Passing the Baton

While most eyes in Cardinals Nation are fixed on the 1-2 punch of Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday as they spread fear and terror throughout National League pitching staffs, a very interesting story is playing out in the starting rotation. It is one that we have watched develop for several years, wondering when the day would come. That time is now and the story is the passing of the “Staff Ace” baton.

There is no question that Chris Carpenter has been the most dominant pitcher to wear Cardinal red since John Tudor, perhaps even since the great one, Bob Gibson. A rare combination of competitive fire, total understanding of how to pitch and exceptional physical skills make Chris Carpenter one of the best at his position. Cardinals Nation is most fortunate to have not one such player, but two. With Adam Wainwright, the physical skills and competitive ability became obvious in his rookie season when he filled in for an injured Jason Isringhausen and dazzled crowds in St. Louis while silencing ones in the visiting ballparks. We watched with fascination in 2009 as he battled to win game after game when it didn’t seem like he had control of his best pitches. And when he did, it was lights out for the opposition. It is also a shame that he was not rewarded for his efforts with the Cy Young award.

So how often does this happen, where the teacher gets an opportunity to watch his student graduate and become his peer and then perhaps successor ? Much less often than you might think, in spite of the efforts of player development managers, coaches and scouts.

Larry Jackson -> Bob Gibson

In the 1950s, Larry Jackson was one of the stars on a team that largely underachieved for most of the decade. Jackson put up some pretty impressive numbers as a starter from 1957 through 1962. Waiting in the wings was a young hard throwing right hander named Bob Gibson, but if there was a baton to be passed in the Solly Hemus era, it would have been to Ernie Broglio. To be fair to Hemus, Broglio had developed more quickly and was a better pitcher than Gibson – at that point. Hemus failed to see the potential in Gibson, so it was Broglio that got the starts while Gibson spent time in the bullpen.

Thanks to a change in management, Gibson would indeed emerge as the ace of the staff largely through his heroics down the stretch of the 1964 pennant chase and in the World Series.  It was Johnny Keane that saw the potential in Gibson.  Once Keane convinced Gibson that he was allowed to make mistakes and he wouldn’t be sent back to the minors or banished to the bullpen, the real Gibson was unleashed on the major leagues.  What happened after that fills pages in the Cardinals history books.

We have some further evidence to support the notion that Gibson did this on his own.  When we listen to Bob Gibson talk about the players and coaches that influenced him, he will speak of Johnny Keane, Bill White and George Crowe.  I don’t recall the name Larry Jackson ever being mentioned.  As much as we would like this to be a teacher/student moment, facts say otherwise.

Bob Gibson -> Steve Carlton.

That this never came to be is the saddest page in the Cardinals history book. Everything was in place – just the way you would want it to be. Gibson was one of the greatest pitchers of the era. Carlton, the tall lefty, had come up through the Cardinals system and patiently took his place beside Gibson in the starting rotation. Resentment over a contract holdout and inability to come to terms in a subsequent negotiation sent the future Hall of Famer to Philadelphia and Cardinals fans were denied the pleasure of watching Carlton dominate National League hitters for the next decade.

Bob Gibson -> Lynn McGlothen.

In Boston there was a young hard throwing right hander that reminded a lot of scouts of Bob Gibson when he was at that age. Before the start of the 1974 season, the Cardinals took a chance on McGlothen and sent Reggie Cleveland to Boston in a multi-player deal, but it was McGlothen that the Cardinals prized. It was no secret that the wear and tear of the previous 15 seasons were taking its toll on Gibson. It was hoped that some time beside Gibson could help McGlothen reach the next level and that he would take over as ace of the staff. We were very encouraged as McGlothen got off to a good start in 1974, compiling a 12-7 record before the All Star Game break, earning the right hander his only All Star Game invitation. Just as we had hoped, he had taken the spot that was normally occupied by Bob Gibson. McGlothen would close out the season with a 16-12 record and a 2.69 ERA, both career bests. He would pitch well in 1975 and 1976 but failed to establish himself as the dominating #1 starter. He would be traded to the Giants after the 1976 season for Ken Reitz, who we had regretted trading away a year earlier.

Bob Forsch ->

With the retirement of Bob Gibson, Bob Forsch would be the closest thing the Cardinals had to an ace until Joaquin Andujar joined the team in June 1981. Forsch had a number of very good seasons, especially 1977 when the right hander would go 20-7, but he was never the consistently dominating pitcher you think of as an ace.  And it wasn’t like there was a void of young talent coming through Gateway City.  John Denny, Pete Vukovich, Silvio Martinez and Andy Rincon all came up in this period and either had success elsewhere (Denny, Vukovich) or had their career end prematurely due to injury (Rincon, Martinez).  The conditions were just not right for a teacher/student moment.

Joaquin Andujar ->

To say that Joaquin Andujar burst onto the scene in St. Louis would be an understatement.  A talented but temperamental player, the Cardinals took a chance on the right hander when they sent Tony Scott to the Astros in June 1981.  Andujar would impress everybody in the organization as he closed out the strike shortened season by going 6-1 after the trade.  That would establish Andujar as a top of the rotation guy, and he did not disappoint.  In four seasons with the Cardinals, he would turn in three Cy Young worthy performances.  Andujar would go 15-10 with a career low era of 2.47  in 1982, including 9 complete games and 5 shutouts.  Topping that, he would win 20 games in 1984 and 21 in 1985.   Yes, Joaquin Andujar was the ace of the staff.   All that was missing was a student.   The closest would be Danny Cox, but once again, injuries cut short a very promising career.

John Tudor -> Joe Magrane (and Greg Mathews)

The baton was not really passed from Joaquin Andujar to John Tudor, but rather taken by force.  And it happened on June 3, 1985, we just didn’t know it at that particular moment.  This was John Tudor’s second victory since coming to the Cardinals in the off season for fan favorite, George Hendrick.  It was a deal that nobody liked, especially when Tudor started the season with a 1-7 record.  All of that changed on June 3.  From that point in the season, Tudor would go 19-1 (and the Cardinals 22-3 overall in these starts).  We hadn’t seen pitching like that since Bob Gibson’s remarkable 1968.   If not for an equally amazing season from Dwight Gooden, Tudor would have won the 1985 Cy Young Award.   This was now John Tudor’s rotation and he was the elder statesman.  If there was any question, that ended after the 1985 World Series when Joaquin Andujar was traded to Oakland for Tim Conroy (a spot starter) and Mike Heath (a backup catcher).

Joe Magrane came up through the Cardinals system as a highly ranked prospect.  A first round draft choice in 1985, he progressed quickly and earned a spot in the rotation in 1987.  Along with Magrane was another left hander, Greg Mathews.  Mathews would sometimes be called Little Greg Mathews even though he stood 6ft 2in.  Everybody on the team was little when standing next to Magrane.

School was in session at the beginning of the 1987 season.  Unfortunately a run-in (literally) with Mets catcher Barry Lyons cost Tudor half of the season, out with a broken leg.  The half season that he was able to pitch was pure Tudor though as he compiled an impressive 10-2 record in 16 starts.  The young lefties did well, especially in big games, but it was the bullpen that saved the 1987 season.  Credit the starters for not letting games get out of control, but the bullpen was the real story of 1987.

Class continued in the 1988 season.  Injuries and a failed experiment with Bob Horner at first base put the Cardinals in the position of being sellers at the trade deadline.  John Tudor was sent to Los Angeles to shore up their pitching staff and in return the Cardinals got Pedro Guerrero.  As a result of the trade, the baton was passed to Joe Magrane.  The giant lefty did well for the first two seasons.  Like so many of the Cardinals pitchers in the 80′, Magrane would lose significant time to arm troubles.  And like Danny Cox and Todd Worrell, he would not be the dominant pitcher when he did finally return to the major leagues.

But in the context of passing the baton, this does qualify, albeit it in a rather accelerated fashion.

Darryl Kile -> Matt Morris

Our next opportunity comes in the 2000 season with the addition of Darryl Kile from the Colorado Rockies.  Kile had come up through the Houston Astros system and had become one of the better young pitchers in the league.  He tested the free agent market after the end of the 1997 season and ended up with a big contract in Colorado.  For breaking ball pitcher that relied on good control, Colorado was about the worst place to pitch and Kile’s numbers ballooned in the thin air.  After two seasons, he was traded to St. Louis and he became an overnight sensation, winning 20 games in his first season in St. Louis.  At the same time, Matt Morris was beginning his comeback and working out of the bullpen.  Kile taught Morris how to throw a knee buckling curveball and the student went on to a career year, winning 22 games in 2001.  Once again we had a teacher and student and a baton would be passed.  Unfortunately that would happen on June 23, 2002 with the sudden passing of Darryl Kile.   That left an indescribable void in the Cardinals rotation, but Morris stepped up and pitched brilliantly as the ace of the staff until the arrival of Chris Carpenter in 2004.

Chris Carpenter -> Adam Wainwright

With a little bit of historical perspective, maybe we can appreciate how special the story of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright is.  Over the last half century, injuries and trades have conspired against the apprentice becoming the master.  Only twice have Cardinals fans seen anything that comes close to what we are watching right now.   Perhaps we will write about Adam Wainwright passing the baton to Shelby Miller in 2016, but until then I plan on enjoying watching Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright pitch some of the best baseball we have seen in a long time.

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