Saturday, June 6, 2009

Comparing Cardinals Aces

About a month ago, I compared Cubs aces from the last half century using pitcher WAR after a graphical tribute to Greg Maddux and Fergie Jenkins yielded some interesting results. At the time, I ran the numbers for the entire NL Central with the intention of turning the results into the NL Central Stage post whence spawned all lesser NL Central Stage posts. But compiling everything into one uberpost proved daunting at best, and so I went small and stuck to my Cubbies.

Nevertheless, I had all this data on my harddrive, so I thought, "Why not revisit my original data and break it all into manageable chunks in order to circumvent my own laziness?"

Having successfully outsmarted myself, I can now present to you round two of my team-by-team ace analysis: the St. Louis Cardinals.

When it comes to Cardinals pitchers of the past half century, there's Bob Gibson and then there's everyone else. But for the sake of argument, I wanted to plot Gibson against some other Cards aces. The trouble was, there really haven't been many between Bob Gibson's time and now. I settled on Matt Morris and Chris Carpenter, two recent pitchers who put together (in Morris's case) a string of good years or (in Carpenter's) a couple dominating years on the hill for the Redbirds. To put things in perspective, I added Bob Forsch, a solid but hardly dominant hurler from the 70's and 80's (pretty much immediately post-Gibson), to the mix, then graphed all four pitchers' career WARs with St. Louis. The results were illuminating, to say the least:

The next graph is of the same dataset, but organized in descending order:

Clearly, my "Bob Gibson and everyone else" instinct was spot on, at least with pitcher WAR as my graphical guiding star. But I honestly didn't expect Gibson to so completely dominate the other pitchers on this list. Obviously, Gibson's peak years were absolutely absurd. (1968: 304.2 IP, 1.12 ERA, 258 ERA+, 0.853 WHIP, 268/62 K/BB? That's inhuman, even in the Year of the Pitcher.) But I really expected Carpenter's 2005 Cy Young season to hold up to the competition better than it did. By WAR, Carpenter's best season would only have been Gibson's ninth best (and almost a win and a half back from the eight spot!).

But what really shocked me was how much perspective Forsch really added to the Cardinals ace conversation. Forsch, a consistently average to above-average starter, was probably the second most valuable Cardinals pitcher of the last half century (career-wise, that is) despite having only one truly excellent year.

Carpenter has a shot at bridging the gap if he can stay healthy. In six starts this year, he's pitched like a demigod. His line so far? 38.0 IP, 0.71 ERA, 598 ERA+, 0.632 WHIP, and 31/5 K/BB. But Carpenter hasn't pitched a full season since 2006, and though he's only 34 and locked up by the Cards until 2011, there's a huge difference between a 34-year-old pitcher and a 34-year-old pitcher with a history of serious injury. And even if Carpenter can outpace the forgetable (but, and I can't emphasize this enough, valuable) Forsch, there's no catching Gibson.

Interestingly, the Cards have had their fair share of dominant relievers over the decades. Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith, Todd Worrell, and Jason Isringhausen all spent time as kings of the Cardinal bullpen. But when it comes to starters...

(wait for it)

...there was Bob Gibson. And then there was everyone else.


  1. Career WAR standings:
    Bob Gibson 85.6
    Bob Friend 21.4
    Matt Morris 16.2
    Chris Carpenter 12.9

  2. From Bob Gibson's Wikipedia page:
    Don't mess with 'Hoot'

    Gibson was known for pitching inside to batters. Dusty Baker received the following advice from Hank Aaron about facing Gibson:

    "'Don't dig in against Bob Gibson, he'll knock you down. He'd knock down his own grandmother if she dared to challenge him. Don't stare at him, don't smile at him, don't talk to him. He doesn't like it. If you happen to hit a home run, don't run too slow, don't run too fast. If you happen to want to celebrate, get in the tunnel first. And if he hits you, don't charge the mound, because he's a Gold Glove boxer.' I'm like, 'Damn, what about my 17-game hitting streak?' That was the night it ended." [2]

    Dick Allen stated that, "Bob Gibson was so mean he would knock you down and then meet you at home plate to see if you wanted to make something of it."

    Gibson was surly and brusque even with his teammates. When his catcher Tim McCarver went to the mound for a conference, Gibson brushed him off, saying "The only thing you know about pitching is you can't hit it."

    Gibson maintained this image even into retirement. In 1992, an Old-Timers' game was played at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego as part of the All-Star Game festivities, and Reggie Jackson hit a home run off Gibson. When the 1993 edition of the game was played, the 57-year-old Gibson threw the 47-year-old Jackson a brushback pitch. The pitch was not especially fast and did not hit Jackson, but the message was delivered, and Jackson did not get a hit.

    God. Gibson was incredible. For me he hangs barely on the edge of being awesome but I could almost as easily despise him for being an a*****e.