Carp or El Toro? It's an unexpected tossup

Comparing the careers of the longtime Cardinals ace to the mercurial Cubs fireballer

December 29th, 2017

This is the kind of thing that fascinates me: Imagine going up to 100 baseball fans and asking, "Who was better, Chris Carpenter or ?" What do you think would happen? I would bet a sizable majority -- maybe even a vast majority -- would say Carpenter. I say this in part because if someone had asked me that question, cold, no research, I would have said Carpenter without a moment's hesitation.
I did a quick Twitter poll on the subject. Early returns were running 70-30 for Carpenter.
But you know what? If you look at their careers, I'm not sure that's right. Carpenter won a Cy Young Award. Carpenter had memorable postseason performances. Carpenter was part of two World Series-winning teams.
Zambrano was never very close to a Cy Young Award. Zambrano played most of his career on mediocre and lousy Cubs teams, and his postseason record is limited and unimpressive. Zambrano was controversial -- his tirades and multiple suspensions often overshadowed anything good he was doing as a pitcher.
But then you look at their career numbers:
Carpenter: 144-94, 3.76 ERA, 116 ERA+, 1,697 Ks, 627 walks, 35.5 Baseball Reference WAR; 39.1 Fangraphs WAR.
Zambrano: 132-91, 3.66 ERA, 120 ERA+, 1,637 Ks, 898 walks, 38.2 Baseball Reference WAR; 30.6 Fangraphs WAR.
Pretty close. There's a sizable difference in Fangraphs WAR, because that emphasizes strikeouts, walks and home runs rather than runs allowed … and Zambrano was wild. Very wild. He led the league in walks twice and hit-batters once. But even the Fangraphs WAR evens up pretty quickly when you consider something else:
Zambrano was one of the best hitting pitchers of the last half century.
Zambrano hit .238 with 24 home runs for his career.
Carpenter hit .118 with two home runs for his career.

That's roughly a 7.3 WAR difference at the plate, making them virtually identical in Fangraphs WAR … and giving Zambrano a sizable advantage in Baseball Reference WAR. If you look at Jay Jaffe's JAWS score, which combines peak and career performance, it's pretty striking:
Carpenter: 32 JAWS
Zambrano: 42 JAWS
The point here is not to say that Zambrano was better -- I suspect that as a GM, I'd prefer to have Carpenter, who was a more consistent personality, aged way better (Zambrano was out of baseball at 31) and was beloved and admired in the clubhouse. Instead, the point is that this is so much closer than I thought, and that the charged word "narrative" often makes us miss reality. Carpenter was terrific. But Zambrano was one heck of a player, too.
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Carpenter is the best ever pitcher from New Hampshire. It's actually a pretty good group, which includes Cy Young Award winner Mike Flanagan and the maestro of control, Bob Tewskbury. But Carp is the guy. He was a first round Draft pick out of high school and spent his early years in the Minors trying to throw strikes. At 6-foot-6 and with pitches that naturally moved all over the place, he had trouble commanding his stuff.

Those command problems followed Carpenter to the big leagues. He had bright moments in Toronto, but they were overshadowed by disastrous seasons like 2000, when he had a 6.26 ERA and led the league in earned runs allowed in only 175 innings. That was, admittedly, a big offensive year across baseball, and especially the American League East. Still, the league hit .290 and slugged .496 against him that year, with 47 doubles and 30 home runs. Very few pitchers who ended up as good as Carpenter ever had that rough a year.
The Blue Jays gave up on Carp when he was 27 and battling severe injuries. He signed with St. Louis, where he underwent multiple surgeries to fix his arm. He missed the 2003 season. That year away from baseball turned out to be exactly what he needed for everything to click into place.
Carpenter's first healthy year with the Cardinals (15-5 with a 122 ERA+) was much better than any season he'd had with Toronto. He won the Cy Young Award his second year.
Then, the injuries resurfaced. Carpenter missed most of the 2007 and '08 seasons with elbow problems, and then in '09 he had the best season of his career, leading the league with a 2.24 ERA, allowing only seven home runs all year and leading the Cardinals to the division title after a couple of down years.
Among teammates, Carpenter was bigger than life. One after another, they talked about how much he helped their careers. , in particular, was like Carpenter's apprentice, trying to soak in every aspect of the way that Carp went about his business.
"There have been two people in my life that have been the biggest influences on me," Wainwright has said on a number of occasions. "One is my brother. The other is Chris Carpenter."
* * *
Zambrano is still only 36 years old. Earlier this year, he threw a first pitch at Wrigley Field, and his catcher that day, Cubs pitcher Eddie Butler, estimated that the pitch was 91 mph. That does seem an exaggeration when you look at the film, but the ball was moving and Zambrano was not throwing all out and, like it always seemed to be with Zambrano, you could not help but wonder, 'What if?'

Zambrano was, at his best, unhittable. His pitches -- and he threw a healthy variety of moving and sinking fastballs, along with a curveball that occasionally seemed to stop in midair -- could be too much for anybody to handle, Zambrano included. He walked more than four batters per nine innings. But among starters who did that, only Bob Feller (122 ERA+) had a better ERA+ than Zambrano (120 ERA+).
They called him "El Toro," the Bull, and few nicknames have ever fit a player better. Baseball was a china shop and Zambrano crashed around inside it. He fought with teammates, battled with managers, ripped the fans. When he struggled, he blamed others. When he pitched well, he infuriated others. When managers came to take him out of games, he fought back and, inevitably, sulked. When he was right on the mound, no one could hit him. When he was right at the plate, he blasted mistakes over the wall. When he wasn't right, you better duck -- because china pieces would come falling at any minute.

But boy, Zambrano could be fun to watch. In 2004, for instance, he went 16-8 with a 2.75 ERA and had an argument for the Cy Young Award (he finished fifth), even though he led the league with 20 hit batters. Every game that year was an event, a chance to see something amazing. Two years later, he went 16-7 (becoming the first Venezuelan pitcher to lead the league in wins) with a 3.41 ERA, despite a league-leading 115 walks. When Zambrano's pitches were sinking and moving, he could overcome the flaws in his pitching and in his temperament.
Zambrano threw the only neutral site no-hitter in baseball history, when the Cubs were forced to play the Astros in Milwaukee because of Hurricane Ike. In the game, he walked a batter and hit a batter; that was just part of the Zambrano story. He had several near no-hitters in his career.

When the pitches stopped sinking and moving as much, the story changed. After getting booed at Wrigley Field, Zambrano tore into the fans, saying, "They only care about themselves." He apologized. When he was ejected in a game, he threw a ball into the stands and battered a Gatorade jug. He apologized. He got into a shouting match with teammate Derrek Lee during a game and got suspended. He threw twice at Chipper Jones before getting ejected; those were the last two pitches he threw as a member of the Cubs.
The last official batter he faced with the Cubs -- for he failed to actually hit Jones -- was Dan Uggla, who homered. The second-last batter he faced was Freddie Freeman, who also homered.
That tends to be how he is remembered; the last image does tend to be the enduring one. Zambrano did hook up with the Marlins for a mostly forgettable season. He signed a Minor League contract with the Phillies, but was never called again to the big leagues.
But don't let the end overshadow Zambrano's compelling, albeit mercurial, career -- one that measures up, unexpectedly, to Carpenter's.