You’ll have to forgive Cardinals fans who became nostalgic yesterday afternoon, watching former pitching messiah Chris Carpenter twirl a seven-inning masterpiece versus the hapless Pirates. For one game anyway, it was 2006 all over again.
The fact that Carpenter is even able to take the mound at this point in his career is a testament to modern medicine. Carp suffered a torn labrum as a Toronto Blue Jay back in 2002, which Baseball Prospectus med-head Will Carroll called “a professional death sentence for pitchers.”
Of course, the big right-hander did not go silently into the night, eventually establishing new heights with the Cardinals. Carpenter showed promise with the Jays, generally posting Fielding Independent ERA’s in the low-to-mid fours, but he morphed into a bona-fide ace with the Red Birds. Carp was once supposed to team up with Toronto stud Roy Halladay to form a dynamic one-two punch north of the border. While that didn’t occur, Carpenter essentially became a Doc Halladay doppelganger from 2004 to 2006:
2004: 182 IP, 7.52 K/9, 1.88 BB/9, 52.2 GB%, 3.85 FIP
2005: 241.2 IP, 7.93 K/9, 1.90 BB/9, 54.5 GB%, 2.90 FIP
2006: 221.2 IP, 7.47 K/9, 1.75 BB/9, 53.3 GB%, 3.44 FIP
Carpenter’s pro career reached its apex in ’06: not only did he celebrate a World Series title, but he also inked a lucrative contract extension that winter. The Cards locked up their mended ace for five years and $63 million, plus a 2012 club option.
Unfortunately, his stardom was once again put on hold. The immense workload shouldered during Carpenter’s Cy Young 2005 season and championship-winning 2006 campaign had taxed his body. He went under the knife for Tommy John surgery, but as Carroll explains, his path back to the majors has been rife with sharp left turns:
“During his rehab, though, things have gone anything but predictably. He had a shoulder strain as well as nerve issues in his elbow (a common TJ complication) and in his shoulder, a combination which doctors have called “unprecedented.” The nerve transposition in his elbow is perhaps the most controversial element of what was done in Carpenter’s surgery; most surgeons currently move the ulnar nerve as a part of the Tommy John procedure to avoid this kind of setback, but it was not done in Carpenter’s case.” (Will Carroll’s Under The Knife: Chris Carpenter, March 11, 2009).
While it’s anyone’s guess as to how well the 34 year-old will hold up in the long run, Carpenter was stellar in his season-opening start against the Bucs. He did not allow a hit through 6.2 frames, whiffing seven and walking none. Here’s a quick look at Carp’s Pitch F/X data for the game:
Carpenter broke out all of his pitches versus the Pirates, mixing in fastballs, sinkers, cutters, curves, sliders and a couple changeups:
(X is horizontal movement, Z is vertical movement. FB= fastball, SI= sinker, FC= cutter, SL= slider, CB= curveball, CH= changeup).
FB: 93.1 MPH, -10.5 X, 5.39 Z, 27 thrown
SI: 92.6 MPH, -11.55 X, 4.97 Z, 15 thrown
FC: 89.1 MPH, -1.05 X, 6.13 Z, 13 thrown
SL: 88.5 MPH, -0.66 X, 4.4 Z, 16 thrown
CB: 75.5 MPH, 6.6 X, -9.9 Z, 19 thrown
CH: 85.9 MPH, -10 X, 7.3 Z, 2 thrown
Carpenter’s fastball had an absurd amount of tailing action in on the hands of right-handed hitters, with good velocity to boot. He also used the cutter/slider to keep lefties honest, while buckling knees with his dastardly curveball. Look at the movement on that Uncle Charlie: nearly 10 inches of drop, with over six and a half inches of side-to-side movement as well. Think about the plight of the righty hitter for a moment: Carpenter could toss you a fastball that runs right into the nub of your bat, or he could flip a curve way in the opposite direction that just falls off the table. How do you hit that (I suppose you don’t, eh Pirates)?
Keep in mind that this was just one outing, but Chris Carpenter seemingly picked up exactly where he left off in October of 2006. He threw a cornucopia of quality offerings, befuddling batters with a bowling-ball heater and a curve worthy of Vin Scully’s “Public Enemy No. 1” designation. Don’t get too worked up, but Carpenter sure did look like his old self on Thursday afternoon. The Cardinals (on the hook for $43.5 million over the next three years) can only hope it continues.