 or more stolen bases in a season and only threw out 24% of attempted base stealers throughout his career. In fact, 7.8% of Fletcher’s career caught stealing totals came when Carpenter was on the mound, while Carpenter only represents 5.5% of the total innings caught by Fletcher in his career. With basically anyone else on the mound, Fletcher was easy to steal off of. With Carpenter on the mound, Fletcher was one of the best catchers in baseball at throwing out base stealers.
Yadier Molina is a huge stolen base deterrent in his own right, but Chris Carpenter is also one of the very best weapons in baseball against the running game. The combination of the two should be enough for any manager to just bag the running game entirely. The Giants are a decent running team, and they stole 118 bases during the regular season, but there’s just no reason to try and take second base tonight, especially while Carpenter is on the mound. There may be some pressure to make something happen against a good pitcher in what might very well be a low scoring game, but attempting to steal second base tonight is likely to just result in giving the Cardinals a free out.