Chris Carpenter may have only spent nine of his 15 years in the MLB with the St. Louis Cardinals, but in that time he created a legacy that’s still here. Let’s look back at the career of this all-time great.
There aren’t many times in the history of the St. Louis Cardinals that a player’s legacy is felt years down the road. What Chris Carpenter left behind is still thriving and being passed on by Adam Wainwright to Jack Flaherty and every other pitcher on the team.
What is it that Chris Carpenter left behind? In the words of Jim Connell of the Springfield News-Leader, Carpenter was the “epitome of persistence.” In his 15 season career, Carpenter had three surgeries on his elbow, two surgeries on his shoulder, and had a rib removed. Through all that, he continued to pitch, and pitch well.
After breaking into the league with the Blue Jays after being ranked the #28 prospect in baseball in 1997 at the age of 22, Carpenter had an ERA consistently in the 4.00-5.00 range. However, Carpenter’s childhood hero, Roger Clemens, pitched for the Blue Jays from 1997-1998. That rotation also eventually included Roy Halladay and Pat Hentgen, all Cy Young Award winners.
The mentors were all there for Carpenter to mold himself around, and it’s no surprise he pitched with the same bulldog mentality that Roger Clemens had on the mound. However, due to shoulder and elbow issues, Carpenter continued to underperform on his high potential through the 1999 season.
Skip ahead to 2002, and Carpenter’s underperformance continued. More trips to the DL led to him having surgery on what ended up being a torn labrum in his shoulder. That injury kept him out for the end of 2002 and he ended up testing free agency rather than sticking with the Blue Jays.
Now his time with the Cardinals began. Even after Carpenter finished his Blue Jays career with a 4.83 ERA and only 870.2 innings pitched in six seasons, the Cardinals took him on at a bargain. For just $300k a year, the Cardinals signed Chris Carpenter in 2003. Even though injury complications kept him from pitching that year, the Cardinals gave Carpenter another $300k deal for 2004, and that would make all the difference.
In Toronto, Carpenter suffered through four different managers in his first four seasons, each one trying to change his mechanics along the way. When he got to St. Louis, there was a whole different animal in the dugout with manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan.
It was a perfect storm for success.
In 2004, Carpenter threw 182.0 innings in the regular season with a 3.46 ERA but near the end of the season, a nerve issue in his shoulder led to bicep pain that kept him out of the postseason and eventually the World Series where the Cards lost to the Boston Red Sox. It’s hard not to think about how that World Series could’ve gone had the team had Carpenter available, but it’s too late now.
In 2005 though, Carpenter took off. After being named the Opening Day starter, Carpenter was named to his first All-Star team after having a 2.51 ERA with three complete games and 128 strikeouts before the break. Carpenter ended the year with a whopping seven complete games over 241.2 innings. His 2.83 ERA and 1.055 WHIP was good enough to win him the Cy Young Award as well as a top-10 MVP finish.
Carpenter was no longer a disappointment. He made good on the commitment the Cardinals made to him, and he would continue to do so.
In 2006, Carpenter had a 3.09 ERA over 32 starts, leading the league with a 1.069 WHIP. Injury issues crept back up some, but he was there for the team when they needed him in the playoffs. With the help of Carpenter’s eight shutout innings in Game 3 of the World Series against the Tigers, the Cardinals won the World Series.
Sadly for Chris Carpenter, the injury bug would soon bite back hard.
After dealing with bone spurs at the beginning of the 2007 season, Carp ended up getting Tommy John surgery in August, keeping him out most of 2008 as well. He threw just 21.1 innings between 2007 and 2008 but still persisted.
In 2009, Carpenter came back angry, leading the MLB with a 2.24 ERA over 192.2 innings. He allowed a minuscule 0.3 home runs per nine innings, and barely finished second to Tim Lincecum in the Cy Young vote. It was his best year since 2005 and at 34, he still had plenty in the tank.
2010 showed even more improvement as Carp threw another 235.0 innings with a 3.32 ERA. His only accolade from the year was an All-Star appearance, but that’s nothing to be angry about for a 35-year-old oft-injured starter.
2011 was the climax of Carpenter’s career. At 36, he received his fifth Opening Day nod and kept his workhorse mentality. Over an MLB-leading 237.1 innings, Carpenter had a 3.45 ERA and while it wasn’t as good of a year as he had in some of his earlier years, he was best down the stretch when the team made their legendary comeback in the standings to catch the Braves.
From August 6 to the end of the season, Carpenter made 11 starts with a 2.68 ERA and a .235 batting average against. He carried that momentum into the postseason. Although he was roughed up in Game 2 of the NLDS against the Phillies, the game of Carpenter’s life came in Game 5 when he faced off against former teammate, Roy Halladay.
Halladay was coming off a year where he had just a 2.35 ERA. He would finish second in Cy Young voting at season’s end and he had already allowed just three runs over 8.0 innings in Game 1 of the series.
In that fated Game 5, Skip Schumaker doubled in Rafael Furcal in the first inning and from there, not a single run was scored. Halladay pitched another 8.0 innings, giving up just that one run, but took the loss as Carpenter gave up just three hits all game. In my childhood, that game was one of the biggest games that solidified my love for Carpenter and the Cardinals in general.
The magic of that postseason was just beginning. The Cardinals got past the Brewers in the NLCS and then went up against the Rangers in the World Series.
Carpenter made three starts in the World Series (Games 1, 5, 7) and ended with a 2.84 ERA and a .246 batting average against in the series. He didn’t end up with the MVP of the series, but the team surely couldn’t have won it all in 2011 without him.
The nerve issues came back bad in 2012 though and Carpenter made just three starts all year. He made two starts in the postseason but wasn’t really the same. 2013 was a wash due to continued injuries and in late 2013, Carpenter retired.
He had given all he could to the game and pitched until the age of 37; much longer than most mortals would’ve made it with the injury history he had. It was a sad end to a fantastic career.
Coming back to his bulldog mentality, Carpenter threw 33 career complete games, and he stepped up when his team needed him most. With two or fewer runs to support him, he had a career ERA of 2.93. That’s better than his ERAs with more run support.
Also, over his career, his batting average against got better as he went. Other than a .254 batting average against on his first 25 pitches of the game, the average jumps to .275, then .266, then .256 over each of the next consecutive 25 pitches. When Carpenter had thrown more than 101 pitches in a game, opponents had just a .214 batting average against him.
In two starts against his former team, Carpenter did not give up a single run and gave up just four hits, striking out 17 in 17 innings. Do you think he wanted to prove they made a mistake by giving up on him?
Carpenter’s 2005 Cy Young award was the last time that a Cardinals’ pitcher has won the award, but along the way, he passed on his way of doing things on the mound to Adam Wainwright who is still passing it on.
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Carpenter was voted into the St. Louis Cardinals’ Hall of Fame in 2016 and will forever be remembered for his time on the mound. He continues to act as a special assistant to the team, visiting during spring training, giving back, and continuing to pass on his legacy. Today also happens to be Carpenter’s birthday, so happy 45th to Chris Carpenter as well!