February 17, 2012
Prospectus Hit and Run
The Greatness of Gary Carter
"It's a man's game, but you have to have a lot of little boy in you to play it." —Roy Campanella
I'm far too young to have seen Roy Campanella or his fellow Boys of Summer play baseball, except in grainy highlight reel footage. However, I was fortunate enough to see Gary Carter play, and when I think of Campy's famous quote, it's Carter who comes to mind. At bat, on the basepaths, or behind the plate, he exuded such youthful joy that anyone who witnessed his energy and enthusiasm gained an instant lifeline to their own inner child, playing ball with a devil-may-care intensity across an endless summer (picture Pete Rose with frizzy hair and a catcher's mask, maybe). It's no wonder they dubbed him "the Kid," for few nicknames fit a ballplayer better. As legend goes, Carter acquired it during his first spring training in 1974, when the Expos veterans saw him trying to win every sprint, and hit every ball out of the park. Sadly, the Kid passed away on Thursday, losing his battle with cancer at age 57. For those of us who watched him in his prime, that inner child took a punch in the gut.
A power-hitting catcher with a cannon for an arm, Carter spent parts of 19 seasons in the majors—12 with the Expos (1974-1984, 1992), five with the Mets (1985-1989), one apiece with the Giants (1990) and Dodgers (1991)—en route to 11 All-Star appearances and a Hall of Fame berth. He had a gift for great timing, winning All-Star game MVP honors twice, hitting a walk-off homer in his first game as a Met, collecting a game-winning double in his final career at-bat during a valedictory season with the Expos. He was the regular catcher on the lone Expos team to make the playoffs in 1981, a squad that also featured Hall of Famer Andre Dawson and should-be Hall of Famer Tim Raines. That year, the strike created an extra tier of playoffs, and while Les Expos won their first-round series against the Phillies, they lost to the Dodgers, my Dodgers, in the NLCS. More famously, he was the starting catcher on the world champion Mets in 1986, and most notably started the fateful 10th-inning Game Six rally—the one that culminated with the grounder that rolled between Bill Buckner's legs—with a two-out single off Calvin Schiraldi.
A career .262/.335/.439 hitter, Carter was a legitimate middle-of-the-lineup force in his prime; 61 percent of his plate appearances came in the cleanup or fifth spot. He reached 30-homer plateau twice, and the 20-homer plateau seven other times, with a high of 32 in 1985, all of them from the cleanup spot. His 298 homers as a catcher (out of 324 total) ranks seventh behind Mike Piazza (396), Carlton Fisk (351), Johnny Bench (326), Yogi Berra (305), Ivan Rodriguez (304), and Lance Parrish (299). Like most catchers, Carter's lack of speed suppressed his batting averages; he finished with just a .262 BABIP, and 52 infield hits in 19 seasons. While he wasn't the most patient hitter in the world (8.2 percent unintentional walk rate, boosted to 9.4 percent by intentionals), he didn't strike out much, either (11.0 percent), and had four seasons where he drew at least as many walks as strikeouts.
Defensively, Carter threw out 35 percent of would-be base thieves for his career, leading the league with 47 percent or higher in 1976, 1981, and 1983; it wasn't until the late 1980s when his throwing declined. His 2,056 games caught are a National League record and rank fourth overall, behind Ivan Rodriguez, Carlton Fisk, and Bob Boone.
What's astounding about Carter's accomplishments is that they didn't get him into Cooperstown on the first try, or even the fifth; for once, his timing was off. He debuted on the 1998 ballot but received a paltry 42.3 percent of the vote; Don Sutton, who won 324 games, was elected on his fifth try that year, an extraordinary wait in its own right. That year, future Hall of Famers Tony Perez, Ron Santo, and Jim Rice all finished with higher percentages than Carter. His share of the vote plunged to 33.8 percent the following year, as Nolan Ryan, George Brett, and Robin Yount all gained first-ballot entry. Fisk, in his second year of eligibility, and Perez, in his ninth, won election in 2000 as Carter rebounded to receive 49.7 percent of the vote. His candidacy gained an air of inevitability as he climbed to 64.9 percent the following year, while Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett gained first-ballot entries, and to 72.7 percent in 2002, while Ozzie Smith went in on his first ballot. Finally, Carter went over the top in 2003, with 78 percent of the vote, perhaps thanks to a little help from a budding Hall of Fame analyst at FutilityInfielder.com:
I was never a fan of Gary Carter. For some reason, I always found him annoying, though I can’t really put my finger on why. It probably had something to do with his earnest, gung-ho attitude combined with the fact that I rooted against the ’86 and ’88 Mets as hard as any teams I ever rooted against. That said, I am absolutely convinced that Gary Carter is a Hall of Famer. I had an unshakeable feeling of watching a Hall of Famer in the prime of his career when I watched him, and I’ll wager that was a consensus perception among those of you reading this right now. If you thought about the question of who was the best catcher in the National League after Johnny Bench declined, there simply wasn’t any other credible answer besides Gary Carter.
As with many a favorite foe such as Reggie Jackson and Pedro Martinez, my feelings towards Carter have softened since then, but even without those warm fuzzies, he commanded my respect, and his plight with regards to Cooperstown earned my sympathy. With the possible exception of Brett, a 3,000-hit club member who ranks second all-time at third base in JAWS, Carter was as worthy as any of the first-ballot inductees whose arrivals on the ballot forestalled his own enshrinement. Carter himself is tied for fourth all-time among catchers in JAWS:
* Hall of Famer
The average Hall of Fame catcher is at 51.7/33.9/42.8; Carter's peak ranks third, better than Berra, and much better than Fisk, whose extraordinary longevity enabled him to tie Carter. His 47 FRAA (including Colin Wyers' unpublished Arm ratings, which incorporates baserunning against) ranks third only to Rodriguez's 98 and Jim Sundberg's 56.
The Kid has been in the forefront of my mind lately. Just an hour before hearing the news, I had mentioned him during a spot on Clubhouse Confidential*, in the context of a bit on Simmons' neglected Cooperstown case. Contemporaries Carter, Bench, and Fisk are all enshrined, and rightly so, while Simmons is on the outside looking in—an injustice. Comparing their career batting stats:
For a good part of their heyday, that quartet constituted a strong enough group of hitters to elevate the overall level of offense provided by catchers above that provided by middle infielders, as I showed on Wednesday. In 1977, they collectively outhit designated hitters, with a .264 True Average to .263; Carter (.314), Gene Tenace (.313), Simmons (.312), Bench (.304), Fisk (.303), and Joe Ferguson (.301) all had monster years with the bat.
Bench was the best hitter of the bunch (as well as the only one to win an MVP), but the other three were closely lumped together, with Carter offsetting the shortest career of that trio with the most defensive value. So much value, in fact, that he came to dominate the catcher WARP rankings, though his youth helped in that regard; he was more than six and a half years younger than Bench and Fisk, and four and a half years younger than Simmons. Still, he held his own during the portion of their careers that overlapped. Picking up in 1972 after Bench had already led the league twice (1969 and 1970, with 7.6 and 8.6 WARP) and finished second once (1968. 5.1 WARP), here are the top three catchers by WARP in each season during the hearts of their careers:
1972: Bench 9.2, Fisk 7.4, Simmons 5.9
Fisk still had a pair of top-three finishes in 1989 and 1990 at ages 41 and 42, giving him two leads and five other top-three finishes. Bench had four leads and three other top-three finishes. Simmons never led but had eight top-three finishes in a nine-year span. Other good to great catchers came and went; Munson had a particularly nice run but was already on the downslope when he was killed in 1979. None of the other great backstops of the time dominated the position quite like Carter did, with seven leads and two other top-three finishes in a 10-year span.
Without a doubt, we lost one of the great ones on Thursday, and far too soon at that. My condolences to the Kid’s family, friends, and fans.
*The segment was postponed due to coverage of Carter’s death and will air at a later date.