Initially, it looked as if the St. Louis Cardinals had dodged a bullet when two weeks ago the discomfort in Chris Carpenter’s neck was diagnosed as stemming more from a bulging disk than a nerve issue. Renewed symptoms earlier this week led to renewed concerns, however, and while the Cardinals remain optimistic, Carpenter’s history of nerve problems coupled with this setback again cast doubt upon his availability heading into the season. The Cardinals optimism may be well-founded and Carpenter may return shortly and provide a near-full season at his customary level of production. However, a nerve-related condition has impacted Carpenter three times already since he joined the Cardinals (2004, 2008, 2010) and team success in that time has closely paralleled Carpenter’s health. Historically speaking – whether any correlation actually exists between the two or not – as Carpenter goes, so go the Cardinals.
In Carpenter’s nine seasons in St. Louis*, the Cardinals have experienced a fair amount of prosperity, taking the form of four division titles, three NL pennants and two World Series Championships. Of course, the credit for these accomplishments rests with any number of players, coaches and executives in addition to Carpenter. Tony La Russa, Dave Duncan, Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina were around for that entire period while Walt Jocketty, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Matt Morris, Jeff Suppan, Woody Williams, David Eckstein, Adam Wainwright, David Freese, Allen Craig and John Mozeliak all contributed significantly to the Cardinals’ achievements in that span.
*I am counting 2003, even though Carpenter spent the entire season recovering from a torn labrum. The Cardinals signed Carpenter prior to the 2003 season after he was released by Toronto.
Still, among all the players who have played and other personnel who have shaped the Cardinals since his arrival in 2003, Carpenter’s ups and downs are those to which the team’s fortunes have most consistently hewn. That doesn’t mean that Carpenter is the Cardinals’ most important piece, or that the team’s success hinges directly on his performance. But consider Carpenter’s career with the Cardinals season-by-season in terms of starts, innings pitched and wins above replacement (fWAR*) as it compares to the season-by-season results for the team:
*For purposes of this article, I will use Fangraphs WAR (fWAR)
Season Starts Innings fWAR STL Final Record STL Playoff Outcome
2003 0 0.0 0.0 85-77 (3rd) Missed Playoffs
2004 28 182.0 3.2 105-57 (1st)^ Lost in World Series
2005 33 241.2 6.8 100-62 (1st)^ Lost in NLCS
2006 32 221.2 5.2 83-78 (1st) World Series Champions
2007 1 6.0 0.2 78-84 (3rd) Missed Playoffs
2008 3 15.1 0.4 86-76 (4th) Missed Playoffs
2009 28 192.2 5.6 91-71 (1st) Lost in NLDS
2010 35 235.0 3.7 86-76 (2nd) Missed Playoffs
2011 34 237.1 5.0 90-72 (2nd)^^ World Series Champions
^ – Best Record in MLB
^^ – Wild Card
In the six seasons Carpenter stayed (relatively) healthy and pitched, the Cardinals averaged 92.5 wins, won the division four times and finished second twice. The team went to the playoffs five times in those six seasons and played in the World Series three times, winning twice. In both World Series in which Carpenter actually pitched (he missed the entire 2004 playoffs with a nerve condition in his pitching arm), the Cardinals came out champions. By contrast, in the three seasons Carpenter effectively missed, the Cardinals won an average of 83 games and missed the playoffs all three seasons, finishing third, fourth and third in the division, respectively. Although unscientific, the pattern is pretty clear.
I am not suitably equipped to perform the research necessary to determine just how much of a correlation exists between Carpenter’s presence/absence and the Cardinals’ success/lack-thereof. The relationship may well be purely coincidental and Carpenter’s impact minimal (although Carpenter’s WAR argues strongly against the latter). Any number of variables may have impacted the Cardinals’ performance and the the outcome of each of the seasons between 2003 and 2011. But to the naked eye, the variable most consistently present when the team excelled and absent when it did not is none other than Bob Gibson’s heir: Chris Carpenter. Which makes Cardinals fans more than a little uneasy at the thought of being without Carpenter for any extended period of time in 2012.
Get well soon, Chris.