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The Cardinals ace: A changing of the guard?

Has Adam Wainwright supplanted Chris Carpenter as the St. Louis Cardinals’ ace – on paper, at least?

Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)It is unusual to start with a disclaimer, but that is exactly what I am doing.

I have been thinking about this for a long time, but out of respect for the long-term greatness of Chris Carpenter, I have not written about it. Even now, I want to be clear that I am not diminishing the talents of the former Cy Young Award winner, or worse, writing him off in any way.

What am I talking about?

It feels like the very unofficial and only-to-be-whispered mantle of “the Cardinals ace” has passed from Carp to Adam Wainwright.

Of course, this title doesn’t matter in terms of the team winning games or anything else of substance. Yet, in every player’s career, there comes a time when he is no longer top dog. For the last year or so, I have called the two “co-aces.”

Given his years and experience, Carpenter will remain the dean of the staff as long as he remains active and wearing the birds on the bat, but at least in 2010, he may no longer be its best starter.

Though both Carpenter and Wainwright were named to the National League All-Star team, it was Wainwright who was chosen to pitch in the game on Tuesday night. Looking at their respective numbers this season, the right decision was made.

2010 at the break GS CG GF W L WPct Sv Sho IP H R ER HR BB K HBP BK WP ERA K9 BB9 HR9
Chris Carpenter 19 0 0 9 3 0.750 0 0 125 2/3 118 52 46 14 38 108 10 0 1 3.29 7.73 2.72 1.00
Adam Wainwright 19 4 0 13 5 0.722 0 1 136 1/3 102 35 32 10 35 127 4 0 0 2.11 8.38 2.31 0.66

To summarize, in the same number of starts, Wainwright has more wins, more complete games, more shutouts, more innings pitched, a substantially lower ERA, a lower walk rate, a lower home run allowed rate and a higher strikeout rate. He also has more losses, pretty much the only category in which Carpenter is on top.

Not in the above table, but Wainwright also leads in quality starts (six or more innings, three or fewer runs allowed) 16-13. The Cardinals have an identical 13-6 record in games each started.

Once upon a time, in 2005, Carp was at the peak of his game and was named as the NL’s All-Star starter. In 2006, coming off his Cy Young Award campaign, he was on the team but did not appear. Later that season, Wainwright starred as the unlikely closer for the World Champions. Carpenter hadn’t been back to the Midsummer Classic since – until Tuesday night.

That is when I finally decided to write this.

Carpenter is now 35 years of age, having become a professional back in 1994, while the 28-year-old Wainwright is in his fourth season as a major league starter. Carpenter is under contract through 2011 with a pricey $15M club option or a $1 million buyout for 2012. Wainwright is under team control through 2013 with a below-market contract wisely negotiated by general manager John Mozeliak early in his tenure.

In their most recent prior national popularity test, Carp and Waino finished second and third in the 2009 National League Cy Young Award voting, collecting 94 and 90 points respectively. In one of the closest three-way races ever, San Francisco’s Tim Lincecum won with 100 points in the Baseball Writers Association of America balloting. It is worthy to note Wainwright had the most first-place votes of all candidates and Carpenter the highest second-place standing.

The voting concluded prior to the post-season. Given the NLDS game one start, Carpenter yielded two runs in the first inning and four over five innings in the loss at Dodger Stadium. Wainwright pitched brilliantly in game two, allowing just one run on three hits over eight innings, but along with his teammates fell victim to the Matt Holliday-Ryan Franklin collapse in the bottom of the ninth.

Last season, Carpenter won the Players Choice National League Comeback Player of the Year Award for the second time. He previously took the honor in 2004. Wainwright is still on the way up, with 2010 being his first-ever All-Star selection.

As noted above, in terms of effectiveness, Wainwright has moved ahead of his elder in a number of categories, but any passing of this title should not be a rash decision. Expanding the aperture just a bit makes it far less of a slam dunk.

Since Carp’s most recent comeback began last year, I also pulled the numbers of each from the start of the 2009 season.

2009-2010 to date GS CG GF W L WPct Sv Sho IP H R ER HR BB K HBP BK WP ERA K9 BB9 HR9
Chris Carpenter 47 3 0 26 7 0.788 0 1 318 1/3 274 101 94 21 76 252 17 0 2 2.66 7.12 2.15 0.59
Adam Wainwright 53 5 0 32 13 0.711 0 1 369 1/3 318 110 100 27 101 339 7 0 7 2.44 8.26 2.46 0.66

Waino pro: Wainwright has started six more games than Carp and has six more wins during that time.

Carp pro: Wainwright also has six more losses.

Waino pro: Wainwright has a lower ERA (2.44 to 2.66) and a higher strikeout rate.

Carp pro: Carpenter has a lower walk rate and a lower home run allowed rate (though the latter gap has been closing quickly).

Of course, the reality is that Cardinals fans should enjoy both of these excellent pitchers, with the next opportunity coming when Carpenter starts game one of the post-break schedule on Thursday against the Dodgers at Busch Stadium. Wainwright will get the ball again on Saturday.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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