The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Gary Carter: Better Than You Remember

Recently, from some of the comments I’ve been reading following the death of Gary Carter, it has become obvious to me that many people seriously underrate the actual baseball career of Gary Carter.

While virtually everyone praises his enthusiasm for the game, and for his calm, stoic demeanor in the face of life-threatening tragedy, also implicit in these generally positive comments has been a miss-perception of what Carter’s true value was as a baseball player.

So please allow me to indulge in a second consecutive post about Gary Carter.  Let me also add that Carter was not my favorite player on the Mets.  He ranked about third, behind Keith Hernandez and Dwight Gooden.

But let’s set the record straight.  Gary Carter was a great catcher who, without question, belongs in the Hall of Fame.  And it’s not just because he played for the Mets on a World Championship team.  That was simply the icing on the cake of a remarkable career.

It will be instructive to compare Carter’s career to the ten or so players generally considered to be among the finest catchers in baseball history.

Defensively, from all the stats I’ve seen, there are only about three catchers in history, (Bench, Pudge Rodriguez and Jim Sundberg) who rate better than Carter.  Carter’s career Def. WAR was 10.0.  Only Pudge Rodriguez (16.9) and Sundberg (10.4) actually rank higher in that regard.

Carter was a great defensive catcher (eight time leader in putouts, five time leader in assists) who could also hit.

As a hitter, only three catchers hit more homers, and one of them (Berra) played in a much better era for hitters.  Bench, whom many consider the greatest catcher of all-time, produced the following batting line: .267 / .342 / .476.  Carter, playing in a similar era but normally with worse teams than Bench, posted the following:  .262 / .335 / .439.  Not terribly different.

I like Hartnett, but playing in an extreme hitter’s era, when anyone’s grandma could hit .275, Hartnett (despite a 20-year career) never reached 2,000 hits or even 900 runs scored.  Defensively, he was a good catcher, but there have been several better.

Bill Dickey, like Hartnett, was a good hitter in a great hitter’s era.  Some power, good defense.  Interestingly, Dickey reached 130 games played just five times, and 120 games just seven times.   Carter played at least 130 games a total 12 times. Personally, I’ll take the more durable catcher, who also happens to hit with more power.

Mickey Cochrane, like Dickey and Hartnett, was a fine hitter in a great hitter’s era.  Cochrane won two MVP awards (1928, 1934) but with just two homers, 74 runs scored, 35 extra base hits, and 180 total bases, it’s hard to see how he deserved the second one.

Cochrane’s career OPS+ 128 is impressive for a catcher, but his career Def. WAR of -0.3 indicates he would never have beaten out Carter for a Gold Glove award.

Munson hit for a higher average than Carter, but had much less power (113 homers) and seldom drew any walks to help his on-base percentage.  At the time of his death, his career was already in decline, so I don’t think he would have piled up a lot more stats if he’d gotten to play another four or five years.

Campanella had three great years, but so has Joe Mauer.  Campanella is much beloved because he played for the second most written about franchise in sports history (other than the Yanks), and because of the tragedy of his career-ending injury.  (And I mean no disrespect to Campanella or his fans.)  Gary Carter, by contrast, had about six great years, and several other very good ones.

Ted Simmons was an excellent hitter who happened to do some catching.  After age 32, he was moved out from behind home-plate, and piled up some additional numbers as a DH / First Baseman.  Simmons and Carter played contemporaneously.  But no manager of their era would have chosen Simmons as his starting catcher over Carter.

Playing for the Mets didn’t help Carter’s rep as much as playing his first ten years (his best years) up in Montreal hurt his rep.  If he’d played his Entire career in New York, he’d be rated among the top half dozen who ever played.

The only catchers I’d probably rate ahead of Carter are Bench, Berra, Pudge Rodriguez, and Piazza (for his offense only; defensively he was closer to Ted Simmons than to Johnny Bench.)

Here are the total number of seasons that each of the following catchers reached at least 6.0 WAR (combined offense and defense) in their careers:

1)  Bench – 5
2)  Carter – 5
3)  Piazza – 4
4)  Fisk – 3
5)  Mauer – 3
6)  Rodriguez – 3
7)  Berra – 2
8)  Campanella – 2
9)  Freehan – 2
10)  Munson – 2
11) Simmons – 2
12) Cochrane – 1
13) Dickey – 1
14) Hartnett – 1
15) Howard – 1
16) Porter – 1
17) Posada – 1
18) Torre – 1

It would be sadly ironic, therefore, if the outpouring of grief, support and condolences for Carter and his family resulted in his true legacy as a baseball player being relegated to, as they say, the dustbin of history.

Clearly, Gary Carter wasn’t simply a competitive guy with a jovial personality who happened to be a pretty good Major League catcher.

Gary Carter was, without question, one of the finest catchers who ever played the game.

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12 thoughts on “Gary Carter: Better Than You Remember

  1. I like the way you squeezed in some unsung Montreal cheese! The thing about Berra that forever blows my mind is 358 career home runs and 414 k’s. Can you imagine a guy hitting over 300 home runs and almost striking out the same amount of times? I don’t think anyone is anywhere near Berra in terms of whatever this is called? Power-eye ratio?

  2. Crap, I wasn’t aware people were understating Gary Carter. How about this—this is the complete list of catchers I have ahead of Gary Carter:

    1. Johnny Bench.

    That’s it.

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