Just before the new year, Joe Posnanski fired off what was basically a “who was better” tweet for Chris Carpenter and Carlos Zambrano, both of whom are on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year (and both of whom are destined to come up short). The tweet irked some Cardinals fans and maybe justifiably so. Because of course Carpenter was better, right? My first reaction was that any deep dive beyond a simple side-by-side bWAR analysis would lead to that conclusion. Certainly Carpenter comes out ahead in the not-always-reliable "felt more like an ace" metric. Carpenter finished third or higher in Cy Young voting three different times, and won the award in 2005. Zambrano, meanwhile, never finished higher than fifth. Plus, when it came to postseason stats and hardware, Carpenter ran laps around Zambrano.
It was some good pot-stirring by Posnanski though because Zambrano had a better career than probably most of us realized, and opening paragraph notwithstanding, a Carpenter versus Zambrano debate is by no means a landslide. Just read this piece Posnanski wrote for MLB.com a few days after the initial tweet. And what stood out when I took a cursory glance at the menacing Zambrano's Baseball Reference page was a very durable peak. Between 2003 and 2009, Zambrano had the highest bWAR for pitchers in the National League. Only Jake Peavy struck out more batters. And for pitchers who threw at least 1,000 innings, only Brandon Webb had a better ERA+.
Zambrano’s biggest problem (other than that time when he tried to kill Jim Edmonds)? He was durable until he wasn’t. His final appearance on the mound was in 2012 with the Marlins – his only season not wearing the Cubbie blue – at the tender age of 31. A lot of pitchers are finally hitting their stride around that age; Zambrano was calling it quits.
One of those “hitting their stride late” pitchers was Carpenter, who was Zambrano's polar opposite in a way. Carpenter didn’t have a season with an ERA under 4.09 until 2004, his first year in St. Louis - when he was already in his age-29 season. It’s why Zambrano actually has a better career ERA and comes out favorably in bWAR which is heavily ERA-based as opposed to fWAR. However, extrapolate Carpenter’s healthy years in St. Louis, where he had a 3.07 ERA in nearly 1,350 innings pitched, over his entire 15-year career and he might have a very serious case for Cooperstown. St. Louis was where Carpenter mattered and it’s why he was so universally admired in those parts and coasted in to the team’s Hall of Fame.
So Zambrano had a better career in his 20s than Carpenter, and Carpenter easily bested Zambrano after their 30s even though he spent that time battling an assortment of injuries. All of that led me to here:
Would that have done it? Would stealing Zambrano's 20s be enough to get Chris Carpenter into the Hall of Fame?
Probably not. It would be a close call though, one of those candidacies likely hashed out over and over around this time of year, causing even more of us to dread the annual HOF arguments.
But let’s look at Zambrano’s 20s/Carpenter’s 30s case anyway. That strikeout total would rank 46th all-time. For pitchers who have thrown at least 2,500 innings, a 3.30 ERA would tie for 71st out of 203 total pitchers. (Our old friend Jeff Suppan is endearingly last in this category.) Pitching wins have always been rather meaningless - now more than ever - but I don’t think we’ve quite reached the point where they mean absolutely nothing to the voters and those 196 wins would tie for 95th all-time. Over 2,500 innings pitched, almost 2,500 strikeouts, a 3.30 ERA, this all has the makings for what can only be described as a great career, but that’s different from a Hall of Fame career.
To take it further, instead of using the fWAR number from the tweet above, I’m going to pivot to bWAR for reasons no more interesting than I’m heavily using Baseball Reference’s Play Index for this post, and thus bWAR is more compatible. This increases Zampenter’s WAR to 61.6. That would tie for 55th all-time with Wes Ferrell. That’s very good but not great for Hall of Fame purposes, as a pitcher either has to be named Jack Morris or Catfish Hunter, or have pitched a long, long time ago to be enshrined in the Hall with a comparable or worse WAR total. That number also falls comfortably short of Kevin Brown, Curt Schilling, and Mike Mussina, who are all still waiting to get in. The same analysis holds true if you take Carbrano’s seven best seasons by WAR, which adds up to 40.4. Again, a fine indicator of a very good pitcher but one that falls well short for most Hall of Fame pitchers.
Realistically, best case scenario for Carpenter would be that his signature postseason moments, similar to Jack Morris, would push him over the top with a particular voting bloc. He certainly had a lot of them for which we are grateful, Cooperstown or not. "Gamer," "clutch," or whatever cliche you want to use fits Chris Carpenter. That said, even borrowing Zambrano’s 20s probably leaves him on the outside of the Hall looking in although it would have made for a more interesting and polarizing debate.
(Oh, and if you want to get Ted Simmons and Jim Edmonds into the Hall of Fame, just take their peak years with the Cardinals and borrow Jorge Posada’s 30s, and Curt Flood’s 20s and they are practically shoo-ins.)
As always, Baseball Reference's Play Index is a wonderful resource and you can subscribe to it here.