Bernie Bytes: Keep an eye on Carp's velocity

2012-10-21T17:57:00Z 2012-10-22T16:30:17Z Bernie Bytes: Keep an eye on Carp's velocityBY BERNIE MIKLASZ, Post-Dispatch Sports Columnist stltoday.com

Let's get ready for Game 6, shall we? 

If you've read any of my work over the last few years, you already know about my respect for Cardinals starting pitcher Chris Carpenter.

I've been in the business for four decades and he's the most intense, competitive athlete I've covered. His competitive character is off the charts. Call it what you want: heart, toughness, the will to win. Carp has it. He has it in abundance. It's corny, so go ahead and laugh when I say this, but I would never bet against Carpenter's heart.

I wouldn't bet against him, period, because it's illegal to do so unless I'm in Las Vegas ... which brings me to a quickie story, about Carp, and somehow it is relevant to today's assignment against San Francisco in Game 6 of the NLCS ...

I was, in fact, in Las Vegas to get married and I did bet on Carpenter's heart. And his right arm. It was early May 2006. I was in the sports book at Mandalay Bay, wagering on horses. The Cardinals were playing at Houston that night, with Carpenter starting against Andy Pettitte. Carp had a 1.80 ERA going into the game, and he was just mowing hitters down in recent starts. Pettitte was off to an awful beginning to 2006; going 1-4 with a 5.25 ERA in April. I thought, "Carpenter hates the Astros. He's pitching great. He's got this one. Forget about it." So I legally wagered $100 on the Cardinals to win ... and Carpenter has poor command, struggles to throw strikes, and throws 102 pitches through 6 innings. He gives up 4 runs in those six innings. He walks Willly Taveras, which is damn near impossible to do, then gives up a two-run homer to Lance Berkman. (Thanks, Puma., you rotten blankety blank.) Later, Carp walks the pitcher and gives up another run on a hit by Willy Bleeping Taveras. Then there's a Jason Lane double for another run. Jason Lane? Dude shouldn't have been playing. He was batting .200. He couldn't hit RH pitching ... anyway, Carp doesn't have it. He's gone after 6. The Cardinals lose 4-3. And I lost $100.

First Lesson: anything can happen because of the random nature of sports; performance histories don't hold up as an accurate indicator every single time. 

Second Lesson: don't bet on baseball. (I never did after that.)

Third Lesson: even Chris Carpenter is mediocre sometimes.

So how does this tie into Game 6?

I wonder what Carpenter will have tonight when he gets into his duel vs. Giants pitcher Ryan Vogelsong. Again, my concern has nothing to do with Carpenter's heart, his competitive makeup. Whatever he has to give, he will give it all, and then some more.

But in his last start against the Giants, in a Game 2 loss, Carpenter wasn't sharp. As he said Saturday, his command was off, and he struggled to get his fastball to do what he needed it to do.

I noticed something else, and the data backs it up: 

Carpenter's velocity dropped noticeably in Game 2. It was his fifth start since coming off the DL after missing most of the season. As he regenerated arm strength, Carpenter's velocity had been improving with each start. In his first start, Sept. 21 vs. Chicago, Carpenter averaged 89 mph with his two varieties of fastballs. His cutter was a slow 85 mph. In his second start, against Houston, Carpenter averaged 91.4 mph on his four-seam fastball and 90.6 mph on his sinker. His cutter jumped up to 88.6 mph. Progress.  Carpenter continued that in his final regular-season start, vs. Cincinnati. Four-seamer averaged 91.8 mph, sinker was 91.3 mph, cutter nearly 89 mph.

In the NLDS start at Washington, Carpenter labored a bit through a 25-pitch first inning. But overall his stuff was good; he threw more four-seamers than usual as part of the Cardinals' effective rotation-wide strategy of pitching up in the zone. The four-seam had plenty of life, averaging close to 92 mph, and peaking at 94. The cutter averaged 89 mph.

Then, in the 7-1 loss in Game 2, Carpenter's velocity dipped ... and that was the first time that happened since his return. Against the Giants his four-seam fastball averaged 90.7 mph, and his sinker dropped to an average of 90.5 mph. His cutter was still fine, in terms of velocity.

So what are we to make of this? Carpenter threw mostly sinkers in that one. That pitch had clocked in at an average of over 91 mph in his four previous starts, then it was down to 90.5 mph against the Giants. Losing 1.5 mph on a fastball can make a significant difference especially when control isn't as precise. Carpenter threw 39 sinkers and got only 24 strikes. There were two swings and misses and 14 strikes on balls not put in play.

For reference: last season Carpenter averaged 93.6 mph on his four-seam fastball and 92.7 on the sinker.

In Game 2, was the issue mechanical? Was it a little bout of arm fatigue after a rigid test in D.C.? Or are these fluctuations natural given his long road that has included inaction, surgery, rehab and light activity until recently. But in 2012, Carpenter isn't getting as many swings-misses or hitters flicking foul balls at the rate he did in 2011. That's really no surprise, given his age (37) and what he's gone through. But when Carpenter has had some jump to his fastball over his first five starts, you can see the difference and he's still quite effective.

So I guess my question is this:

Does Carpenter's velocity rise in Game 6?

Does it stay the same? Does it go lower? Velocity isn't everything. For instance, I know Carpenter has been frustrated with his inconsistent curve ball, which he's still working on. If he gets the curve better, it will make his fastball more effective. But as much as we tend to overestimate the value of veloicty, it's certainly a factor with Carp.

So keep an eye on Carpenter's fastballs early in Game 6, to see exactly what he's working with as he tries to pitch the Cardinals into the World Series.

Moving On:

*Trevor Rosenthal is doing something notable and special this postseason: The rookie righthander has the second-best strikeout rate by a Cardinal reliever in a single postseason. Rosenthal has struck out 11 batters in 6.2 innings. That's a rate of 14.85 Ks per nine innings. The only Cardinals reliever to have a better rate was Roger Craig in 1964. Craig pitched 5 innings in the World Series and struck out 9 Yankees for a rate of 16.2 K per nine innings.

However ... If you want to break down this stat another way, you can make the case that Rosenthal ranks No. 1 among Cardinals relievers for striking out hitters in a single postseason. Rosenthal has faced 22 batters so far; 11 have whiffed. That's remarkable, eh? He has struck out 50 percent of the hitters. Craig ranks 2nd in this category; he struck out 9 of 19 Yankees for 47.4 percent. It isn't just strikeouts with Rosenthal; he's allowed only two of 22 batters to reach (one single, one walk.) What an exciting talent.

* Footnote on Craig: he was 34 at the time. Old-school Cardinals fans will remember his excellent performance in the team's 4-3 win over the Yankees in World Series Game 4. Ray Sadecki started but made it through four batters (getting one out) before leaving. Johnny Keane went quickly to Craig. It didn't begin well. Craig took over with Roger Maris on third base. Craig's first hitter was Elston Howard (graduate of Vashon HS) who singled to drive in Maris and the Yankees led 3-0. But Craig put the clamps on after that; he went 4.2 innings, gave up two hits, walked three and struck out eight. Craig held the Yanks in check and then Ken Boyer stepped up in the 6th inning to strike for one of the most famous home runs in Cardinals postseason history: the grand slam off Al Downing that put St. Louis ahead 4-3. And that's how it stayed. Ron Taylor took over for Craig and pitched 4 shutout innings.

* FOX baseball analyst Tim McCarver remembers that Game 4 very well; of course he was the Cardinals starting catcher and went 1 for 3 in the game. McCarver did his part to limit the Yankees first-inning damage; Phil Linz tried to steal third base and McCarver made a sharp throw that would have nailed Linz. But Linz was safe on Boyer's E-5 and scored New York's first run on a double by Bobby Richardson. But what a relief job by Craig and Taylor: 8.2 IP, no runs, only six base runners, and 10 Ks.

* See, I just went Bob Broeg on you there... I wish my dear friend Mr. Broeg was still with us. I can only imagine the wonderful columns Bob would have written about the last two postseasons and all of the Cardinals' drama. Same with the beloved Benchwarmer, Bob Burnes. I can see them both pounding away on the keys of an actual typewriter. Burnes undoubtedly had the cigar going. Broeg had the shirt sleeves rolled up, and bow tie loosened. And I hope they took a break to sip on something smooth as they handed the copy off to the Western Union man. Our business has changed to be sure. I started at the Post-Dispatch in 1985 and believe it or not, a sportswriter (or anyone else) could smoke a cigar in the newsroom. That seems incomprehensible to me. I think I may have had an Upmann or two in the early days, but I vividly remember Gail Pennington, now our paper's outstanding TV critic, walking over to the sports department to ask me to extinguish the cigar. (Well, it wasn't exactly a request. But Gail, if for some reason you are reading this, I don't blame you. And you were more polite than you should have been.)

Ahhh, nostalgia...

OK, now back to Modern Times:

* A pattern has emerged with Lance Lynn this postseason: he's made three appearances (two starts, one in relief) in which he's faced the other team's lineup at least partially through a second cycle. It hasn't gone well the second time through the lineup. I know many of you realize this already, but here are the numbers:

First Time Through the Lineup: hitters are 1 for 24, with a couple of walks and 12 strikeouts. No runs.

Second Time Through the Lineup: hitters are 10 for 19, with four extra-base hits, two walks and two Ks.

Strange ... but if Lynn starts another game in this postseason, the dugout should be on full alert, ready to make a quick move if Lynn suddenly moves it. Some readers thought I was unreasonable to suggest that Mike Matheny should have activated the bullpen quicker in Friday's Game 5 loss. They've told me that Lynn was perfect through three innings, so why would the manager start warming someone up at the first sign of trouble? My respectful answer is: because the Washington Nationals began teeing off on Lynn when he got into their lineup the second time through in NLDS Game 2; they smacked him for two homers. And the Giants erupted for four hits and four runs on their second time through in Game 1 NLCS. And it happened again Friday in Game 5.

Yes, it's a small sample size, and in the regular season you could largely wave it off. But this is the postseason where there is  nothing but small samples, and a big part of winning are losing can come down to a manager's dexterity in making a rapid response. In Lynn's case there's been an obvious pattern. And I don't think I'm nutso for suggesting that more urgency is required at the first sign of trouble. In Game 5 the Giants led off the fourth inning with consecutive singles; in the press box I said it right then and there: get the bullpen up. Joe Kelly started warming two batters later, after the E-1 that scored the Giants' first run.

* May I share a pet peeve? Thank you. Warning: this passage includes whining from me. So you may opt out now .... Here goes: I respect Mike Matheny. I think he has done a terrific job, all things considered. This wasn't an easy thing to walk into. There was talent, yes. There was a defending World Series champ, yes. But Matheny succeeded Tony La Russa, and while TLR had his share of critics, the bottom line was an excellent era of Cardinals baseball during the La Russa years. That's indisputable among rational and reasonably intelligent people. And La Russa is a lock for the Hall of Fame. It isn't a walk in Forest Park to have to live up to La Russa's standard and the instant comparisons when things go wrong with Catcher 22. (And that's what this situation is; eh? A Catch 22? The good news: you get to take over a world champion. The bad news: you get to take over a world champion in an era when world champions often get whacked in the subsequent season.) 

Matheny has done a superb in handling one of the most important aspects of running a ballclub: making sure that the players want to play for you, and will be loyal to you, and will give you their best shot. Anyone who thinks that's easy, or a minor factor, is clueless. Matheny's leadership has been outstanding. These players want to play for him. He is supportive and calm in times of trouble, and that's exactly what they've needed in a season that has had a landslide of injuries and disruptions. I've said it before and please tolerate me for saying it again: the worst thing Matheny could have done was turn into some snarling jackal tearing into his players just to score cheap points with impatient idyits.

Matheny has had just the right touch in understanding what his players need from him to endure the difficult stretches. And that's an important part of managing. As much as I love sabermetrics, I will never dismiss the human element in this game, and how vital it can be. Matheny deserves top grades for his player relations and motivations. So I respect him. I have praised him for this. I believe I have been supportive of Matheny. I'd like to think that we have a solid relationship.

So here is what bugs me: as much as I respect Matheny and the job he's done, this is still baseball, and it is still a performance-based endeavor, and it's still a business, and the stakes are high, and managers are always under the spotlight. And if I happen to believe -- with 100 percent sincerity -- that Mike has been too slow to call in a reliever or heat the bullpen, it doesn't make me a hater, a scoundrel, a viper, a menace to society, a member of the Communist Party. It doesn't make me "negative" or critical. It doesn't mean that I've gone rogue on Matheny. It doesn't make me "unfair." It makes me someone that loves baseball and respects the tradition of baseball.

Yes indeed, this is baseball, and for as long as they have been playing this game, with fans and media watching, managers have been second-guessed. Their strategy moves have been scrutinized, analyzed, evaluated, reflected upon, and yes, criticized. It's no big deal. It means nothing in the grand scheme. It is a baseball tradition; no sport invites the level of discussion and analysis the way baseball does. So when I write some paragraphs about Matheny being slow on the draw to get Lance Lynn out of a game ... sorry, folks, but that doesn't rate a three-year prison sentence for me in Potosi. Wondering if the manager has screwed something up is just baseball. It's a baseball tradition. Matheny understands that.

Inevitably, any time I write a few 'graphs that question a Matheny move or non move, the angry mail comes in... wondering why I'm so "negative" or why I'm being so mean to Matheny. Here's a question for those of you that have emailed those opinions to me, and I'm going to turn the table: why are you so negative? Why don't I hear from you when I praise Matheny, or salute his leadership, or express appreciation for his successful strategy?

Why is it that the only time I hear from you is when you're raising hell? Please understand: I welcome all criticism and scrutiny. But I also tend to take a dim view of hypocrisy. And for as long as I've been in this business (more than 30 years now) it's the one little thing that bugs me. Getting negative comments from people that are far more negative than I am, and who never acknowledge the positives that have been written or said about Mike Matheny.

(I took one cheap shot at Matheny this year. After the Cardinals lost that hideous 19-inning game to the Pirates at Busch Stadium on Aug. 19, I was annoyed when Mike came out and praised his players for trying hard. Well, they were 1 for 10 with runners in scoring position in that game, and messed up numerous opportunities to score and win with bad at-bats, and and I didn't want to hear about a good effort. Here's what I wrote: "That rah-rah stuff may resonate with the high school baseball team at Westminster Christian Academy, but this is major-league baseball." Matheny, who had never managed or coached at the MLB level, had spent some time working with the baseball team at Westminster. That was a shot below the belt. I didn't like myself when I saw that in print, and online, the next day.)

(That column also enraged a few bloggers who went apoplectic over my suggestion that the Cardinals had a phony offense. To this day, those good folks still are missing the point. And the point was, and is, this: all we heard about all season was that the Cardinals were ranked 1st in the league in runs, and all of these different offensive categories that made them look better than they were actually performing at that time,. But to me, they weren't consistent. I guess I wasn't as impressed as many were by their 12-run eruptions, the 10-run attacks, the 9-run volleys that padded their rankings ... because then I watched them follow these 10-run games by too many instances of the lineup disappearing and producing little. In that context, the No. 1 ranking was phony, was a fraud. And I think many have come to understand this. We've seen a lot of that this postseason; the Cardinals have averaged 7.4 runs in wins, and 1 run in their losses. All teams have their share of low-scoring days and bad days. That's not the point. The extreme nature of this offense still toggles the brain.)

Anyway...

If you haven't seen or paid attention to my praise of Mike, then that's on you. Not me. If anything, I think I try too hard to be fair and reasonable when assessing Matheny. I am constantly reminding myself that he is new to this job, and there is a learning curve. If you really want to get down to it, I think I have defended him more than some of you have liked. Example: Washington's win in Game 1 of the NLDS, which in my opinion was spun into a largely baseless narrative about how Davey Johnson outmanaged the rookie manager. When, in fact, Johnson sent in a pinch-hitter to face a LH reliever even though the pinch-hitter was batting .206 against LHP since the end of June, and the LH reliever had an outstanding set of numbers against RH batters since the All-Star break. But Johnson's pinch-hitter reached for a pitch that was well off the plate -- he swung at a ball -- and looped a bloop single. And in the convenient narrative that followed Davey Johnson Was The Smartest Manager in Western Civilization Who Just Embarrassed The Hopelessly Inexperienced and Stupid Rookie Manager in St. Louis.... that narrative is as silly now as it was then. Yeah, Davey Johnson the mastermind. Same guy that left Drew Storen on the mound to blow up in Game 5 NLDS, the same manager that wouldn't intentionally walk Pete Kozma to force Matheny to use his backup catcher, Tony Cruz, the last remaining position player, to pinch-hit for Jason Motte. With Kozma singling in two runs to give the Cardinals a 9-7 win after erasing a six-run deficit. Hmmmm... I don't recall reading any pieces talking about how Matheny took the ol' skipper to school... but I digress.

After Game 6 tonight, if Matheny does something in the game that I think is terrific, I will write it and praise him. If he does something that I think was questionable or just flat-out wrong, I will write it. That's baseball. That's baseball tradition. He's a manager. He's a manager in the postseason. He's going to be scrutinized. He will catch some heat, too. It's only been going on since 1882 or whatever.

Thanks for indulging me.

Obviously I am wound up in anticipation of Game 6 drama.

Thanks for reading ...

Bernie

 

 

 

 

 

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Bernie Miklasz

You've read Bernie Miklasz in the Post-Dispatch since 1989. Now check out a new video "Breakfast with Bernie" every weekday morning. You'll also see more "Bernie Bytes" around the clock as he posts quick-hit commentaries on a variety of topics.

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