Carpenter the Terminator

In a world of pitch counts and overprotectiveness, Chris Carpenter is an example of a pitcher who was abused early in his career and could be a case study of why extremists on the “let them pitch” brigade and the “we must be careful with young arms” crew each have a justifiable argument for their positions.

The 15th overall pick by the Blue Jays in the 1993 draft, Carpenter arrived prior to the in-depth analytics and rampant overuse of cookie-cutter developmental techniques that are now in vogue and in debate. In the minors, Carpenter threw 163 innings at 20; 171 at 21; 120 in the minors and 81 in the majors in 1997 at age 22. Back when Carpenter made his big league entrance, baseball managers were by-and-large old-schoolers for whom there wasn’t an injury unless the bone was sticking out through the skin. Carpenter was also on a staff with Roger Clemens who didn’t want to hear teammates complaining about arm pain. It was natural for a young pitcher—even a first round draft pick—to overextend himself to keep his job and to not be perceived as a “wimp.” His managers were similarly faux tough guys with the only one who had a legitimate claim to the moniker being Buck Martinez. Martinez once recorded a double play after sustaining a broken leg on successive home plate collisions. Other than that, he pitched for Tim Johnson (crafted fictional stories about having been in combat in Vietnam) and Carlos Tosca (wanted to use a four-man rotation).

At 6’6”, 230 pounds, it’s doubtful anyone was going to call him weak to his face, but the implication was still present in those days that you should pitch through aches and pains. There was a physicality to Carpenter that indicated he could deal with a heavier workload than a smaller-framed pitcher would, but there didn’t appear to be any serious concentration on limiting him or protecting him in any way.

Carpenter’s pitch counts with the Blue Jays were bordering on ridiculous especially since the club was not a contender and in many of the games, he was getting knocked around early enough to make it clear that he should probably have been yanked. There had been flashes of brilliance amid long bouts of inconsistency through 2002 when a shoulder injury sidelined him. Somewhat understandably, the Blue Jays under GM J.P. Ricciardi non-tendered Carpenter and wanted to bring him back on a minor league contract. Carpenter instead signed with the Cardinals knowing that a torn labrum would keep him out for the entire 2003 season. He chose to go to St. Louis to work with pitching coach Dave Duncan and manager Tony LaRussa, both of whom were known to work wonders with pitchers whose results had previously been a fraction of their talent level. It was an investment on both ends. The Cardinals wanted to hone Carpenter’s latent abilities and Carpenter wanted to learn from baseball’s resident miracle workers.

Duncan rebuilt Carpenter’s mechanics and altered his mentality. His absurdly good control and movement on as many as six different pitches—four seam fastball, slider, curve, cutter, sinker and changeup—coupled with the new focus and confidence crafted one of the best pitchers in baseball between 2004 and 2011. He won the NL Cy Young Award in 2005; finished 3rd in the voting in 2006; and 2nd in 2009.

Of course mixed in with all of that, he still missed significant time with a variety of injuries including Tommy John surgery, an oblique strain, shoulder/biceps issues, and thoracic outlet syndrome that has probably ended his career. His injuries weren’t to the same area of his body. His entire upper body broke down at one point or another.

The most amazing thing about Carpenter isn’t that he recovered from the injuries, rejuvenated his career to the degree that he became a Cy Young Award winner and post-season ace, but that he kept coming back like an unstoppable killing machine from a series of Hollywood horror movies. He was certainly the stuff of nightmares for the Phillies and Rangers in the Cardinals’ 2011 run to the World Series. His complete game shutout outdueling former Blue Jays teammate Roy Halladay in game 5 of the 2011 NLDS may wind up being seen as the catalyst for the Phillies’ decline, currently underway.

For Carpenter to contemplate retirement because of pain speaks to the level of agony he must be in when he tries to pitch. Considering the number of injuries he recovered from and repeatedly rose to the top of his game again and again, he combined durability, determination, great stuff, and a massive pain threshold to fulfill the potential that made him a first round draft choice when his career should have ended years ago as another case of prospect burnout.

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