Why Chris Carpenter Won’t Pull a John Tudor

With Chris Carpenter winning his second consecutive game to improve to 3-7 on the season, it’s natural to try and draw comparisons between his season and the season John Tudor enjoyed in 1985, when he started 1-7, but then proceeded to reel off 20 wins in his last 21 decisions to finish 21-8.

Tudor joined us in The Fast Lane on Thursday, and as I prepared for the interview and conducted it, it became apparent that there’s virtually no way Carpenter will be able to do what Tudor did in ’85. In a dramatically different era, Tudor had 14 complete games and 10 shutouts. That season, he pitched an astounding 275 innings. At the age of 31, the finesse pitcher was in his prime. The 36-year-old, power-pitching Carpenter is just past his.

In eight years with the Cardinals, Carpenter has been superb. He’s won a Cy Young award and easily could have won (should have won?) another. Yet, in this era, he has eight shutouts in eight years, and has 16 complete games as a Cardinal. With his history of arm injuries, is there any way Carpenter would be allowed to approach 275 innings by manager Tony La Russa? That’s highly unlikely.

There are other things that factor into Carp’s inability to replicate Tudor’s season. One is the transcendent nature of Tudor’s season. We talk about that year so much because nobody else has come close do doing what he did. Turning a season around on a dime and performing the way he did was a once in a lifetime, or multiple lifetimes, performance. It’s unlikely to be duplicated.

Tudor pitched for a club with a sensational bullpen. He had 14 complete games, but that means he didn’t finish 22 starts. The Cardinals bullpen of 1985 didn’t blow a game it led after the seventh inning until Game 6 of the World Series. Carpenter was victimized by his bullpen on opening day, when Ryan Franklin blew a ninth-inning lead, and has left with the lead on several other occasions, only to see the bullpen melt down. He hasn’t had an awful lot of help from those guys.

The other issue is defense. Tudor worked in front of one of the best defenses in baseball history. Carpenter has to work around one of the worst in Cardinals history. The clubs were built in different fashions. Whitey Herzog focused on speed and defense with his ballclub, while the current Redbird administration admitted during the offseason that they were going to have to give up some defense (primarily Brendan Ryan) to add offense in Ryan Theriot at shortstop and Lance Berkman in right field.

At all but two positions, the ’85 Cardinals were better for Tudor than the ’11 club is for Carpenter. For all his faults, Vince Coleman was better than Matt Holliday in left field. There’s no comparison between Willie McGee and Colby Rasmus in center. In right, Andy Van Slyke was one of the best centerfielders in baseball, playing right because of McGee’s excellence. Berkman, while terrific offensively, isn’t and never was Van Slyke’s equal in terms of foot speed, arm strength or innate baseball IQ in the outfield.

On the infield, Terry Pendleton is a vastly underrated defensive third baseman. Nothing against David Freese, but Pendleton was closer to Scott Rolen in his greatness than to Freese.

Ozzie Smith vs. Ryan Theriot. That’s the only time you’ll see me write those two names in the same sentence.

Tom Herr was a gritty, tough, gold-glove caliber second baseman that stood in against charging runners, had a great arm, and caught everything hit to his position’s zone. He was sensational, and was a much better second baseman than Skip Schumaker.

This edition of the Cardinals is better at first base, when Albert Pujols is healthy, and behind the plate, where Darrell Porter and Tom Nieto don’t hold a candle to Yadier Molina.

Herzog often talked about how Ozzie saved his pitchers 100 runs a season. That may have been a stretch, but even if he saved one every other game, he was way ahead of Theriot. Ozzie made every play, the routine and the spectacular, and didn’t mess up double plays. When you watched a game from the centerfield camera, he routinely would make plays on the first-base side of second base.

Theriot may cost his club 50 runs this season. For his exemplary effort, he doesn’t have even average range, he doesn’t have a particularly strong arm, and just doesn’t seem to foreshadow a play like Smith, or even Edgar Renteria or Ryan did.

This isn’t meant to be a Theriot bash-fest. My point is that even the best of pitching needs strong defense. Tudor reiterated that in our interview. With no disrespect to the current Cardinalsplayers, he was playing for a manager focused on defense, and players that had great defensive ability and took pride in keeping runs off the board.

So we can hope that Carpenter will approximate Tudor’s run in 1985. But reality is that age, the era, the historic nature of Tudor’s season, bullpen and defense will prevent him from doing it. Fortunately, there isn’t a team in the NL Central comparable to the ’85 Mets, whom the Cards had to beat out. So Carpenter might be able to do a third of what Tudor did, and still wind up in the playoffs.

Click here to listen to the interview with Tudor.