At long last, the Theo Epstein compensation saga is over. After Epstein resigned from his general manager position with the Boston Red Sox to become the President of Baseball Operations of the Chicago Cubs, the whole debate started as to what the Red Sox would get from the Cubs in return. We heard that the Red Sox wanted Matt Garza, who would have undoubtedly helped complete the Red Sox rotation, but the Cubs weren’t going to give up their best pitcher so easily. Then we heard the name of minor league starter Trey McNutt floated, but that didn’t happen either. Finally the Cubs and Red Sox agreed on the player Boston would receive in exchange for Epstein: Chris Carpenter. No, the Cubs did not manage to trade their arch-rival Cardinals’ ace in exchange for Epstein. The Carpenter in question here is a hard-throwing reliever who made his big league debut in 2011. Let’s talk a little bit more about the newest player on the Boston Red Sox.
Carpenter is a big 6’4″, 220 right-hander who was drafted by the Cubs in the 3rd round of the 2010 draft out of Kent State University. Carpenter was a starter for his first three years in the Cubs organization, going 18-15 with a 3.29 ERA, a 7.7 K/9, a 4.0 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 in 60 starts, 4 relief appearances, and 298.1 IP as he worked his way up from a brief stint in Rookie Ball all the way to Triple-A at age 24. He failed to maintain a 2 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio, although his FIP was a solid 3.69. After a strong relief stint in the Arizona Fall League in 2010, the Cubs converted Carpenter to a reliever for 2011, and the results were pretty disastrous. In 32 relief appearances between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa, Carpenter went just 3-4 with a 5.91 ERA, a 7.2 K/9, a 5.7 BB/9, and a 1.1 HR/9 in 42.2 IP. A good sign was that right in the middle of those struggles, Carpenter made his big league debut in June, and pitched relatively well, going 0-0 with a 2.79 ERA, a 7.4 K/9, a 6.5 BB/9, and a 0.9 HR/9 in 10 appearances and 9.2 IP. It’s still very noticeable that he walked nearly as many betters as he struck out. But Carpenter finally righted himself in the 2011 Arizona Fall League.
In 11 appearances for the Mesa Solar Sox, Carpenter went 1-1 with a 3.29 ERA in 13.2 IP. He improved his control exponentially and also was able to bring up his strikeout rate, striking out 18 (11.8 K/9) while walking just 2 (1.3 BB/9) and he allowed just 1 home run (0.7 HR/9). After Carpenter struggled in his conversion to relief in 2011, it had to be vindicating for him that he figured it all out in the Arizona Fall League.
The scouting report on Carpenter as a reliever is that his fastball hits the mid-to-high 90’s and he also throws a hard, high-80’s slider that at its best is a second plus pitch for him. As a starter, Carpenter made strides with his changeup, but he has all but abandoned the pitch since moving to the bullpen. What’s nice is that we actually can quantify this scouting report using the Pitch F/X data from Carpenter’s time in the majors and in the AFL. Let’s take a look at the Pitch F/X data on Carpenter from Brooks Baseball in the form of one of my Pitch F/X graphs.
(For more information on Pitch F/X and specifically how to read and understand this type of graph please see here.)
Let me give you a quick summary of what’s going on here. This graph is from the point of view of a batter. You have to visualize the colored lines as being three-dimensional, not going from the top of your screen to the bottom but instead coming at you starting from 60 feet, 6 inches away. The lines are the different pitches that the pitcher in question throws, in this case Carpenter’s fastball and slider, and the key tells us which line refers to which pitch, how often each pitch was thrown, and with what velocity. The lines shown the movement on the pitches from when they’re thrown until they’re caught by the catcher.
This graph shows us the reasons for both Carpenter’s success and his failure. It’s hard enough to hit a 97 MPH fastball, but Carpenter’s fastball had nice movement tailing away from right-handed batters along with a little sink. Despite the fact that Carpenter threw his fastball so often, he was still able to get swings and misses on 9.9% of the time he threw it according to Brooks Baseball and force 1.86 times as many groundballs as flyballs. The problem was that the pitch’s movement was so dynamic that sometimes Carpenter had trouble locating it.
Carpenter’s slider was as fast as a lot of pitchers’ fastballs, coming in just under 90 MPH, and despite that it dropped a little less than two feet on its way to the batter. If an ordinary slider in the low-to-mid 80’s had the same movement, it wouldn’t be as successful, but the combination of velocity touching 90 MPH and also the 8 MPH difference with his fastball made his slider almost impossible for hitters to keep track of. Hitters swung and missed at 20.3% of Carpenter’s slider in this simple and also hit exactly double as many groundballs as flyballs. The only problem with Carpenter’s slider was once again control.
Most of the time we say that we want young pitchers to be “pitchers”, not “throwers.” In the Arizona Fall League, Chris Carpenter realized that for him it was better for him to defy the norm and be a pure thrower. With two pitchers with such acute movement, Carpenter doesn’t need to worry about dotting the corners. As long as he can keep the ball out of the middle of the plate and around the zone, he can be a successful reliever with his power arsenal.
In exchange for their GM, the Red Sox received a pitcher in Carpenter with the pure stuff to be a dominant late inning reliever. He won’t always be successful, but on the whole he should be able to blow by major league hitters. It’s kind of funny that he was traded for Epstein because you can argue that Epstein was the same way. During his time in Boston, Epstein accomplished some incredible things, constructing Red Sox teams that would win two World Series. But there were definite lapses- the signings of Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey immediately come to mind- and a team tailspin that almost took some luster away from the magnificent 2004-2007 run as the Red Sox blew a 9-game September lead to the Rays this past season.
In 2011, Chris Carpenter was dominated by Double-A and Triple-A hitters before finally finding himself in the Arizona Fall League. Even for a pitcher with his stuff, there will be struggles. But overall, the Red Sox will be getting a fireballing reliever with late-inning potential that can make a major league impact as soon as this season. Maybe that’s not quite worth as much as an excellent GM, but the hitters in the rest of the AL East may beg to differ in a couple of years.
For more on the Red Sox, please check out Bosox Injection.