Is this the best year Chris Carpenter's ever had? Well, no. But it's an interesting addition to his baseball card. Looking back on his career I was a little surprised to find that his new ERA crown is the first desirable black ink—he led the AL in earned runs in 2000—he's ever gotten, and when I was young and got most of my baseball and basketball information through completing sets from Topps et al that was usually the first thing I looked for. It's going to be a weird, gaudy year for people learning about him, thirty years down the line, on whatever futuristic version of Baseball Reference exists by then. (I wouldn't doubt Sean Foreman if he announced a flying car addition due next week.)
Is there a less likely grand slam hitter on the Cardinals than Chris Carpenter? I'm including the relievers in this hypothetical, and, after some deliberation, Matt Pagnozzi. Since his injury, in particular, he's swung from a place at the junction of fear and indifference. Slap is too active a word—so too swat, wave, poke. The pitcher throws the ball in and occasionally, due to a confluence of weather patterns or a blinding glare off some fan's sunglasses, the bat has fallen off his shoulder. When he hits the ball, too, he rouses himself into the most perfunctory jog I have ever seen.
And I can't blame him; not only did he miss a month of starts due to a swing in anger this year, he just doesn't look like a guy who could hit a baseball. Look at the swing in the AP photo up there—it's a nice follow-through, but it is not just perspective that makes him look a little like a tall, gangly version of Brett Wallace. He's built like a pitcher, not a hitter.
But what a swing it was. I'll say this for Chris Carpenter—he is not the kind of bad-hitting pitcher who looks like a cartoon out there. The one that sticks in my mind is Al Leiter, whose swing had the bat gyrating in mid-air at the same time he was making wide MC Hammer crab-steps toward the pitcher. Carp's home run swing was dead silent all the way through—his feet stay totally planted, and he doesn't pretend to have some timing move with his hands. He just swings through on a fastball and barely manages to resist fist-pumping until he's past third base.
Really, though; as great a comeback year as it is, and I can't think of many better than this one, I don't think there are many ways to claim he's been at his Very Best. Even discounting the matter of innings pitched—he just missed the league lead in 2005, with 241—he's replaced one strikeout per nine with an incredibly low home run rate, 0.3 per nine innings.
Like we said with Adam Wainwright's strand rate, that has happened, and since Brendan Ryan is (so far as I know) not responsible for the home run rate it has been a direct result of his pitching. But if I had to pick him at his best, at some hazy combination of results and presumable true talent level, it wouldn't be here. I'd rather have the strikeouts.
That said, the Cy Young Love Triangle has come full circle:
Carpenter clinched the ERA title with five shutout innings Thursday at Coors Field — and hit a grand slam, too. That was enough to convince Lincecum, who said the Cy Young should go to the Cardinals' ace.
"I'd like to see Carpenter because of the way he came back and put up some crazy numbers," Lincecum said.
I, personally, would be fine with Chris Carpenter winning the actual Come Back and Put Up Some Crazy Numbers of the Year Award, but at the same time I have never won a Cy Young Award, so what do I know? Lincecum (and Wainwright, for that matter) have just pitched too many innings, innings that both theoretically and, this season, literally are filled by replacement level pitchers when Chris Carpenter misses those starts. But I won't deny that Carp's numbers are crazy. 17-4? Who does that, aside from Ted "Cork" Wilks?
Here's what I wrote for the Maple Street annual some time in February: "If he pitches 20 times, that's 20 times the Cardinals don't trot out Mitch Boggs. If he doesn't, he doesn't." Chris Carpenter had shoulder problems last year. He's 34 years old. Before all the awards and wins he was a mediocre pitcher for six solid years, and then he missed a year due to some other arm problems. If he had gone 12-8 with an ERA under four I would have considered this year an unqualified success. If he had made 12 good starts and had generalized arm problems the rest of the year I wouldn't have been stunned.
But 193 innings from which the Cardinals had no business expecting above-average production were filled, instead, by a guy who was as good as any pitcher in baseball. His stuff seemed better than it was before the layoff; his fastball is two miles an hour faster than it was in 2005, and his curveball and a newly integrated slider seem ready to appear in any count, at any point in or out of the strike zone. He still pitches with the same blank mastery of the zone; he still throws for the outside corner like most pitchers do for the outside. He might have beaten the crap out of Ryan Ludwick.
Yesterday he drove in six runs. This is a good year.