Now that he's allowed five home runs (six minus one sold-it Rasmus catch) in two games we've come closer than ever to the most frightening of all Chris Carpenter scenarios, one that lurked in the background of the 2008-2009 offseason and departed pretty quickly after his delayed comeback in late May: that there will come a time when Chris Carpenter is both healthy and ineffective.
Of course, it's happened before. There was the 15 runs he allowed in his 17 innings in three consecutive starts in July and August, 2006, culminating in his last three homers allowed performance on the ninth, but given the general malaise of that summer you'd be forgiven for forgetting about Carpenter's particular part in it. Then there was the pounding he took in September, 2005, which almost lost him the Cy Young—four starts, 22 earned runs in 21 2/3 innings, a .375/.406/.583 line against, and an ERA that started the stretch at 2.21 and ended it at 2.83. Last year was the most consistently brilliant he's ever been; he had bad starts, but I'm only barely allowed to use the plural, because there were just two of them.
The bruising Carpenter sometimes takes on balls in play—and sometimes for several starts at a time—seems to me to be an inextricable side-effect of the fineness with which he pitches. His fastball is, at its best, a scout's "92-94", with the kind of movement that gets breaking ball-style flailing strikes, and his curveball is the kind of pitch that, say, Rich Hill lives and dies with. But rather than wasting pitches for low risk strikeout chances he pitches with the aggressive corner-seeking strategy of Tom Glavine, and when the strategy involves putting it where it can almost be hit time after time eventually it's going to be hit, time after time.
Since joining the Cardinals Carpenter's bad games have had one especially peculiar trait in common: he doesn't walk many more batters than he does in his best games. Here are the 20 starts in which he's allowed at least five runs as a Cardinal since 2004, compared to the rest of his St. Louis career:
Only once has he walked more than three batters in a poor outing, and half of them featured zero or one walk. Bad Carp's K:BB ratio is actually pretty great—he'd have just missed the top ten in the National League in 2009. But he gets terrorized on contact, and allows almost three times as many home runs as the version of Carp with these bad outings mixed in among the good ones.
Carpenter at his worst is scary—the fastballs that Hart and Weeks hit out of the park were in the batting practice part of the zone, and he wasn't about to adjust to his B- stuff by staying out of the zone. If his velocity doesn't recover he'll have to change his plans at some point, and the adjustment period might not be aesthetically pleasing. But his poor performances to start the season are in keeping with the poor performances he's always mixed in with the good ones, and with the rigid pitching style that produces such outstanding results 85% of the time. It'll be time to worry about his stuff when he thinks it's gone, and when that happens we'll be able to tell; he'll have some conventionally bad outings, for a change.
In the words of CNN badges from 24 hour news-time immemorial—it's time for a Bullpen Meltdown 2010 update. I liked, for the most part, what I saw out of Blake Hawksworth yesterday (not that I actually saw it.) His fastball is still benefitting from his move to the bullpen, and he's still relying on it pretty heavily. But it was strange to see him go back to the curveball as often as he did—six times in 28 pitches, all fouls or out of the strike zone, after abandoning it almost entirely once he moved to the bullpen full time in 2009. It's a pretty mediocre curveball, and the less we see of it, I think, the better; his fastball and changeup seem like more than enough on which to build a successful relief career.
Speaking of things I'd rather see less often, it's time to start watching how much restraint La Russa manages to show with his outstanding left-handed specialists. Yesterday he left Trever Miller in to throw LOOGY sliders to Ryan Braun, who has a career .360/.426/.700 line against lefties. Prince Fielder was waiting in the wings, but La Russa brought Miller in early to face... Randy Wolf, who is at least left-handed, Rickie Weeks, Jim Edmonds, and Ryan Braun.
CORRECTIONS DEP'T—yesterday morning Mr. Moore asserted that Colby Rasmus was leading the team in slugging percentage, claiming it an artifact of a surging team offense that was moving forward quite apart from the multi-million dollar center of the batting order. The multi-million dollar center of the batting order has seen to the matter, and it has now been corrected. Our bad (and, indeed, Trevor Hoffman's.) Warmest regards, the editors.