Since Chris Carpenter came back from Tommy John surgery in 2009, he has provided the Cardinals with 97 total starts and accumulated 665 innings pitched. That’s an amazing average of 6.86 innings per start! He is the Cardinals workhorse. They’ll be thankful for his presence as there are some uncertainties concerning the rest of the rotation and a disturbing trend which manifested in 2011 related to the the bullpen. These predicaments will require the team to rely heavily on Carpenter again in 2012. I believe he will be up to the task.
There is little doubt that Carpenter has benefited from his elbow being restructured. At the age of 36 (he turns 37 in late April), he may have the arm of a young thirty year-old and this bodes well for him and the Cardinals. Last season’s 237 1/3 IP was his highest since 2005 (241 IP) when he was 31 years old for most of the season. It also helps that Carpenter is extremely productive in his starts, he doesn’t simply provide innings.
The number of innings Carpenter can eat up is going to be especially important this season. Barring any future changes, the remainder of the rotation will be Adam Wainwright (coming back from Tommy John surgery), Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook.
Wainwright cannot and will not be expected to pitch more than 180 innings this season in my estimation. If the Cardinals have a decent lead with Wainwright on the mound, he’ll be yanked in favor of the bullpen even if it is only after five innings. There is no reason to extend him in games where the Cardinals have a significant lead, especially early on in the season. This is automatically going to lead to more bullpen innings.
Garcia, is still a maturing pitcher. He is growing stronger each season and will have to eventually elevate his game to a level where he can average at least 6.5 innings per start. In 2010, he averaged 5.83 IP/S and in 2011 it rose to 6.09 IP/S. It would be a big jump to get to 6.5 IP/S in the next season. Realistically getting 6.3 IP/S would be helpful, but possibly not enough.
Lohse has been a productive pitcher during his tenure with the Cardinals. I’m not going to dispute that. But there is one pitfall, he doesn’t go deep into games. In his four full seasons with the Cardinals he has averaged 5.81 IP/S. The good news is that is was 6.28 IP/S last season. Minimally, he will have to duplicate this, but realistically he may have a hard time doing so.
Lastly, we have Westbrook. He averaged only 5.73 IP/S in 2011. His career average is 5.92 IP/S. Westbrook is not a man the Cardinals can rely on for length in a ballgame. This is of more importance to Carpenter because he will likely be the pitcher following Westbrook in the rotation this season. We can not expect Wainwright to be the ace in the season he returns from major elbow surgery. The number one starter is unquestionably Carpenter.
So, why is this a big deal when the team overcame this issue in 2011? Here is the reality. The Cardinals as a group had the 13th fewest innings pitched by their relievers. This is not a bad stat, but it is certainly one which would be nice to improve. The bigger issue is the overall performance of the bullpen in 2011 during the regular season. According to FanGraphs, the bullpen’s combined WPA (win probability added) was -2.09 in 2011 which ranked them 27th in MLB. A negative number means the bullpen as a unit increased the probability for losses versus gaining wins once they entered the game.
Another statistic which shows how much trouble the bullpen was in last season is called “meltdowns”, also obtained from FanGraphs. A meltdown is when a reliever comes into the game and his performance shifts the win probability toward losing by 6% versus winning (which is called a shutdown). The Cardinals led MLB with 90 meltdowns (MD) in 2011. Jason Motte with 13, Fernando Salas with 12 and Mitchell Boggs with 8 had the highest individual MDs in the Cardinals bullpen.
A meltdown is not necessarily forcing a loss, it only pushes the probability of a loss closer. Obviously Cardinals batters were able to offset a good number of these meltdowns or they occured without losing the lead. Otherwise, the Cards would not have been able to make the postseason. At the same point, this is not a positive statistic to lead the majors in. Eventually meltdowns will lead to actual losses.
Now, one season does not automatically extend to the next, but this should be cause for concern if Cardinals’ starters as a whole force the bullpen to pitch more than 3 innings each day. No bullpen is deep enough to withstand that type of activity for the duration of the season. If they have a repeat performance in either of these metrics, will the hitters be able to offset them again, or will shrinking leads turn into complete losses? That remains to be seen.
Either the Cardinals starters have to pitch deeper into the game and/or the relievers will have to perform better when they enter the games. I believe it starts with length provided by the starter. If the bullpen is not stressed by overuse, they will tend to perform better. Based on history, the Cardinals will once again lean on Carpenter to carry a heavy load because the remaining members of the rotation have not done so in the past. This excludes Wainwright. As I suggested, he will not be expected to pile up innings this season despite that fact that he was capable of doing so prior to the surgery.
Carpenter is going to be expected to make 33-35 starts. If he is able to do that again and average the same number of innings per start he has during the last three seasons, he’ll approach 226 – 240 IP for the season. The Cardinals need Carpenter to be the workhorse he has developed into especially over the last two seasons. If he can do it, it will allow Wainwright a season to ease back into pitching every five days and affords Garcia another year of growth before he has to take on a larger role in the rotation. It puts less pressure on Lohse and Westbrook to do something out of the ordinary, go deep into games. Most importantly, Carpenter’s lengthy starts puts less stress on the bullpen for at least one day. Will it be enough?