Why we should give a Hoot about Chris Carpenter

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that this article will have little to do with Chris Carpenter until the very end.   If you know a little bit of Cardinals history, you already know where this one is heading.

Tonight, Chris Carpenter is scheduled to pitch in Game Two of the 2011 NLDS.   It will be the first time in his career he has gone on short rest.  That seems to have raised some red flags around Cardinals Nation, and that might be premature.   After a disappointing loss in Game One, this appears to be a must win game, and there is no bigger must win pitcher on the staff than Chris Carpenter.  In fact, he reminds me a lot of ……

Yeah, Bob Gibson was a pretty good big game pitcher in his day.   How big ?  I’m so glad you asked.

It all started on August 6, 1964.  Johnny Keane had been scrambling to assemble a reliable four or five man rotation.  Pieces were starting to fall into place, but with the Cardinals now 8 games behind the Phillies, something had to change in a hurry.

That change was Bob Gibson.

Up to that point in the season, Gibson was still erratic.  He was a good pitcher, and had absolutely electric stuff, but had yet to put it all together.  Other than a 4 hit shutout against the Cubs earlier in the season, and maybe a couple of games where he allowed a single run, Gibson had been anything but dominant.  In fact, he had been taken out of a number of games as early as the sixth inning – once even in the fourth.  Because of his inconsistency, he had even been used in relief.  Not as a punishment, but Keane’s attempts of getting Gibson back on track.   Those relief appearances were not always pretty, although a few days earlier, he did manage to earn a save, the third of his career.  Hitters were teeing off on him, and his ERA was in the mid 3s, with a trajectory quickly heading to 4.  And he had a losing record at 8-9.  Not exactly the way Gibson is remembered today, is it ?

With that game against the Cubs in early August, something changed.   It would be easy to launch into a romantic speculation about how he looked around the clubhouse for a leader, and not seeing one, he took it upon himself to carry the team to the finish line.  That’s probably a bit of a stretch when you have Ken Boyer and Bill White as teammates, but it might be just as simple as that.

And that’s our first Chris Carpenter similarity.  He would also enter his game on August 6, 2011 with an escalating ERA, dangerously approaching 4 runs per game.   He also had a losing record for the first time in …… well, a very long time.   And finally, Carpenter was hardly the dominating force that we had seen in previous seasons.  So much, that fans were questioning his ability to lead the Cardinals to victory.

Back to Gibson for a moment.   He won that August 6 game against the Cubs, and was completely dominating.  If it had not been for Ron Santo, and running out of gas with 2 outs in the ninth inning, it might have been his second shutout of the season.  With that win, Gibson would raise his record to .500 at 9-9.   He would never be under .500 again in the season, or this late in any season until injuries started taking their toll in 1973.

The end of his 1964 season is where the legend of Bob Gibson was born, and it is still worth another look today.  In those final 14 starts and one heroic long relief appearance in 1964,

  • The Cardinals went 11-4 in those 15 games
  • Gibson’s record was 11-3
  • Gibson pitched on 3 days rest 8 times, 4 days rest 6 and just one day on one other occasion
  • Gibson threw 8 consecutive complete games, including one shutout
  • He pitched into the ninth inning on two other occasions, and lost an eight inning game 1-0
  • His ERA over that period was 2.20, and his season ERA fell from 3.58 to 3.01
  • Gibson would strike out 112 batters in 118 2/3 innings, for nearly a strikeout per inning.
  • Gibson would walk just 32 batters, for a nearly 4:1 K/BB ratio

In other words, Bob Gibson just just transformed into the pitcher that we all remember him being. And he would pitch at this level for nearly the next decade.

But it didn’t stop there.   If you want some eye popping numbers, wait until you see Gibson’s postseason record.

Year Game Outcome Days
1964 2 L 3 8 4 4 8 9 3
1964 5 W 3 10 2 0 6 13 2
1964 7 W 2 9 5 5 9 9 3
1967 1 W 4 9 1 1 6 10 1
1967 4 W 3 9 0 0 5 6 1
1967 7 W 3 9 2 2 3 10 3
1968 1 W 4 9 3 3 5 17 1
1968 4 W 3 9 1 1 5 10 2
1968 7 L 3 9 4 4 8 1 8

In postseason,

  • 31 strikeouts in 1964 set a World Series record until …..
  • He broke his own World Series strikeout record with 35 in 1968
  • Gibson set single game strikeout record against the Tigers with 1968 (previous record was 15 by Sandy Koufax)
  • Gibson’s 7 wins set a record for right handed pitchers
  • He set a World Series record for fewest hits allowed with 14 in 1967
  • Won the World Series MVP in 1964 and 1967

Are you sort of getting the picture ?   Good, I thought you might.   Yes, starting on that one game on August 6, 1964, Bob Gibson became one of the most dominating right handed pitchers in the history of the game.   He was also the guy you handed the ball to in a must win situation, even as late as 1974 when at age 38, he had a hard time even walking to the mound.

What does this have to do with Chris Carpenter ?

He too turned things around on August 6, although maybe not as dominating as Gibson’s.   In his last 11 starts in 2011,

  • Carpenter would go 5-1, improving his record to 11-9
  • The Cardinals were only 6-5 in those starts, mostly due to an inconsistent bullpen
  • Carpenter’s ERA over the 11 starts was 2.26, lowering his season from 3.85 to 3.45
  • He would strike out 70 batters while walking just 17 over the 80 2/3 innings
  • Carpenter would pitch 7 innings or more 8 of the last 11 starts
  • He would throw two complete games, both shutouts
  • He threw a 2 hitter against the Houston Astros in the final game of the season

Factoring in the differences in the two eras, that is pretty darn close to what Gibson did for the Cardinals in 1964.   And on a team with Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman, Carpenter emerged as one of the leaders and helped carry them to postseason.

Quite often we have compared Chris Carpenter to Bob Gibson.  In a recent interview during a game, Gibson himself even made the comparison.   It is a fair one, because Carpenter is one of the few players in the game today that displays that kind of competitive fury.  In an age of big contracts and pampered superstars, Carpenter’s old school attitude is a breath of fresh air.  Sometimes it gets him in trouble, but it is that passion for winning that separates him from most of the other pitchers of his era.

If you want a pitcher on the mound for a must win game today, there is no question you hand the ball to Chris Carpenter.  Short rest or not, he gives the Cardinals the best chance to win, and that is all that matters right now.   For the last 8 years, Carpenter has been the best pitcher to wear a Cardinals uniform since Gibson.   Tonight, he can take a big step in matching some of Gibson’s postseason contributions.

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4 Responses to Why we should give a Hoot about Chris Carpenter

  1. As usual…on point! Fantastic article! Go Cards.


    • Thanks Freddie! I know that I am looking forward to the game tonight, and if Carpenter is good, it could be an even shorter series, and the Cards have home field advantage. It just doesn’t get any better than this, does it ?


  2. SMS Mike says:

    Great article Bob.


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