Chris Carpenter picked up his 1000th strikeout since joining the St. Louis Cardinals Monday night, which is probably the most strikeouts in team history for any pitcher in mid-career out of whom reasonable people expected zero. (I'll let the Elias people confirm that at their leisure.)
Over the course of his career Carpenter has managed to meet all the limited expectations people had for him back in 2003; he's eaten innings, he's suffered a major shoulder injury, he's looked pissed off almost all the time, no matter what's actually going on. He's also gone from a great-stuff disappointment to one of the best pitchers-not-throwers in the National League.
The Cardinals recently spent a lot of resources on another 27-year-old innings-eating starter with the scent of vague disappointment permanently wafting abotu his person. One way of understanding Chris Carpenter's greatness might be to show what it would take to make one Chris Carpenter out of one Edwin Jackson.
1. Make Edwin Jackson a little worse. Carpenter and Jackson each begin their Cardinals story at 27, but Jackson, who's been around since he outdueled Randy Johnson as a teenager, has managed to fit more disappointment and success into those early years.
Jackson's put together one-and-a-half bad seasons and three-and-a-half solid ones, and more importantly for our perception of him at 27 he's put them together in the right order--after a few years as an ex-prospect in the post-Unit wilderness he turned into a reliably average type in a hurry.
Carpenter the Blue Jay never looked right twice in a row after emerging as a solid starter in his first two full seasons. after 320 above-average innings in 1998 and 1999 Carpenter led the league in earned runs in 2000, recovered in 2001, and then faltered again in 2002, never quite escaping the impression he was striking out fewer it looked like he should. If 27-year-old starters can still be talked about in the language of prospects, that Chris Carpenter was a year or two behind Jackson on the developmental curve, and didn't have a no-hitter or any ESPN hype to show for it.
3. Now, tear up his arm. Jackson, despite throwing nearly four million pitches in a single no-hitter, has passed through the Pitcher Injury Nightmare Zone without requiring major surgery.
Not so for Carpenter, who made 30 starts once in four tries with the Blue Jays and left Toronto with considerably less labrum than he'd brought through immigration. By 2002 Carpenter's shoulder had finally had enough, and despite the Cardnials' vague intimations about his pitching in 2003 he was a lost cause by midseason.
So--having made Edwin Jackson worse and given him a career-ending injury, we've successfully turned him into Chris Carpenter the Blue Jay. Now we just need to make it so he wins the Cy Young Award sometime in the next two years!
4. Make him live up to his strikeout potential. Carpenter is a big guy who throws hard and has an I'm-a-big-guy-who-throws-hard curveball, but his numbers as a Blue Jay look a little like what you might see from a successful junkballer. As a Cardinal he added a full strikeout per nine innings to his previous career high. So that's the first thing we need from Jackson.
5. Make him into one of the league's best control pitchers. Oh, yeah--this is the other thing! After you make Jackson into the firebreathing strikeout king he resembles, you'll want to change him into a different pitcher entirely.
Carpenter walked 3.4 batters per nine innings in Toronto, and 4.3 in the minors. With the Cardinals, between 2004 and 2006: 1.9.
You're following, right? Write this next one down--
6. Tear up his arm again. More shoulder problems! And some elbow problems, just while you're digging around in there. Toss in two false-start comebacks, and then, when people are writing "If we get anything out of Edwin Jackson you'd have to consider it a bonus, at this point" articles from the "blog entry about Mark Mulder" template in iWork,
7. Repeat the whole thing.
Carpenter's start Monday was a to-scale reproduction of his 2011 to date; he looked like Chris Carpenter the entire time but drowned, eventually, in bloop singles. I'd be worried about it, except--he's Chris Carpenter. Who expected one strikeout, or 50 strikeouts, or 500 or 1000? Who expects 200 more?