The career arc of Chris Carpenter is fairly intriguing. He started out as one of the better-ranked prospects in the Blue Jays minor league system, only to become an injury-prone mid-rotation starter during his first stretch in the majors. Once the Cardinals took a chance on him–and after he’d had surgery–Carpenter blossomed into one of the most productive pitchers in the game.
Eighteen-year-old Chris Carpenter was drafted fifteenth overall by Toronto in the 1993 amateur draft, out of Trinity High School in Manchester, NH. He signed in August, delayin his professional debut to the following year at Medicine Hat in the Pioneer League. There, he threw 84.2 innings of high-strikeout and high-walk baseball. His K/9 was 8.5, but his BB/9 was 4.15, producing a K/BB ratio of 2.05.
For the 1995 season, the Jays promoted Carpenter pretty aggressively, as he split time between High-A Dunedin and Double-A Knoxville:
IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA Dunedin (A+) 99.1 5.07 4.53 1.12 0.27 7.52 2.63 Knoxville (AA) 64.1 7.41 4.34 1.71 0.42 9.93 5.18
He was lucky in Dunedin, since his peripherals weren’t exactly inspiring, yet his ERA and RA remained impressive enough. Upon promotion to Knoxville, he started missing more bats, and his walk rate decreased a smidge, but the bats he did find knocked the ball all over the place, as Carpenter allowed almost ten hits per nine innings pitched. Amazing what a bit of luck can do for your earned run average, isn’t it?
Carpenter would post an RA of 4.94 for the 1996 season, throwing 171.1 innings in a repeater season at Double-A. His K/9 climbed upwards of 8, but his BB/9 was even closer to 5, and his HR/9 increased from the previous season up to 0.68. The lower RA was mostly a product of Carpenter’s allowing a hit-and-a-half less per nine innings than he had in the previous season’s 64 innings of Knoxville work. For his efforts, he was named the third-best prospect in the organization by Baseball America.
Even though Carpenter obviously had his issues due to his high walk rates, the Jays promoted him to Triple-A Syracuse for the 1997 season. He wasn’t there to stay very long, as the Jays optioned him up and down throughout the rest of the season, until finally sticking him in the Toronto rotation in mid July:
IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA Syracuse (AAA) 120.0 7.28 3.98 1.83 1.20 8.48 4.80 Toronto (MLB) 81.1 6.09 4.09 1.49 0.77 11.95 6.09
His Triple-A numbers were an improvement on the previous season, as he lowered his walk rate by almost a full walk per nine, but his home run rate shot well past one per nine, which isn’t really surprising for a young pitcher after promotion. His stay in the majors was abysmal–he shaved a bit off that longball rate, but in exchange allowed almost 12 hits per nine innings. Some of that can be a matter of poor luck, but it also has to be attributed to Carpenter not being ready for the majors yet. His eye-popping .374 BABIP helps support that thought.
Baseball Prospectus 1998 was still optimistic about Carpenter after his initial exposure to big league hitters:
Carpenter pitched well down the stretch after a brief, disastrous May callup. The 13 starts he got at the major league level should serve him well this year as the Jays’ #4 starter. A big guy, he doesn’t have the strikeout rates you’d like to see, but he gets high marks for a wicked curveball and the ol’ rouge and lipstick.
Considering his age, one would think that Carpenter may strike out more batters given a bit more time in the majors, especially with that curve cited above. Control was far and away his most significant problem, but even that would be reigned in somewhat during the 1998 season. Carpenter threw 175 innings in 24 starts (33 games overall) with a 6.99 K/9 and his first K/BB over two since his professional debut–a career-high 2.23. A major fix was his handing out only 61 free passes for a BB/9 of 3.14. Carpenter also shaved off over a run from his RA while allowing a league average-ish BABIP of .310. He also generated a great deal more flyball outs than in the previous year, posting a G/F of 1.72 after a 2.03 season. Chances are good that a great many grounders that slipped through the cracks in 1997 were fielded in 1998, or maybe Carpenter had a disproportionate number of flyballs and liners caught by his outfield defense in the later season. On an analysis note, this is why I prefer more advanced batted-ball data over the simplistic and tricky G/F ratio, because it more clearly defines what’s going on. Alas, I can’t show what is not available or was not collected. Either way, his BABIP dropped by over 60 points, helping Carpenter out a great deal.
The following 1999 season would have been Carpenter’s first full year in the rotation, if not for season-ending elbow surgery to remove a bone spur, an operation performed courtesy of Dr. James Andrews. Prior to being shut down, Carpenter had looked like the same pitcher as the year before, although with a higher hit rate and a .335 BABIP. Baseball Prospectus 2000 had faith in a Carpenter rebound:
His mistreatment at the hands of Tim Johnson haunted the Jays well after Johnson’s dismissal, as Carpenter missed most of last June with a sore elbow. Fregosi wasn’t particularly gentle with him, either, as he averaged 110 pitches per start before the DL stint. Carpenter has the build, the arm, and the repertoire to be one of the best starters in the league.
Nice to see that a sore elbow in June was ridden hard afterward by a team that was never really in contention. Carpenter didn’t quite recover his former status following surgery; he struck out only 113 batters in 175 innings while walking 83, and he gave up 1.54 HR/9. Baseball Prospectus 2001 says that Toronto’s home park played like “Coors Light” in 2000, but that doesn’t cover the ground that a poor performance such as this needs. He struck out fewer than six batters per nine while walking more than four, and 15% of his flyballs ended up in the bleachers. Somehow, Carpenter nevertheless threw 17 quality starts out of 34. He was markedly better on the road, although even there he posted a still-poor .275/.358/.456 line against.
His performance in 2001 saw a return to pre-surgery levels of production, but with a lower strikeout rate. Most importantly, he was relatively free of pain throughout the season, but this wouldn’t last. In 2002, Carpenter struggled with a shoulder injury that put him on the disabled list three times and forced him to make stops at three levels before finally succumbing to surgery. Simply put, it didn’t go well, and the Jays released Carpenter following the season. The subsequent 2003 season saw the Cardinals sign Carpenter in an attempt to rehab his shoulder, but first he would need to undergo a second surgery to remove scar tissue from his right shoulder.
The Jays believe their 1993 first round pick could still emerge as a frontline pitcher and hoped to ink him to a minor league contract. Seeking a fresh start, Carpenter instead signed for the major league minimum with St. Louis, where he may thrive working with Dave Duncan.
PECOTA wasn’t as optimistic, pegging Carpenter for a 1.63 K/BB and 1.19 HR/9 in 98.2 innings, “good” for a VORP of only 7.0. However, 2003 wasn’t the season that mattered, especially after the second surgery. Instead, 2004 was the year where St. Louis would find if their bargain shopping was going to pay off, as they stuck Carpenter into the rotation to begin the year.
Carpenter’s shoulder was healthy for the entire season, although he did miss the last few weeks of the regular season, along with the postseason, with nerve irritation in his upper arm. That health was reflected in his numbers, although 2004 was actually the least-productive of his three seasons in St. Louis thus far, as this table will attest to:
IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA 2004 182.0 7.52 1.88 4.00 1.19 8.36 3.71 2005 241.2 7.93 1.90 4.18 0.67 7.60 3.05 2006 221.2 7.47 1.75 4.28 0.85 7.88 3.29
His K rates finally climbed up to his minor league levels, and he was able to reduce his home runs allowed in the same manner. The lowered hit rates are also notable, but the most significant change in his statistics is reflected in his walk rates. His K/BB and BB/9 basically switched places; instead of walking almost four batters per nine innings, Carpenter was now striking out four times as many hitters as he was walking, and he actually became somewhat stingy with free passes. Credit for this most likely rests with pitching coach Dave Duncan, as well as the relative health of Carpenter since his shoulder was repaired. Let’s not forget that Carpenter brought home the Cy Young Award in 2005, and very well may win another in the very near future. What of those lower hit rates, though?
Year FB% LINERD% GB% POPUP% HR/F P/PA BABIP 2004 29.5% 18.2% 52.3% N/A 17.6% 3.6 .282 2005 23.8% 17.2% 55.3% 3.6% 11.0% 3.6 .285 2006 22.0% 18.5% 55.2% 4.2% 14.5% 3.6 .278
Whereas Carpenter was turning more and more into a flyball pitcher during his time in Toronto, we can see that groundballs were the most prevalent type of batted ball in St. Louis. Couple his 7-8 strikeouts per nine innings with the high groundball rates, as well as the goodly number of pop ups he induces, and you get yourself one of the better pitchers in the league.
Carpenter reminds me somewhat of his former teammate Roy Halladay, except with a few more strikeouts and fewer groundball outs. The change in BABIP may come more from a style change than the differences in the home parks; from 1997-2002, The Rogers Centre’ BABIP clocked in at .302, whereas the BABIP in both versions of Busch Stadium are a combined .295 (.298 for the old, .290 for the new in its inaugural season).
Although Carpenter has thrown what seems like roughly a million innings since 2004, especially when you include the playoffs, he has for the most part put less stress on his arm than he did in Toronto. Carpenter has ranked #77, #47 and #44 in Average Pitcher Abuse Points per start in his three St. Louis seasons, after ranking #34 (as a 23-year-old), #54, #69, and #52 from 1998-2001. The Toronto seasons weren’t all that bad for abuse outside of that 1998 season, but that may have been enough to start the downward spiral towards his severe shoulder problems. It’s a tough call, as every pitcher reacts differently to added abuse and stress.
Carpenter was long expected to become a frontline starter, and from the annual comments, the BP crew still fostered hope for him once he left Toronto. He’s certainly become a frontline starter since getting his health back, and you could make the argument that he’s the most productive starter in the National League. He’s still only 31 years old, so there should be plenty of valuable years left in his right arm, and he’s under contract with St. Louis through at least 2007. Meanwhile, Toronto is now struggling to find or overspending to acquire useful starting pitching.