Before news of yet more names linked to performance enhancing drugs, the world of baseball learned that St. Louis Cardinals’ ace Chris Carpenter was unlikely to pitch in 2013 because lingering problems from thoracic outlet syndrome. The injury cost him most of the 2012 season as well. But, if 2012 was his final season, it encapsulated everything that Chris Carpenter was about. When he was diagnosed with the syndrome, he was thought to be gone for the entire season. Carpenter underwent a procedure that removed a rib and helped subside the pain. He made three regular season starts and three more in the postseason. The reliciency shown in 2012 was the same type that he showed throughout his 15 Major League seasons.
Before becoming the ace of the St. Louis Cardinals, Carpenter was once a top pitching prospect for the Toronto Blue Jays. He came to the Major Leagues as a 22 year old rookie in 1997. In baseball’s toughest division, Carpenter cut his teeth against some great opponents, including a Yankees team that was in the midst of winning four World Series titles. The overall statistics look disappointing as he compiled a 49-50 record, a 4.83 ERA, 10.3 H/9, and 3.4 BB/9 in six seasons. But, those seasons also highlighted a Blue Jays’ problem of developing healthy pitchers. Carpenter battled shoulder issues throughout his tenure in Toronto, missing some time in 1999 and 2002. His shoulder and labrum problems would force him to miss all of the 2003 season.
That 2003 season was a turning point because the St. Louis Cardinals signed him after the Blue Jays gave up on him, believing he just couldn’t stay healthy. The Cardinals rehabbed him in 2003 and have been rewarded since. He made 28 starts in 2004, winning 15 games and posting a 3.46 ERA. He flourished under Pitching Coach Dave Duncan, reducing his hits allowed (8.4 per nine) and walks (1.9 per nine). The Cardinals did get to the World Series that season, but Carpenter was unable to pitch due to a shoulder injury. They were swept by the Red Sox.
The Cardinals would begin a period of extended success behind Carpenter’s 2005 Cy Young Award winning season. During the regular season, he won 21 games, compiled a 2.83 ERA and pitched a league leading 7 complete games. In 2006, they were World Series champions behind their ace. In five postseason starts, he posted a 4-0 record and gave up just 10 runs in 32.1 innings.
Injuries would once again become Carpenter’s story in 2007 and 2008 as he required two elbow surgeries, one of them being Tommy John Surgery. He returned in 2009 to lead the National League in ERA and finish second in the Cy Young Award voting. Over the next two seasons, he would lead the league in starts, compile a 3.33 ERA and become known as one of the game’s fiercest competitors.
He once again showed that competitiveness in the postseason as he helped the Cardinals win the 2011 World Series, making five postseason starts. He again won four games and gave up just 9 runs in 36 innings.
If this is the end of Carpenter’s career, he leaves the game with a reputation of being one of decade’s best big game pitchers. He battled injuries, which keep his overall numbers down. But, his work in the postseason was worthy of the title, ace. In 18 career postseason starts, he posted a 10-4 record and a 3.00 ERA in 108 innings. He allowed 104 hits, 36 walks, and struck out 68 batters. Those aren’t Curt Schilling-like postseason numbers, but they are certainly worthy being mentioned next to the name of Baseball’s best postseason pitcher of all-time. Highlighting Carpenter’s ability to pitch in the biggest moments, his World Series career is near flawless. In four World Series starts, he is 4-0 with a 2.00 ERA in 27 innings. He allowed 20 hits, 5 walks, and struck out 19.
His 2011 postseason included a few of Major League Baseball’s best performances. He was involved in an epic Division Series start against the heavily favored Phillies and Roy Halladay. Carpenter outdueled Halladay by pitching a three hit shutout to win the game 1-0. In the World Series, Carpenter would make the game seven start on three days rest to beat the Texas Rangers.
All of that is simply amazing. But, Carpenter’s competitiveness was best shown this past season. He had that surgery and came back to make those three regular season starts. It was apparent that he wasn’t quite right. His velocity was down a bit as were his strikeouts. But, he battled the Washington Nationals in the Division round for what looks to be his last victory on a Major League field. For 5.2 innings, he scattered 7 hits, 2 walks, and struck out just 2 batters. Yet, he didn’t allow a run in the surprise victory over the favored Nationals.
Outside of St. Louis, Chris Carpenter will be viewed through the prism of “what if?” The injuries did cost him quite a bit of time, even during some of his dominant seasons. Because of his lack of gaudy career numbers, the impact of his career in St. Louis will be somewhat forgotten by the most. But, St. Louis knows better. They were privy to watching one of the few legitimate aces in the sport who, when healthy, made use of his stuff in an efficient way. They saw him pitch with intensity, yet never get overwhelmed by that intensity. They saw him pitch their most important games. They saw him win those games. They saw him battle back from every injury and make a positive contribution.
The Cardinals organization has one of the best farm systems in the sport. They have more than a few young pitchers with high ceilings like Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal and Shelby Miller ready to take the rotation spot. Eventually, one of them could be the ace of the staff and one of the better pitchers in baseball. But, they will have to prove they can pitch the high leverage games that Carpenter did. Tony LaRussa always went to Carpenter in those spots. Someone will have to replace that. That’s the part that won’t be easy.
Overall statistics won’t show just how good Chris Carpenter was as a Major League pitcher. The storied Cardinals franchise has just one pitcher–Bob Gibson–who had a long term, successful career. There are a couple of others, but if Chris Carpenter’s career is really finished, his nine years in a Cardinals uniform make him the second most important pitcher in team history. A two-time World Series champion, a Cy Young Award winner, a three time All-Star, and the unquestioned ace on some of the best Cardinals teams in their franchise’s great history, Chris Carpenter’s spot in Cardinals’ history as one of the franchise’s greats is secure.
That says quite a bit about a man who endured so many injuries.