Will St. Louis Cardinals Starter Chris Carpenter Be Able to Cut It in NLCS Game 6?

Christian Petersen

Whether veteran ace Chris Carpenter can deploy his cut fastball effectively against the Giants will be an important factor in NLCS Game 6.

For Sunday's NLCS Game 2, the St. Louis Cardinals will hand the ball to their postseason ace Chris Carpenter in hopes the surgery-scarred veteran can add another postseason-clinching notch to his belt. The start will be Carpenter's sixth since returning from a surgical procedure that removed a rib and neck muscles in an attempt to alleviate symptoms of thoracic outlet syndrome. In his two 2012 postseason starts to date, Carpenter has labored and was knocked out by the Giants after throwing just four innings in the Cardinals' NLCS Game 2 loss.

The veteran's poor Game 2 results inspired commentary questioning whether Carpenter was physically fit to pitch as effectively as he has in the past. It was interesting to me because, despite allowing four runs in just four innings pitched, Carpenter clearly pitched better in San Francisco than he had in D.C., even if he allowed no runs over 5 2/3 innings against the Nationals.

In his NLDS start, Carpenter labored throughout. The Nationals touched the woodsmith for seven hits and worked two walks, which gave them nine baserunners over the 5 2/3 innings Carpenter was in the game. Mike Matheny pulled Carp out during his final jam and called on rookie Trevor Rosenthal to put out Carp's last fire in the bottom of the sixth.

Jayson Werth singled to lead off that game. It was an at-bat that set the tone for the entirety of Carpenter's start. The Nationals dug into the batter's box against the righty 27 times. Nine of those plate appearances occurred with nobody on the base paths; six of those nine were batters leading off an inning. And yet Carpenter somehow allowed no runs while only striking out two Washingtonians. The Nats went 0 for 6 with RISP and 2 for 14 with runners on the bases. Their two hits with men on were singles.

Even though Carp did not allow a run, this was not the dominant Carpenter of recent postseason vintage. 2012 NLDS Game 3 was Carpenter as Houdini. The ace labored to escape jam after jam with guts, guile, and a bit of good fortune on a season-high 106 pitches. The Cardinals hitters lowered the stakes by giving Carpenter a 4-0 lead after two innings and plated eight by the game's final out. Eight runs from the offense makes the tension of early innings fade from the collective memory.

The reality of Carp's NLDS start is that the Nats easily could have plated four or six runs, given the number of baserunners they had against the grizzled veteran. The Giants had their fair share of runs, too, and saw most of those runners reach on relatively weak contact. To be sure, Angel Pagan's homer to lead off the game was crushed. Other than that blast, though, the Giants did not make much in the way of sharp contact. San Fran's fourth-inning performance of dinks and dunks was one that would have make Bill Walsh proud.

This is not to take away from the Giants offense. To score, a club needs baserunners. In Game 2 against Carpenter, San Francisco had them. The Nationals had them, too. Both clubs occupied bases at a higher rate against Carpenter than one would expect. Looking at the games through this lens shows how important timely hitting is in October. The Giants got it and the Nationals didn't.

Time

Total PA

MOB PA

MOB PA%

RISP PA

RISP PA%

2004

746

277

37.13%

147

19.71%

2005

953

297

31.16%

173

18.15%

2006

896

343

38.28%

185

20.65%

2009

750

283

37.73%

151

20.13%

2010

969

400

41.28%

216

22.29%

2011

996

423

42.47%

203

20.38%

2012

72

30

41.67%

17

23.61%

NLDS G3

27

14

51.85%

6

22.22%

NLCS G2

20

10

50.00%

5

25.00%

It's a heck of a lot easier to score runs when a club takes half of its plate appearances with runners on the bases. Both the Nationals and Giants did so against Carpenter this postseason. The difference between the two is Marc Scutaro's two-out, three-RBI single, which was aided and abetted by Matt Holliday's error. (Timely hitting is also the difference between Kyle Lohse's NLCS Game 3 start and Carpenter's Game 2 start, but that's a post for a different day.)

In the aftermath of Carpenter's NLCS Game 2 pitching "loss," Eno Sarris wrote an interesting post at Fangraphs regarding Carpenter's stuff. Entitled "Chris Carpenter: Too Diminished To Start?", the post is an interesting follow-up to the concerns I voiced after Carpenter's first start of the season against the Cubs. Sarris looked at Carpenter's reduced whiff rate on his curve as perhaps being indicative of diminished stuff post-surgery. It's an interesting post and worth a read. However, the pitch that has stuck out like a sore thumb during the postseason to this veteran Carp watcher has not been Carpenter's curveball. It's been his cut fastball.

Since returning from Tommy John and nerve transposition surgeries, Carpenter has deployed the cutter with great effectiveness. While posting 5.0 fWAR last season, Carpenter threw the cutter 26 percent of the time, making it the pitch he deployed second most often behind his sinker (34 percent) and ahead of his curveball (21 percent). With a 17.51 percent whiff rate, the cutter was Carpenter's most effective pitch during the 2011 season in terms of inducing swinging strikes. As Bernie Miklasz noted in his NLCS Game 2 preview, the cut fastball has been Carp's best pitch in 2012. This reality is probably why Carpenter has used the cutter more often this season than last--at least until NLCS Game 2 against the Giants.

CARPENTER'S 2012 CUT FASTBALL

Game

Pitch

Total

Pitch

Pct.

Avg

MPH

Max

MPH

Avg

H-Break

Avg V-Break

Whiff

Total

Whiff

Pct.

vs. CHI

23

29.87%

85.07

89.2

-0.09

5.87

3

13.04%

vs. HOU

34

36.96%

88.64

92.1

0.26

7.58

4

11.76%

vs. CIN

29

32.22%

86.98

88.4

-0.18

4.69

5

17.24%

vs. WSH

33

31.13%

89.25

92.9

-0.29

8.25

2

6.06%

vs. SF

13

17.10%

86.70

90.0

0.33

4.73

0

0.00%

Pitch data courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net

As you can see, Carpenter's cut fastball has not been as effective in his last two starts. It has been thrown 46 times and induced just two swings-and-misses. After laboring against the Nationals, Carpenter used a far lesser share of cut fastballs against the Giants in NLCS Game 2 and the cutter didn't yield a single swing-and-miss. The veteran went after the Giants hitters while deploying one of his three primary pitches at a far lesser rate.

It goes without saying that I'll be watching Carpenter pitch intently tonight. While doing so, I'll be specifically be paying attention to his pitch selection and whether he is using his cutter effectively. It is an important pitch for Carpenter and his ability to turn in a vintage Carpenter postseason performance may very well depend on how well he throws it in Game 6 against the Giants.

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