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November 30. 2013 11:00PM

Vin Sylvia: Making the case for Carpenter


 


 

Chris Carpenter's retirement as a player last month begged the question: Who was the greatest pitcher ever to come out of New Hampshire?

For most astute baseball observers, the debate would be over two candidates: Raymond native Carpenter and Manchester's Mike Flanagan ... though Concord's Bob Tewksbury certainly merits discussion, and true hardball historians justifiably could bring up Derry's Lefty Tyler, who averaged 15 wins a season in his prime of 1912-18.

All four Granite Staters won more than 100 major-league games. Each for a time served as his team's ace.

Yet, mainly due to career-interrupting injuries, none maintained the sustained dominance that engenders serious Hall of Fame consideration, leaving no obvious hands-down choice as New Hampshire's all-time best pitcher. (For position players it's another matter; there's Carlton Fisk, and then there's everyone else.)

So let's look beyond the obvious.

Of the four Granite Staters to surpass the century mark in pitching victories, Carpenter has the best winning percentage - and by a substantial margin: .605 to runner-up Flanagan's .539. The Trinity High of Manchester grad also leads by a large margin in career strikeouts, with 1,697 to Flanagan's second-best 1,491 - this despite trailing Flanagan, by a lot, in games (526-350) and innings (2,770-2,219.1).

In addition to games and innings, Flanagan leads in wins (with 167 to Carpenter's second-best 144) but also in losses (with 143 to runner-up Tyler's 116).

Tyler, meanwhile ranks first on this short list in two noteworthy statistical categories: ERA (2.95) and WHIP (walks/hits per innings pitched, 1.264).

Of course, including a Deadball Era player such as Tyler in the discussion requires placing his numbers in historical context, which brings modern statistical adjustment into play. And it's here where Carpenter really separates himself from the rest of this distinguished bunch.

While Tyler's career ERA is by far the best of New Hampshire's Century Club members, his ERA-plus (a measurement comparing a pitcher's ERA to the league average in the same season or seasons) is a fairly modest 102, meaning his career ERA is only about 2 percent better than that of his early 20th century contemporaries.

Carpenter's ERA-plus, largely compiled during what's come to be known as the Steroid Era, is 116, or about 16 percent better than his contemporaries. That's far and away the best of of New Hampshire's best, with Tewksbury ranking second (104) and Flanagan ranking fourth (100, or equal to the league average during his career).

Carpenter also ranks highest in WAR, the statistic incorporating a complex formula to measure the number of wins a player meant to his team against the number of wins a player replacing him (from the bench or the Triple-A level) would have produced. Carpenter's career WAR is 35.5, Flanagan's 26.0, Tyler's 23.3 and Tewksbury's 21.5.

Using the far less scientific tool of Cy Young Award voting, Carpenter also comes out on top. He and Flanagan each won one Cy - Flanagan the American League award in 1979 (23-9, 3.08 ERA, 131 ERA-plus), Carpenter the National League award in 2005 (21-5/2.83/150) - but, unlike Flanagan, Carpenter also finished among the top three in the voting for two other seasons, 2006 and 2009.

Tewksbury had one top-three finish in the Cy voting: third in 1992, when he went 16-5 with a 2.16 ERA and a sensational 158 ERA-plus. Tyler's career, which overlapped with Young's by two seasons, predated the Cy Young Award.

Flanagan's Cy came amid his peak seasons of 1977-84, when he went 122-81 for some very good Orioles teams, including the 1983 World Series winners. His career postseason record includes seven games (six starts), a 3-2 record and 4.33 ERA.

Carpenter's Cy came in the middle of a career divided into three parts: the Toronto years (1997-2002), Part I of the St. Louis years (2004-06) and Part II of his Cardinals career (2009-11), which followed two seasons almost entirely lost to injury. The Toronto years - let's face it - were pedestrian: 49-50, 4.83 before shoulder surgery led the Blue Jays to let him go to free-agency. Parts I and II of the St. Louis years were spectacular, the peaks of a Cardinals career in which he went 95-44 with a 3.07 ERA and 133 ERA-plus.

The Cardinals of that period were among the best teams in baseball, reaching the postseason five times in eight years, with World Series victories in 2006 and '11. Carpenter benefitted from playing for quality teams, but of course he also was a major reason for their success, not least of all in the postseason.

Here again, he stands far above the rest.

In 18 career postseason starts, the big right-hander went 10-4 with a 3.00 ERA, including one of the most clutch pitching performances in St. Louis' long postseason history: his three-hit, 1-0 shutout of Roy Halladay and the Phillies in the deciding Game 5 of their 2011 National League Division Series.

Tewksbury, sadly, never got to pitch in a postseason. Tyler pitched in the 1914 and '18 Series and performed well, going 1-1 in four starts with a sterling 1.91 ERA.

How would ol' Lefty have fared in the modern era? We'll never know. I'll take him in my all-time New Hampshire starting rotation, however, along with Flanagan and Tewksbury. The guy who gets the start for the Granite Staters in Game 1 of the Celestial Series, though, is Carpenter.

No question.

Vin Sylvia is a New Hampshire Union Leader deputy managing editor. Email him at vsylvia@unionleader.com.


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