The end of the road for Chris Carpenter

If you’re like me, you are irrationally exuberant over Wes Anderson’s next film. Also, you are a fan of a National League baseball club, and you have an almost-inexplicable disdain for Chris Carpenter.

Actually, there are any number of reasons why Carpenter’s competitors haven’t liked him over the years. Some have said he’s a phony. Some have said he’s a whiner and excuse-maker. Carpenter certainly made a cottage-industry of complaining, whether it was about the baseballs being too slick or about being distracted from smoke after post-homer fireworks. He dressed down his teammates, and seemed to consider himself an arbiter of unwritten rules that he didn’t himself follow. (The original Brian McCann: Fun Cop, you might say.)

There’s one other reason that fans of the opposition haven’t liked Carpenter over the course of his 15-year career. It’s the same reason St. Louis fans love Carpenter: he has been an outstanding pitcher.

Carpenter finally retired this week, after missing all of 2013 (and most of 2012) with a variety of injuries and surgeries. He leaves behind a career that was not quite Hall of Fame-worthy, but was very good nonetheless. Over those 15 seasons, Carpenter was 144-94 with a 3.76 ERA and an adjusted ERA+ of 116 over 2,219.1 innings. More memorably, Carpenter won the Cy Young award in 2005, and was a member of two World Series champion Cardinals teams.

The first six seasons of Carpenter’s career were largely undistinguished. While toiling for the Blue Jays during that span, Carpenter went 49-50 with a 4.83 ERA, an ERA+ of 98, and 612 strikeouts in 870.2 innings. A first-round draft pick in 1993, Carpenter had been a big-time prospect, but after his age-27 season (Carpenter’s final season in Toronto), there was real reason to wonder whether he was ever going to live up to the hype. At that point, he looked like nothing more than a middle-of-the-rotation innings muncher. There’s value in a pitcher who can handle that role, but no one is going to make a bobblehead of that guy.

Then came 2003. The Blue Jays offered Carpenter only a minor league deal after he suffered a shoulder injury that required labrum surgery. Carpenter declined, and signed instead with St. Louis. He then missed the entire 2003 campaign. In 2004, however, Carpenter began to demonstrate why he had been so highly touted, going 15-5 with a 3.46 ERA, a career-high 122 ERA+, and 3.3 wins above replacement. The following season, at age 30, Carpenter picked up the NL Cy Young award by going 21-5 with a 2.83 ERA, a league-leading seven complete games, and 5.8 WAR.

From that point until the end of his career, Carpenter was one of the most dominant pitchers in the league. Injuries continued to haunt him, however. He missed most of 2007 and 2008 after elbow and shoulder surgeries, but just as before, Carpenter returned and was better than ever. In 2009, he posted the best season of his career, winning 17 while losing just four, and leading the league in ERA (2.24), ERA+ (182), and surrendering a miniscule 0.3 home runs per nine innings. Carpenter’s 6.5 WAR that season was the best mark of his career.

The next two seasons, Carpenter led the National League in starts, but the injury bug hit again in 2012. This time, the culprit was thoracic outlet syndrome. He made a valiant return at the end of the 2012 season, and even pitched three times in the playoffs, but Carpenter’s career was finished. This spring, he continued to feel the same symptoms, and he didn’t throw a pitch in 2013.

What, then, are we to make of Chris Carpenter’s career? As noted above, he’s not a Hall-of-Famer, but we should hardly hold that against him. He spent some time as one of the legitimate aces in the league, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. (As an aside, I wish someone would enlighten me as to a situation in which it is appropriate to sneeze at something.) He owns two World Series rings, a Cy Young trophy, and a loving place in the hearts and minds of Cardinals fans. You may differ, but I refuse to sneeze here. Call me old-fashioned, if you must.

Carpenter also pitched well when it counted, going 10-4 with a 3.00 ERA in 18 postseason starts. He won three World Series games, allowing only six runs in four starts, but his most impressive playoff appearance may have been in the 2011 NL Division Series against Philadelphia. In the deciding Game 5, Carpenter dueled Roy Halladay and emerged victorious by tossing a three-hit shutout to allow St. Louis to win 1-0.

Even his detractors must concede that Carpenter enjoyed an unusual career. He was a big-time prospect, but wasn’t particularly effective until his 30s. After age 30, despite several stints on the disabled list, Carpenter won 80 games, lost 39, and posted an ERA of 3.01 and an ERA+ of 135. He averaged 5.4 wins above replacement per 162 games. That’s good, if you must know my opinion.

It’s fun, actually, to look at the pitching leader oards for guys after the age of 30. Carpenter’s 24.6 WAR as an old guy doesn’t rate with Randy Johnson, who posted 89.7 wins above replacement after he turned 30, or Phil Niekro, who compiled 18.9 WAR during his age-38 and 39 seasons alone. But when he was on the field, Carpenter was as effective as anyone. His ERA+, for example, was ninth best among live ball-era starters after the age of 30.

Because of the late start to his career, and the injuries that bedeviled him later, Carpenter rates behind guys like Charlie Leibrandt, Jerry Reuss, and Bruce Hurst on Jay Jaffe’s JAWS Hall of Fame scale. That’s not a criticism. Carpenter pitched very effectively for a number of years, on some very good teams. More memorably, he not only survived several very serious injuries, but Carpenter returned to be better than he was before, in every case. (Well, maybe not every case. The latest injuries are ending his career, aren’t they?)

Sure, fans of every competing team grew to dislike Carpenter’s antics over the years. If you’re going to be honest, however, you must admit: you wish Carpenter had been at the front end of your rotation over the last decade, don’t you? He was a legitimate front-line starter despite injuries that would have ended the careers of a lesser mortal, and he demanded excellence of himself and his teammates. Forget the ancillary nonsense that always surrounded Carpenter. He was good at throwing a baseball, whether you consider him arrogant or just passionate.

Alas, Carpenter is drifting off quietly into the night. During an offseason where Tim Hudson and Bronson Arroyo, both starters in their late-30s, are seeking multi-year contracts to ply their trade (Hudson has already signed his deal, as a matter of fact), it’s only natural to wonder what might have been with Chris Carpenter had it not been for the injury bug. That’s not fair to Carpenter, however. The guy had an outstanding run, and a career of which he can be proud.

As for me, my memories of Carpenter will always be conflicted, but I will continue to appreciate the enjoyment he provided by inspiring the “What will Chris Carpenter tell his son?” meme. Good times, indeed.

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  1. John D said...

    Yes, it leaves me wishing the Blue Jays had not gone cheap when they did, Halladay and Carpenter in their primes would have made quite the crazy 1-2 punch….
    …oh and something appropriate to sneeze at would be pepper wink

  2. FeslenR said...

    Carpenter is like a slew of pitchers before him-good enough to be borderline HOFer…but not really that good either.

    Guys like David Cone, Jimmy Key are in the same boat.

  3. Dr. Doom said...

    Except that David Cone was a vastly superior pitcher to Carpenter (Jimmy Key falls near the middle, but closer to Cone than Carp).  Neutralized W-L records for all three, followed by the Fibonnaci Win Points for each:

    Cone:  191-131; 173
    Key:  172-116; 159
    Carpenter:  141-105; 117

    Those are fairly significant differences.  Plus Cone had the best peak of any of them.  Cone is a pretty marginal candidate by this measure; the other two aren’t worth really discussing.

  4. Brian said...

    To be a tiny bit fair to Carp about his misdeeds over the years – with nearly every incident you cite (his run-ins with the Brewers, dressing down Brendan Ryan, yelling at Napoli, yelling at Carlos Lee, etc.) Carpenter eventually admitted he was acting like a bonehead and apologized to whomever took the brunt of his temper. Doesn’t totally excuse his behavior, but at least he knows he’s not at his best in those moments.

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