Cardinals news from a Sabermetric point of view

Carpenter’s injury sad but not shocking

The latest news from the Cardinals that Chris Carpenter likely will not pitch in 2013 or ever again may not exactly qualify as a “bottom story of the day,” but for an injury-riddled pitcher entering his age-37 season with more than 2000 innings under his belt, it has surprisingly caught some by surprise:

“It’s a shock”

— Trevor Rosenthal

 “Surprised … To hear it the way we did was basically shocking.”

— John Mozeliak

But given Carpenter’s history, could anyone really have been shocked by the development?

Let’s review: Here we have a pitcher who, as Joe Strauss dramatically puts it, “repeatedly cheated his career’s Reaper, emerging from a second shoulder surgery, two elbow operations and the baffling neurological disorder that finally forced him to submit to a radical procedure last July that included removal of his first rib.” In addition, Carpenter:

  • pitched to only 72 batters in the regular season last year.
  • faced a career-high 996 in 2011 at age 36, capping the heaviest two-year workload of his career
  • has, since his first major surgery that cost him the 2003 season,  virtually missed one season for every three healthy ones
  • pushed his rehab last year so that he could appear in the playoffs
  • himself more than hinted at the possibility even as recently as a couple of weeks ago at the Winter Warm-Up, saying “If I have more health issues I’m not going to continue to try to battle through”

At some point, you have to at least assume non-trivial odds of the possibility of another injury. And yet people are somehow caught off-guard that Carpenter can’t go. Talk about gambler’s conceit.

The reported “shock” reminds us — much less humorously — of the cognitive dissonance in the old Saturday Night Live sketch detailing “The shooting of Buckwheat: America Stunned“:

Tailor: John was a quiet boy, a kind of a loner. But real polite. He always stood still when I hemmed his cuffs. Nice kid.

Ted Koppel: Do you believe he killed Buckwheat?

Tailor: Oh, yes, definitely. That’s all he ever talked about. Why, just the other day, he comes in and he says, “Saul, make me a new suit. I’m going to kill Buckwheat, and I want to look good on television.”

So what accounts for the avoidance coping? To be sure, Carpenter has done his best to seem invincible with his warrior-like returns from the ravages of battle in the past. But it also probably has to do with a combination of being too close to the situation and having a rooting interest, the former which is endemic to people like Mozeliak and Rosenthal, and the latter which affects fans and Cardinal employees alike. As calm and collected as Mozeliak is — and, apparently, sabermetrically inclined! — he knows Carpenter both as a person (a highly respected competitor) and as a commodity (value to the organization), and therefore is not immune to the human tendency to be unconsciously biased toward him.

Bloggers are also usually fans, but they can benefit from a vantage point that people inside the game and within its gravitational pull (traditional journalists) don’t have: greater objective, analytical distance. So not everyone failed to see the writing on the wall; it gives us no pleasure (okay, it gives us some) to note that we’ve been sounding the Carpenter alarm. As we wrote last November:

The Cardinals’ elephant in the room for 2013 is their rotation health, so we would use some of that cash to increase the starting-pitching depth, with or without the benefit of an elixir to loosen the GM’s pursestrings.

We further clarified who we meant in a followup post predicting the rotation:

Chris Carpenter: On the other hand, Old Carp (can we start calling him that now?) looks like he’s going to have to really increasingly on craft over capability, and that’s if he can stay off the DL. Fans need to let go of the notion of their erstwhile ace as a top-of-the-rotation starter.

And Carp concerned us back in 2011 when the Cardinals extended his contact, which now has borne out the mediocrity that we ascribed to it then:

 Given Carp’s health history, the Cardinals have been living on borrowed time as it was the last couple of years. Two more years only increases the risk of him breaking down at some point.

So while Carpenter’s knockout is certainly sad and demonstrably weakens the roster, one thing that it is not is shocking. The upside — if such a thing exists here — is that the team’s and fans’ loss is not as bad as they might think. Yes, Carpenter would likely have been helpful when he pitched in 2013. But the when was always the question. Sadly, Carpenter’s injury has now answered it.

2 Responses to “Carpenter’s injury sad but not shocking”

  1. Brandon Says:

    Terrific analysis. It’s shocking only in the sense that it finally hit home that Carp was done. Over Carp’s Cardinal career, the only thing as certain as his injury was that he would come back, with 2012 reinforcing that notion for many.

    I don’t think this really surprises Mo or the rest of the front office, though. Perhaps Matheny, but he should know all too well what the reality was here. I think from a PR point of view, the front office had no choice but to do the dance, pay homage to Carp as the warrior, and lower expectations by talking it up as an unexpected blow.

    I also think, privately, Mo likely believes that “replacement level” in the context of Cardinal starters is fairly high. I think you could make a straight faced argument that the expected performance of Miller, Lynn, Kelly, and Rosenthal may not be much different than that of Carpenter and Lohse for 2013, to say nothing of the years to come. I really think the front office has planned for the Carp injury, Lohse regression, and Garcia’s Garcianess by simply projecting the kids forward. This may cost a few (potentially critical) wins in 2013, but Mo has always adjusted at the deadline, and if we need a run of the mill starter in June, I suspect he’ll be acquired. This will put the club in an enviable financial position, as the reality of paying guys like Craig, Freese, Motte, Jay, et al something more than minimum wage will begin to hit home.

  2. Pip Says:

    Thanks, Brandon, and thanks also for rounding it out with your own additional observations, which are spot-on.

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