If I Were a Carpenter
News item: In a matchup of Cy Young Award candidates, Chris Carpenter outdueled Roger Clemens on Sunday as the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Houston Astros, 3-0. The National League's starting pitcher in the All-Star game won his 14th game while lowering his ERA to 2.34. Carpenter is tied along with Jon Garland for the major-league lead in wins and is second in ERA behind Clemens (1.47).
In addition to ranking at or near the top in wins and ERA, Carpenter is unique in averaging one strikeout per inning (with some rounding help) combined with a groundball/flyball ratio exceeding 2.00. To wit, the 6-foot-6, 230-pound right-hander ranks fifth in the majors in K/9 (8.91) and ninth in G/F (2.11). No other pitcher in the top ten in K/9 has a G/F higher than 1.38. By the same token, nobody in the top ten in G/F has a K/9 higher than 6.58 other than A.J. Burnett (2.50 G/F, 6th; 8.65 K/9, 7th).
Why is this combination so important, you ask? Well, if you strike out a bunch of guys and get the vast majority of the remaining outs via groundballs, you're not likely to allow too many home runs. Granted, groundball pitchers tend to give up more hits than flyball pitchers, but the extra hits generally go for singles rather than homers.
Carpenter is actually giving up fewer four-baggers in 2005 than at any point in his career. In fact, this is the first time that the 30-year-old has allowed under one HR per ten IP in a full season. More than anything, his success this year is attributable to career-high strikeout and groundball/flyball rates. His walk rate (2.15 BB/9) is outstanding but is still above his pace from last year (1.88).
To determine just how rare Carpenter's double is, I checked the available data on ESPN.com for the past five years and determined that Brandon Webb in 2003 and Kevin Brown in 2000 were the only pitchers who came close to striking out one batter per inning while getting two times as many groundballs as flyballs.
In 2004, Matt Clement had the highest G/F ratio (1.60) among pitchers in the top ten in K/9 and, lo and behold, Carpenter had the highest K/9 (7.52) among hurlers in the top ten in G/F.
Webb, like Carpenter this year, was in the top ten in both in 2003 (3.44 G/F, 2nd; 8.57 K/9, 7th). Chuck Finley placed in the top ten in both in 2002 (1.77 G/F, 9th; 8.21 K/9, 10th).
In 2001, Roger Clemens had the highest G/F ratio (1.48) among pitchers in the top ten in K/9, while Matt Morris had the highest K/9 (7.70) among those in the top ten in G/F.
While pitching for the Colorado Rockies in 2000, Pedro Astacio had the highest G/F ratio (1.63) among hurlers in the top ten in K/9. Meanwhile, Brown had the highest K/9 (8.45) among those in the top ten in G/F.
If anybody else has data going back beyond 2000, I would be curious to know the last time a pitcher averaged a strikeout an inning coupled with a groundball/flyball ratio greater than 2.00. No pitcher has cleared those two hurdles this decade although Carpenter stands a good chance of doing so this year.
Based on this combo, I predict that Daniel Cabrera will break out next year and become one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. Interestingly, the Marlins were asking for Cabrera when discussing the possibility of trading Burnett to the Orioles earlier this month. Baltimore wisely turned down Florida's offer. Cabrera and Burnett are two of the hardest-throwing pitchers in the game.
Cabrera, a 6-foot-7, 251-pound starter, is 8-7 with a 4.70 ERA in 2005. More importantly, he is averaging 8.12 K/9 and 1.74 G/F. His totals are nearly identical to Carlos Zambrano, another big guy who throws heat, and only Carpenter and Burnett better him in both categories.
Over his last three starts, Cabrera has thrown 20 innings, allowing nine hits and three runs while striking out 19 against nine walks. He is not without a weakness though. The 24-year-old RHP needs to develop a more effective off-speed pitch that he can use against LHB. If and when he masters that, the Dominican with a mid-90s fastball and a plus curveball will rank among the most dominant starters in the game. Cabrera is closer than you might think to becoming such a pitcher. Get this, he is already blowing away RHB to the tune of .150 BAA/.215 OBP/.189 SLG with 0 HR in 180 AB along with 51 SO and only 11 BB.
Carpenter, in the meantime, is overpowering righties as well (.189/.219/.256). Although not quite at the level of Clemens on the road, he has also put up extraordinary numbers away from Busch Stadium (7-0, 1.69, .183/.239/.292). Ironically, the former Blue Jay is averaging more pitches per batter (3.91) while averaging fewer pitches per inning (14.4) than at any point in his career.
How can that be? It's simple once you think it through. Carpenter is facing only 3.69 batters per inning this year vs. a previous low of 4.10 in 2004 and 4.35 for his career prior to 2005. Yes, if I were a Carpenter, I would continue to throw strikes, get ahead of the hitters, and put them away via Ks and groundouts. That's a recipe for success.
Update: In Daniel Cabrera's next start (vs. the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday, July 19), he had the following line:
Pitchers IP H R ER BB SO HR PC-SR D Cabrera 5.1 5 2 2 4 7 0 106-61
Of his sixteen outs, Cabrera struck out seven and retired the other nine on the ground.