On July 19, 2012, Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter underwent surgery to address Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS), a condition that involves compression of the nerves where they pass through a narrow space in the area of the shoulder and collarbone. The surgical intervention involves removing a rib to ease the compression by giving the nerves a wider to pass through en route to the arm as well as cutting muscle. After a successful surgery, the Cardinals announced that Carpenter would require three to four months to recover. This timetable would have effectively ended Carpenter's season, if the righty was on it. He wasn't.
A giddy shock rippled through Cardinaldom when news broke on Twitter that Carpenter was throwing a bullpen session in Pittsburgh on August 29. After throwing, Carpenter then dropped the bombshell that he hadn't ruled out a return to the mound in September. At the time of the comment, it seemed an unrealistic hope in the vein of Adam Wainwright declaring his goal to pitch in the postseason last year. But Carpenter wasn't the only one who hadn't ruled out a 2012 start; the Cardinals hadn't either.
Carpenter's rehab marched forward with bullpen sessions evolving into simulated games, which became must-see events for those in the Cardinals clubhouse. The turn of events was like a dream with the most surreal part being the glowing assessments of his pitching. After a simulated game at Busch Stadium in early September, manager Mike Matheny gave a rave review:
"The ball was jumping out of his hand. It's really in his finish," Matheny said. "He has sink, he has cut, which he wasn't really able to do before."
Matheny, the former Gold Glove catcher who was universally praised for his handling of pitchers during his playing career, unquestionably knows a thing or two about evaluating a pitcher's stuff on a given day. The ball was jumping out of his hand! Sink! Cut! And so the enthusiasm grew regarding Carpenter's return.
After a simulated game at Dodger Stadium on September 15, Carpenter shared that he still had some timing troubles but that he was happy with his stuff.
"I felt good coming off the bench. The ball was coming out of my hand good. My stuff was good. I was happy with how it went."
Shortly after the successful simulated game at Chavez Ravine, the Cardinals announced that Carpenter would make a start; fittingly, it was against the rival Cubs at Wrigley Field. The comeback was happening. The anticipation was palpable as Friday rolled around and Carpenter's start against the Cubs neared. The Post-Dispatch even called it "Christmas" and why not? After all, a Carpenter named Chris (if not Christ) was at the center of it.
The excitement in Cardinaldom was as understandable as the expectations were unrealistic.
The Chris Carpenter who took the mound in Chicago on Friday was not the same pitcher who beat the Rangers in Game 7 of last year's World Series, bested Roy Halladay in Game 5 of the NLDS, led the big leagues with 237 1/3 innings pitched, and posted 5.0 fWAR. The Chris Carpenter who started on Friday was a pitcher who had not thrown in 11 months and underwent major surgery two months ago. This is not to criticize Carpenter; rather, it is to give us a reality check on what to expect down the home stretch from the ace of yesteryear.
The Cardinals losing the game in gut-wrenching fashion gave us something other than Carpenter to fixate on. After all, nearly six innings passed between the starter's exit and the game's concluding hit. Understandably, the headlines described Carpenter's start in positive terms. The Post-Dispatch called it "strong" while stlcardinals.com opted for "impressive." Carpenter returning so soon from major surgery does indeed demonstrate impressive strength, but his performance Friday on the field of play was neither strong nor impressive when compared to vintage Carpenter.
Carpenter lasted just five innings and thew only 77 pitches, which is perfectly understandable. The man hasn't thrown in a competitive ballgame in 11 months and is coming off major surgery. Since returning to the starting rotation in 2009, Carpenter has pitched five innings or fewer 13 times in 98 starts. The righthander did not throw less than 80 pitches in any 2011 start. In 2009 and 2010, he threw less than 80 pitches twice in each season. The 2009 instances can be attributed to injury: he threw 50 pitches on April 14 against Arizona when he suffered an oblique injury and threw 67 pitches on May 20, his first game back from said injury. Carpenter's innings pitched total falls in the bottom 13 percent of his starts since Tommy John and nerve transposition surgery. His pitch total falls in the bottom 5.1% over the same time period.
One of the hallmarks of Carpenter's success is his ability to induce weak contact of the grounder variety. His career groundball rate is 51.3%; since 2009, it's 50.5%. From 2009 through 2011, Carpenter also saw opposing batters post a LD rate of 19.5%. Obviously, these cumulative batted-ball rates are averages based on the ups and downs of individual starts in a season. If we look at Friday's start in comparison to Carpenter's starts from 2009 through 2011, it was not in the bottom fifth of starts.
On Friday, Carpenter induced a grounder on just 33.3% of batted balls while batters hit a liner on 33.3% of the pitches they put in play. Chicago's LD rate against Carpenter during Friday's game is one of nine since 2009 in which the opponents hit line drives on one-third or more of their batted balls. The Cubs' GB rate against Carpenter on Friday is one of just seven starts since the beginning of 2009 in which opponents hit grounders on one-third or fewer of their batted balls. Both rank in the bottom 9% of Carpenter starts since his return from elbow and nerve transposition surgery.
It isn't just the batted ball rates against Carpenter that reflect the fact that the Cubs were making good swings against the ace. Carpenter struck out just 9.1% of the Cubs he faced. This K% is the fifth-lowest he has posted in a single game since the start of the 2009 season. This is not at all surprising given the fact that Carpenter induced a swinging strike just 3.6% of the time on Friday, his fourth-lowest swinging strike rate since Opening Day 2009. Given the swinging strike and strikeout percentages, it isn't surprising that the Cubs made contact 90.0% of the time on Friday, a Contact% that is the tenth-highest in Carpenter's starts since April 2009.
Another indicator of Carpenter's physical condition is his velocity. Just as the miles per hour on Adam Wainwright's offerings has lagged during his post-surgery 2012 season, Carpenter's did on Friday. In 2011, Carpenter averaged 92.73 mph on his sinker; on Friday, he averaged 89.4 mph with the sinker. Last season, Carpenter's cutter averaged 88.6 mph compared to 85.1 mph against the Cubs during his first start of this year. Carp threw his curve at an average speed of 74.8 mph during last year and 72.7 mph during Friday's game. We can take heart in the fact that Friday's averages are within Carpenter's range of velocity for 2011, but there's no question that his pitches were not on par in terms of speed with where they were last season.
Given where Friday's start falls on the spectrum of Carpenter's starts since Tommy John and nerve transposition surgeries, it comes as no surprise that the reviews from the pitcher, his manager, and Cubs manager Dave Sveum were not of the ringing variety. Their comments reflect the lack of quality demonstrated by Carpenter's peripheral stats, as discussed above. In postgame comments, Carpenter was objective in his assessment of the way he pitched:
"My stuff wasn't as sharp as I'd like or as sharp as it's been in those simulated games, but I did the best I could to get as many outs as I could and give us a chance. [...] Hopefully my stuff will get better and sharper."
Matheny was also clear-eyed in his review:
"We were watching his stuff more so than anything else. [...] There were some balls, a couple that were getting up and getting hit a little bit and that's to be expected. Fortunately the plays were made behind him."
Sveum's quotes on Carpenter's start jibe nicely with those of carpenter and Matheny. He stated:
"Obviously, I've seen him with much better stuff and sharpness," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. "I think he got away with a lot of things today."
There's no question that Carpenter taking the mound on Friday for a major league start two months after major surgery and eleven months since his last start was a positive turn of events. However, if we strip away our glee with the fact that Carpenter is pitching again and look at how he pitched, there is no denying that Carpenter was rusty and subpar. This puts the Cardinals in an awkward position.
Carpenter was lucky to be facing a Cubs lineup that features many Quadruple-A bats. He'll be even luckier to make his next start against the lowly Astros, who are the league's worst offensive team. Heading into the season's final week, the Cardinals must decide whether to start Carpenter against teams with much better hitters. If they are neck-and-neck with the Brewers for the second Wild Card berth, can they afford to start a rusty Carpenter against a postseason-bound Reds or Nationals lineup? Should the Cards be fortunate enough to make the Division Series, can they risk Carpenter taking a roster spot, let alone one of the team's precious postseason starts?