Radar Guns Love Carpenter

Kent State righty boasts excellent velocity

See Chris Carpenter on the right day, and it's easy to get carried away. On the right day, there might not be a college pitcher in the nation with better stuff than Carpenter, a junior righthander for Kent State.

March 9 was one of those days.

"It kind of shows how good Chris Carpenter can be when he's on, because he absolutely dominated Washington State," Golden Flashes coach Scott Stricklin said. "He was 94-96 with command of his breaking ball and changeup. He touched 98, according to the Washington State gun. He was a No. 1 starter in the big leagues that day—but that's the best he's ever been."

It's easy to get caught up in Carpenter's talent, and forget that Kent State lost that game to the Cougars, 5-3. Carpenter struck out 10 over seven brilliant innings and allowed just three baserunners, on a walk and two singles, one of them an infield single. But all three runners scored, thanks to a balk, a wild pitch and a few sacrifices.

That's a microcosm of Carpenter's development: he's got all the talent in the world, but he's an unfinished product who is still refining his craft.

In his next start, Carpenter shut down a potent Louisville offense, yielding just three hits and two walks while striking out three over seven shutout innings. It looked like his two rough outings early in the year—against UNC Greensboro and North Carolina—were mere speed bumps on Carpenter's road to the fast lane.

Then, this past weekend against Ball State, Carpenter gave up five runs on six hits over five innings in a 6-5 loss on a windy day with temperatures in the mid-30s. His stuff was still good—his fastball sat in the 92-94 mph range and topped out at 95—but a couple of walks and flares in Kent State's four-run fourth spelled his undoing. He fell to 1-2, 6.59 on the year with 26 strikeouts and 11 walks in 27 innings.

"In his college career he hasn't pitched a lot consistently," a National League area scout said. "He has 60 fastball velocity (on the 20-80 scouting scale), but he still struggles with fastball command and getting ahead of hitters. His curveball has improved, but it's not always there. I've seen a little bit of a changeup, but nothing too spectacular.

"There's times when you see first-round stuff, but it's tough to bank on it when you don't see it consistently and the results don't really back it up. It depends a little what day you see him."

There is reason to believe Carpenter will turn in more of those special days as he continues to develop. After all, he has still thrown less than 200 innings since his freshman year at Bryan (Ohio) High School, where he was a three-time all-state selection as a shortstop and first baseman and where he set the career scoring record in basketball. He pitched just 70 innings in four years but flashed enough promise that the Tigers drafted him in the seventh round in 2004, but he chose instead to head to Kent State.

Carpenter slid right into Kent State's Sunday starter slot as a freshman and even earned the win in Stricklin's first victory as a head coach, against Louisville. He worked in the 90-93 mph range with his fastball that year but left the pitch up in the zone a lot and struggled with his secondary stuff. He finished the year 3-2, 7.66, but the numbers weren't the worst of it.

"He got hurt at the end of his freshman year, and to be honest I think it was a product of not being in top physical condition," Stricklin said. "He always did what was asked of him but never did anything extra. His body couldn't take the velocity coming out of his arm. He made a decision—when he was going to have Tommy John surgery, (pitching) Coach (Mike) Birkbeck and I sat him down and said, 'You can go through this rehab and do what's asked of you, or you can come back even stronger,' and that's what he did. He's the hardest worker on our team, it's a complete 180. What you're seeing now is a product of all that hard work. His arm strength is better, his breaking ball's better, he's lost around 15 pounds. His body has completely changed."

Carpenter's elbow surgery in June 2005, and the resulting conversation with the coaching staff, was a pivotal moment for him.

"I was definitely really discouraged," Carpenter said. "But I kind of took for granted up until that point my arm strength and being able to throw hard, and when my arm strength was taken away from me it was a shock for me. I changed my life around, changed the way I ate, worked hard. My success has had a lot to do with people pushing me.

"I remember I sat down with Coach Birkbeck and Coach Stricklin, and they basically asked me what were my goals in baseball. I think I was a freshman at the time, and I was like, 'Well, I want to play professional baseball.' I had never really thought about how I was going to get there, I had just always expected to get there. They sat me down and said I could be disappointed, or I could step up and work my ass off and get back to what I was doing. I respect them for sitting me down and backing me from Day One of my injury."

Carpenter's return in 2006 was pushed back when doctors had to go in and clean up some leftover scar tissue and transpose a nerve, so he did not throw that summer as planned. He started pitching again in the fall, and by February the coaches put the radar gun on him and were shocked to see him throwing in the mid-90s. He began the year in the bullpen, throwing well against Winthrop in his first outing before exploding back onto the prospect map in his second outing against Louisville, touching 98 mph.

"At Louisville, he threw four innings, and scouts were clamoring about him," Stricklin said. "When we got on the bus, our phones were ringing, because he had done some things on that gun. Last year he kind of came out of nowhere, where people had not really forgotten about him, but he came back quick, and there were a lot of questions medically of how long he could stay healthy."

The Golden Flashes inserted Carpenter into their weekend rotation on April 22, 2007 against Miami (Ohio). Kent State had a 16-22 record at the time, but they won that game and 16 of their final 17, including four straight in the Mid-American Conference tournament, clinching a regional berth.

"That's when our season turned around," Stricklin said of the day Carpenter joined the rotation. "We won 16 of our last 17, and I don't think it was a coincidence. The kids kind of rallied around him. We felt like when we got to Sundays, we were going to win."

In June, the Yankees selected Carpenter as a redshirt sophomore in the 18th round. They planned to follow his progress in the Cape Cod League, where he threw well for two starts but then shut himself down with soreness in his elbow. The Yankees backed off, and Kent State had a potential ace back for another year.