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Chris Carpenter’s case for history’s greatest pitching performance

Last Friday was the five-year anniversary of Carp’s legendary Game 5 NLDS outing. Where does it rank among baseball’s great performances?

St Louis Cardinals v Philadelphia Phillies - Game 5 Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

A mild confession: although I cite it in a solid majority of posts I write for Viva El Birdos, I am not a WAR absolutist.

This is not to say that I do not think Wins Above Replacement has value, because I do. But I believe it is most effective as a conversation starter. I can pull up the career WAR leaderboard on FanGraphs and while it isn’t inherently true that the five best players ever are Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, and Honus Wagner, it is a good snapshot of baseball history. In lieu of other information, it’s a start.

The same could be said for Game Score, devised by Bill James as a measurement of the quality of a pitcher’s performance. The weights and measurements are somewhat arbitrary but ultimately intuitive, and a glance at the best starts by Game Score produces a list of iconic performances with which fans are familiar.

For some perspective, there have been 13 nine-inning games in baseball history in which a pitcher produced a game score of 100 or greater (the upper reaches of the unfiltered Game Score list is primarily populated by pitchers who threw many, many extra innings). The best was Kerry Wood’s one-hit, zero walk, twenty strikeout complete game shutout during his rookie season in 1998.

Chris Carpenter’s Game Score in Game 5 of the 2011 National League Division Series against the Philadelphia Phillies was 84. This is a very good Game Score but it is hardly an all-timer. It wasn’t even Chris Carpenter’s top game score within that particular nine day stretch. The 2016 regular season produced 53 games with a Game Score this high, including three from St. Louis Cardinals pitchers (Jaime Garcia on April 14 and August 5; Adam Wainwright on July 16). Nolan Ryan produced 69 such games in his career.

But there is a case to be made that, given the leverage of the situation, Chris Carpenter’s performance was the greatest outing in baseball history.

To be extremely clear: Carpenter’s performance was not in the same stratosphere of dominance as Kerry Wood’s. This only added to the drama of the game (when a pitcher only strikes out three batters, there are a lot of balls in play, which means there is more that could go wrong at first glance), but from a pure performance perspective, Wood’s was clearly on a different level.

But Chris Carpenter needed to dominate. Despite a promising start by the Cardinals lineup, opening with a Rafael Furcal triple and a Skip Schumaker double, the NL’s highest-scoring offense was then shut down by Roy Halladay (and Ryan Madson, for one inning). Facing elimination, the Cardinals didn’t have breathing room, and Carpenter delivered.

Limiting Game Score results to postseason contests cuts down on the number of performances greater than Carpenter’s, but even so, there have been 68 nine-inning performances in the postseason which surpassed an 84 game score. The upper reaches of the list include Roger Clemens, vintage Tim Lincecum, and the postseason’s only two no-hit performances: Don Larsen’s 1956 World Series perfect game and the aforementioned Roy Halladay’s 2010 NLDS no-no.

But in none of these cases was a win in the game absolutely necessary. It was helpful, certainly, but the team would have lived to fight another day without the extraordinary effort. Condensing the list strictly to postseason games in which the pitcher’s team was facing elimination, only seven performances out-Game Score Carpenter.

#1 on the list is Josh Beckett, who had a 93 with the Florida Marlins in Game 5 of the 2003 NLCS against the Chicago Cubs, who eventually blew a 3-1 series lead. One could argue that the dominance is somewhat less impressive since the Cubs had less of a sense of urgency than the 2011 Phillies—I wouldn’t, but I kind of get it.

What really dulls the magic of the start, outstanding as it was (9 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 11 K), is that Beckett did not need to be that good. The Marlins scored four runs in the game—not a dominant offensive performance necessarily, but plenty of runs for Beckett, who only allowed more than four earned runs in one of his 24 regular-season starts in 2003, and only allowed more than four total runs in two of them.

This is also the case with Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta in the 2014 and 2015 Wild Card Games—strong performances in which there was a margin for error. The only 1-0 game facing elimination which ranks higher than Carpenter was Mike Mussina in Game 6 of the 1997 ALCS with the Baltimore Orioles against the Cleveland Indians—a game which his team lost.

Of course, one would be remiss to not, when mentioning great circumstantially dominant pitching performances, bring up Jack Morris. He was disqualified from my initial Play Index search, which was limited to outings of nine or fewer innings, but his 10-inning start in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series for the Minnesota Twins is so legendary that it is often cited as a one-night argument for him to make the Hall of Fame.

And while Morris was more strikeout-oriented against the Atlanta Braves lineup (8 in ten innings) than Carpenter, he also allowed seven hits and two walks, and needed a weird Lonnie Smith base-running lapse to avoid a regulation loss.

At the end of the night, though, Gene Larkin drove in Dan Gladden and the Twins won the World Series and Jack Morris achieved baseball immortality with a Game Score of...84. The same as Chris Carpenter.

In the end, this is a bar argument and nothing more. And while Chris Carpenter was undeniably a benefactor of circumstance, he is not the only person to have been put in a position for postseason heroics, yet he emerged. There have been 568 starts in history in which a pitcher’s team faced elimination. Only 1.2% of them were more dominant than Carpenter’s 2011 excellence, and none were quite as necessarily great.