If I Were a Carpenter

Everybody in baseball realizes that Gil Meche has an outstanding quality to his pitches. You can talk to people and they’ll tell that this guy should win 15-plus games a year. I see this guy entering the prime years of his career. Guys just don’t break into the major leagues as a No. 1 or No. 2 starter. Look at Johan Santana, Chris Carpenter, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz. It takes time.

-Royals general manager Dayton Moore, on signing Gil Meche earlier this offseason. (Bob Nightengale, USA Today)

Gil Meche in the company of Johan Santana, Chris Carpenter, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz? Really? Being a longtime resident of Seattle, where I’ve been able to witness first-hand the thorough mediocrity that is Gil Meche, I couldn’t believe what I was reading when I happened upon this quote from Dayton Moore.

I quickly started an e-mail to my baseball buddies making fun of Moore, even researching the early-career statistics of the pitchers mentioned above to show alongside the uninspiring numbers of Gil Meche. Meche has pitched six seasons for the Mariners, for a total of 815.1 innings. These are the numbers for Meche heading into 2007 and for the pitchers named above at similar points in their careers:

Years Name      Team  Lg    W   L   G   GS  CG    IP   ERA  WHIP  K/9  BB/9  K/BB HR/9
  6  Meche      SEA  AL    55  44 147  143   4  815.1 4.65  1.44  6.3   4.0   1.6  1.2
  6  Santana    MIN  AL    59  25 184  108   4  856.0 3.31  1.13  9.5   2.8   3.4  0.9
  6  Carpenter  TOR  AL    49  50 152  135  12  870.2 4.83  1.51  6.3   3.4   1.8  1.1
  5  Glavine    ATL  NL    53  52 139  139  17  892.2 3.81  1.28  5.2   2.9   1.8  0.7
  5  Smoltz     ATL  NL    57  54 146  146  25  979.2 3.50  1.23  6.8   3.2   2.1  0.7

Looking at the numbers, Santana, Glavine and Smoltz were head-and-shoulders better than Meche is at this point. But Chris Carpenter appears similarly bad, maybe even worse. Hmm … Because Carpenter has been one of the top pitchers in the National League over the last three years, it’s easy to forget that he wasn’t a very good pitcher for the first six years of his career.

In fact, Meche had more wins and a better ERA, and the same strikeout rate. Meche has walked more batters and given up slightly more homers than Carpenter gave up during his first six seasons but, statistically, there isn’t much difference here.

So this called for further research. Gil Meche and Chris Carpenter? Does Gil Meche have a chance to turn into Chris Carpenter, as Dayton Moore and the Royals are hoping for? Is it worth $55 million to find out?

The Early-Career Similarities

Chris Carpenter is 6’ 6” tall and weighs 230 pounds. He was a first-round draft pick (15th overall) in the June 1993 draft. He didn’t pitch professionally in 1993, but started his career at the age of 19 at the rookie league level in 1994, putting up the following numbers:

 Year   Age Level     W   L     IP    ERA   WHIP   K/9  BB/9  K/BB
 1994   19  Rookie    6   3   84.2   2.76   1.36   8.5   4.1   2.1

Meche is 6’3” tall and weighs 220 pounds. He was also a first-round pick (22nd overall), taken in the 1996 draft. He pitched just three innings in rookie ball in 1996, then pitched regularly at two levels of Single-A at the age of 18 in 1997, with good results:

 Year   Age Level     W   L     IP    ERA   WHIP   K/9  BB/9  K/BB
 1997   18  A-/A+     3   6   86.2   3.84   1.33   7.9   2.9   2.7

At this point, both pitchers are off to a similar start, with Meche performing as good or better while pitching at a higher level at a younger age.

Over the next two years, Carpenter climbed up the ranks. He pitched nearly 100 innings in Single-A before being moved up to Double-A for 64.1 more innings at the age of 20. Interestingly, even though he had good ERA and WHIP numbers at the Single-A level, his command was poor (4.5 walks per nine innings) and he wasn’t striking out many batters (5.1 strikeouts per nine innings). Despite the poor peripherals, he was moved up to Double-A, where he continued to struggle with control (4.3 walks per nine innings), but did improve his strikeout rate to 7.4.

After putting up an ERA of 5.18 in Double-A at the age of 20, Carpenter lowered that number to 3.94 in his second go-round at that level, while increasing his strikeout rate slightly to 7.9 in 1996. Unfortunately, his control got worse, rising to 4.8 walks per nine innings.

While Carpenter was making small strides at this stage of his career, Meche saw much quicker progress in his second and third professional seasons. Pitching as a 19-year-old in Single-A, Meche threw 149 innings of 3.44 ERA ball with a strikeout rate of 10.1. That performance put him on the fast track.

In an organization that is now notorious for aggressively pushing prospects up the ranks of the minor league system, Meche moved up three levels, making the rise from Single-A in 1998, all the way up to the major leagues as a 20-year-old in 1999. Along the way, he saw his strikeout rate drop from 8.5 at the Double-A level to 4.9 in 85.2 major league innings, while his walks ballooned to 6.0 per nine innings upon reaching the big leagues. Looking back, it appears obvious that he was rushed.

At this point, both pitchers had spend roughly three years in their respective organizations, with Carpenter having made his way to the Double-A level at the age of 21, putting up a combined pitching line in the minors of:

   W   L     IP    ERA   WHIP   K/9  BB/9  K/BB
  19  24  419.2   3.47   1.39   7.3   4.5   1.6

Meanwhile, Meche, despite being a year younger, had already spent a half-season in the big leagues, having zoomed his way through four levels of professional baseball with a composite pitching line of:

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.
   W   L     IP    ERA   WHIP   K/9  BB/9  K/BB
  24  24  414.1   3.74   1.38   8.1   4.1     2

Carpenter had a slightly better ERA, but Meche was striking out more batters and walking fewer while being younger for each level of play, and had already made his major league debut. Once again, the advantage goes to Meche in this early-career comparison.

Heading into his fourth professional season, Carpenter received a very favorable write-up in Baseball Prospectus:

Toronto’s #1 pick in the ’93 draft. Scouts drool about his makeup as much as his sinking fastball and power curve. He’s extremely raw, but he’s the best pitching prospect in the organization, and may surface in Toronto sometime in ’97. Pitched well in the AFL.

BP would prove prophetic, as Carpenter did make it to the big leagues in 1997, throwing 81.1 innings of major league ball, but not particularly well with an ERA over 5.00 and a middling strikeout-rate, along with a continued propensity to walk too many batters:

Year Age  Level          W    L    IP   ERA  WHIP    K/9   BB/9   K/BB
          AAA            4    9 120.0  4.50  1.38    7.3    4.0    1.8
          AL             3    7  81.1  5.09  1.78    6.1    4.1    1.5
 1997   22  Combined     7   16 201.1  4.74  1.54    6.8    4.0    1.7

How to Ruin a Good Pitching Prospect

After his rapid rise through the ranks, Meche had his first Prospectus write-up in 2000. It delivered a strong warning:

Go to the head of the class if you saw this coming. Meche was the youngest hurler to advance four levels in less than a year and throw at least 75 league-average innings in the majors since Dwight Gooden lit up the Big Apple as a teenager in 1984. Overworked, Gooden tore his rotator cuff at age 24 and was never the same. There is a lesson to be learned from Gooden’s demise. While Piniella deserves credit for using Meche judiciously last year, there is a misguided tendency to increase a young pitcher’s workload based on major-league experience instead of age, which is the relevant variable.

With the Mariners, Meche often had difficulty controlling his breaking pitches, so he would abandon them and survive by spotting his fastball. That’s not a recipe for continued success.

Meche did experience arm trouble in 2000, coming down with what was described as a “dead arm” and missed a good portion of the season. In his time in the bigs, though, he put up great numbers for a 21-year-old:

Year Age  Level          W    L    IP   ERA  WHIP    K/9   BB/9   K/BB
          AAA            1    1  14.0  3.86  1.43    9.6    6.4    1.5
          AL             4    4  85.2  3.78  1.34    6.3    4.2    1.5
2000  21  Combined       5    5  99.2  3.79  1.35    6.8    4.5    1.5

Unfortunately, the heavy workload at a young age would take its toll, and the “dead arm” would prove to be much worse than originally thought.

While Meche reached the big leagues as a 20-year-old in 1999 and had better-than-league-average numbers as a 20- and 21-year-old pitching in the big leagues, Carpenter made his Major League debut at the age of 22 in 1997, with a below average ERA of 5.09 and middling peripherals (6.1 strikeouts against 4.1 walks per nine innings). At this point, had Meche and Carpenter been exact contemporaries, Meche would appear to be the better prospect. The biggest concern would be that “dead arm” he experienced.

Two Roads Diverged in the Woods…

In 2001, Baseball Prospectus sounded a loud, ominous note in its write-up of Gil Meche heading into the 2001 season:

Gil Meche lost 10 mph off his mid-90s fastball last year, sometimes from one inning to the next. Despite being examined by more doctors than a stripper at an AMA convention, his ailment garnered no more technical description than a “dead arm.” That’s certainly distressing, but his performance while working at such a disadvantage suggests how dominant he could be when healthy. With no substantive diagnosis, the Mariners enter this season unsure what to expect but certain that Meche’s return is crucial to their success.

As it turned out, Meche’s return wasn’t crucial to the Mariners success—they had an AL-record 116 wins in 2001. Unfortunately for Meche, he had no part in the season’s glorious run. In February 2001, Meche had rotator cuff surgery, followed by exploratory surgery on his right AC joint in October. He missed the entire season, of course, and suddenly a promising young future was greatly in doubt.

While Meche’s career went badly off track in his fourth professional season (disregarding the three innings he pitched in 1996), Carpenter became a fixture in the Blue Jays rotation starting in his fifth professional season, putting up four straight years of 150 or more innings. Still, this was definitely not the Chris Carpenter we would see in later years. The early-career Chris Carpenter was a fourth starter type, far from the ace he would become in St. Louis. From 1998 to 2001, Carpenter threw nearly 800 innings with a record of 45-45 and an ERA of 4.74. He was striking out 6.8 batters per nine but allowing four walks as well.

As Carpenter saw his career start to progress in his fifth professional season, Meche struggled to return to what had once been a promising start. After missing the entire 2001 season, Meche came back to pitch in Double-A in 2002, albeit poorly (6.51 ERA, 4.4 walks per nine innings). Still, considering this was basically a rehab assignment, just getting out on the mound was progress. Meche’s season wasn’t without problems, though, as he spent some time on the disabled list. By the end of the season, he was throwing in the 90s again, providing some hope for the future.

Strangely, rather than be cautious with him, the Mariners sent Meche to pitch in the winter leagues. Continuing their assault on Meche’s right arm, the Mariners upped his workload from 65 innings in 2002 to 186.1 innings in 2003. In that season, Meche went 15-13 with a 4.59 ERA and 6.3 K/9, while putting up his lowest walk rate in 6 years (3.0 BB/9). Predictably, after that large increase in workload following major shoulder surgery, his performance regressed in 2004 resulting in his demotion to AAA for part of the season. Over the last two years he’s struggled to be a league-average pitcher while throwing a combined 330 innings. He shows great potential at times but his post-surgery career has been decidedly mediocre.

While Meche had major arm problems at a young age, missing his age 22 season to surgery, Carpenter ran into arm trouble following a new career-high in innings (215.7) in 2001 at the age of 26. He had 3 stints on the disabled list in 2002 before finally being diagnosed with a torn labrum. He then pitched just 15 minor league innings in 2003.

Where Are We Now?

Which brings us to the comparison between Meche and Carpenter as Meche heads into the 2007 season. Looking again at the numbers from above and eliminating Santana, Glavine, and Smoltz from the conversation, this chart shows how Meche and Carpenter compare at roughly the same stage of their respective careers:

Years  Name       Team  Lg    W   L   G   GS  CG     IP  ERA  WHIP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9
  6    Meche      SEA   AL   55  44 147  143   4  815.3 4.65  1.44 6.3  4.0  1.6  1.2
  6    Carpenter  TOR   AL   49  50 152  135  12  870.7 4.83  1.51 6.3  3.4  1.8  1.1

According to baseball-reference.com, the 4th-most similar pitcher to Gil Meche through his age 27 season is Chris Carpenter (and Jason Schmidt is #5). After two years largely lost to injury, Carpenter headed into the 2004 season at the age of 29 with low expectations. BP2004 had this to say:

Carpenter is coming off labrum surgery, which makes him something of an unknown quantity for 2004. Still, it’s a reasonable gamble for a team that’s in need of rotation help. He’ll never be anything better than a solid fourth starter, but then again his minor league numbers never really portended anything greater, despite the hype.

Carpenter’s PECOTA projection for 2004 was uninspiring:
111.7 IP, 127 H, 33 BB, 66 K, 15 HR, 4.64 ERA, 1.43 WHIP

This time, BP was not so prophetic. Rather than becoming a solid fourth starter, Carpenter turned into an ace. All he’s done in the last 3 seasons is go 51-18 with a 3.10 ERA, a 7.7 K/9, and a greatly-improved 1.8 BB/9. Along the way, he’s won a Cy Young award and a World Series championship. The difference between his first six major league seasons and the last three is substantial:

Name       Team   Years      W   L  IP  ERA   WHIP  K/9  BB/9   K/BB
Carpenter  TOR  1997-2002   49  50 871 4.83   1.51  6.3  3.40    1.8
Carpenter  SLN  2004-2006   51  18 645  3.1   1.08  7.7  1.80    4.2

Carpenter made huge improvements in ERA, baserunners allowed, strikeout and walk rate, and lowered his HR/9. Statistically, he looks like a different pitcher. Of course, moving to the National League helped but it appears that something changed for Chris Carpenter. No one would have predicted the recent three-year stretch Carpenter has had based on his previous numbers, just as no one (except Moore) expects Gil Meche to suddenly turn into an ace. So, is Dayton Moore on to something, can Gil Meche turn into Chris Carpenter?

A Worthy $55 million Gamble?

Perhaps Moore is thinking, ‘If Chris Carpenter can suddenly find success at age 29 after years of mediocrity, maybe Gil Meche can do the same thing at age 28?’ They were both first-round draft picks taken out of high school, both had similar minor league numbers and similar major league numbers for their first six years, and both had arm problems that caused them to miss significant time. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility. For this to happen, where would Meche need to improve? Let’s look at one last set of numbers:

Name       Team    Year    Age   W   L     IP    ERA WHIP   K/9   BB/9  K/BB    GB%  P/PA
Carpenter  SLN     2004     29  15   5    182   3.46  1.1  7.50    1.9   4.0    52%   3.6
Carpenter  SLN     2005     30  21   5  241.7   2.83  1.1  7.90    1.9   4.2    55%   3.6
Carpenter  SLN     2006     31  15   8  221.7   3.09  1.1  7.50    1.7   4.3    53%   3.6
           Three-year total         51  18  645.3   3.10  1.1  7.70    1.8   4.2    54%   3.6
Name       Team    Year   Age    W   L     IP    ERA WHIP   K/9   BB/9  K/BB    GB%  P/PA
Meche      SEA     2004     25   7   7  127.7   5.01  1.5  7.00    3.3   2.1    37%   4.1
Meche      SEA     2005     26  10   8  143.3   5.09  1.6  5.20    4.5   1.2    40%   4.0
Meche      SEA     2006     27  11   8  186.7   4.48  1.4  7.50    4.1   1.9    43%   4.1
           Three-year total         28  23  457.7   4.82  1.5  6.60    4.0   1.7    40%   4.1

Since joining the Cardinals, Carpenter has upped his strikeout rate by 1.4 batters per nine while lowering his walk rate by 1.6 batters per nine. As you can see, he’s also been much more efficient over the last three years than Gil Meche has been (3.6 pitches/plate appearance versus 4.1). For Meche to make similar strides in his pitching career at this point, he would have to maintain last season’s career-best strikeout rate AND significantly reduce his walk rate. But that isn’t the only thing holding Meche back.

Another big factor in Carpenter’s success is his high ground ball rate. Carpenter is a superb ground ball pitcher, placing 10th in GB% for all qualifying pitchers in MLB last season. Meche has improved his GB% in each of the last two seasons but still has a long way to go to get up to Carpenter’s level. In fact, among qualifying pitchers, Meche’s GB% of 43.1% last season beat out just four pitchers: Jon Lieber, Ian Snell, Rodrigo Lopez, and Jason Marquis. And even though Carpenter is Meche’s 4th-most comparable pitcher through the age of 27 according to Baseball-Reference.com, the MOST-comparable pitcher to Gil Meche through the age of 27 is . . . Jason Marquis.

Basically, Dayton Moore spent $55 million on a lottery ticket that he’s hoping turns into riches (Chris Carpenter) but that has a much greater chance of being a collosal waste of cash (Jason Marquis). I can see the foundation upon which his hopes are built but I just don’t see this lottery ticket coming up a winner.

References & Resources
Many thanks to the Lahman database, Firstinning, Baseball Prospectus, Hardball Times, and Baseball-reference.

Bobby Mueller has been a Pittsburgh Pirates fan going back to the 1979 World Series championship team. He has previously written for The Hardball Times and FanGraphs, and writes at Baseball on the Brain. Follow him on Twitter @bballonthebrain.

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