The Anatomy of an Ace

Chris Carpenter is pitching tomorrow, which is good news for the Cards.  Since he joined the team before the 2003 season, Carp has had exactly 100 starts.  In those starts he has gone 52-20 (I know W/L records don't matter, but that's pretty damn impressive), with a 3.04 ERA and a 3.32 FIP.  This year, despite missing most of the past two seasons due to various injuries, he hasn't allowed a run 15 innings.  Pitchers aren't supposed to do what Carp has been able to do this year.  He has no business pitching this well after nearly a 2 year layoff and multiple surgeries.  However, he is, so I guess we just have to accept it and praise the lord.

I think that it is safe to say that Carp is the unquestioned ace of this staff.  Heck, when fully healthy, he ranks right up their with Lincecum, Halladay and Santana as the best pitchers in baseball.  All of those pitchers have something special going for them. Lincecum has a 95 MPH fastball and a crazy windup.  Halladay has a filthy sinker, great control and the endurance of a race horse.  And Santana has a changeup that seems to defy physics.  So what makes Carp so good?  Using PITCHf/x, I will try to illustrate exactly that.


Last start, facing a slumping Cubs' offense, Carp pitched 5 innings, giving up just 3 hits, 0 walks and 0 runs, while striking out 4 hitters.  As it was his first start in a month, he was held to a low pitch count.  Tony only let him pitch 67 pitches before pinch hitting for him.  Nonetheless, it was an excellent start.  Here is a look at it through the eyes of PITCHf/x:

Note: This is my first time using PITCHf/x data in any kind of analysis, so I may be a little off with some of my assumptions.  I would greatly appreciate it if more PITCHf/x savvy VEBers could help point out my flaws.  


You can click on the picture to see a larger version.  The pitch classifications are my own based on the movement and the velocity of the pitches.  I chose to do my own, as the ones provided by the Gameday algorithm are often wrong. 

The "fastballs" all appear to be two-seamers, as they have a large amount of horizontal break and similar vertical break to each other.  Some of those pitches were as fast as 95 MPH!  That combined with almost 10 inches of horizontal movement, makes it an excellent pitch.  The "curve" was pretty easy to classify as they are slow, and have a large amount of vertical and horizontal break.  It's a pretty nasty pitch as when he has thrown it this year.   He's saved over 5 runs per 100 pitches in comparison to league average curve.  The cutter also seems like a very interesting pitch.  It's vertical and horizontal movement resemble that of a slider, however he generally throws it around 90 MPH.  I cautiously labeled it a cutter because of that, but you can interpret the data anyway you want obviously.  

Looking at that graph, it's pretty clear that Carp has good stuff.  However, a pitchers stuff isn't the only thing that defines him.  Carp has a reputation of having excellent control, one that is backed up by a BB/9 of under 2.00 in each of his three full seasons as with the Cards.  However, while control is good, command is also very important as it allows pitchers to be able to keep away from the heart of the plate while still keeping runners off base.  Using PITCHf/x data, we can see how well Carp commands the strike zone, or at least how well he did in his last start:



Note that I use a 24 inch strike zone instead of the "official" 17 inch one.  The reason for this is that a 24 inch zone more accurately measures the zone that the umpire uses.

It looks to me like Carp was very good against righties.  He threw a lot of "pitchers' pitches", never getting it right down the middle.  He threw that little backdoor cutter a lot, and that seems like it is a really good pitch as it would start off a ball and cut to the inner half. 

Against lefties, his command doesn't look as good.  He threw a lot of fastballs middle in and seemed to get a little too much of the plate on some of his pitches.  Then again, he was able to get the curve inside and paint the corners with the cutter, so I won't complain.  Either way, hitters didn't do much against him all night.  

So now that we have decent visual and graphical representation of Carp's stuff and command, we can see how he puts it all together towards getting hitters out:


This was the first batter of the game, Alfonzo Soriano, and as you can see, Sori never had a chance.  94 MPH two-seamer on the outside corner, followed by a curve on the low inside corner with an obscene amount of break, than a big curve in the dirt.  THAT is how you make a hitter look stupid.

Last the Cards starting rotation finished with a 4.35 FIP, good for 7th in the league.  This year, they have basically the same crew substituting Carp for Looper.  If Carp is able to stay healthy the rest of he year and continue to pitch an ace type level, he could have a huge impact on the effectiveness of the rotation.  Not only would he make their overall numbers look prettier, his ability to go deep into games would really help the pen.  Also, if we did make it to the playoffs, he would be a HUGE difference maker in a 5 or 7 game series.  A true ace provides so much more than just his numbers on the mound.  Just ask Wainwright!  If Carp is able to stay healthy and continue to pitch like this the rest of the way, I like our chances of doing something this year.