Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Is the Legacy of Joe Carter Overrated?

By
We remember him as "Touch 'em All Joe". Phillies fans remember him as man who ruined their childhood. Either way, Joe Carter certainly left his legacy not only on the city of Toronto, but baseball in Canada as well.

I've always looked back with fond memories on Joe Carter, and that was before he became a hero in the 1993 World Series. To this day, I'm adamant that my favourite player growing up as a kid was Joe Carter, and that was all before Tom Cheek bestowed him the title "Touch 'em All Joe".

My very first Blue Jays experience just so happened to be the game where the Blue Jays won the pennant on October 3rd, 1992. Joe Carter's 34th home run of the season that game would ultimately be the game winner, and that moment solidified Carter as my baseball hero.

Turns out I wasn't alone, as he was voted the Quintessential Blue Jay in a survey here on Blue Jay Hunter last year. When I look back and think of the quintessential Blue Jay, undoubtedly the image of Joe Carter comes to mind.

With the invention of sabermetrics and the popularity of advanced baseball statistics, it urged me to take a closer look at the legacy of Joe Carter. Unfortunately, it turns out he may not be as great as I remember.

The yardstick these days seems to be WAR or wins above replacement. When we stack up Joe Carter against other Blue Jay greats, he pales in comparison to the likes of  Roberto Alomar or Carlos Delgado.


Source: FanGraphs -- Roberto Alomar, Carlos Delgado, George Bell

This WAR Graph also takes into account the player's career WAR totals before and after their tenures with the Blue Jays, but you can plainly see that Joe Carter isn't even in the realm of Alomar or Delgado, but closer to the injury-shortened career of George Bell.

When it comes to offensive WAR, Carter doesn't even rank in the top 10 by a Blue Jays player, not even in top 20. Joe Carter is 22nd all-time as a Blue Jay with 8.6 offensive WAR, sandwiched in between Eric Hinske at 21 and Otto Velez at 23.

That's a very sobering thought for someone like myself who has long thought of Joe Carter as one of the greatest offensive players to don the Blue Jays uniform.

One of Joe Carter's career hallmarks was that he was an RBI machine. While 10 straight 100 RBI seasons is nothing to scoff at, I think it says more about the lineups constructed around him rather than Carter himself. He greatly benefited from some stellar Blue Jays players who had no trouble whatsoever getting on base ahead of Carter.

Baseball Reference took a look at the list of the worst OPS+ in a 100 RBI season, and sure enough there's Joe Carter at the top of the list for his piddly 76 OPS+ in 1997. He's actually on the list three times in Top 13, so congratulations Joe ... I guess?

Joe Carter spent 15 seasons in the majors, but only once did he ever hit over .300: that was when he hit .302 in 1984 with the Cleveland Indians. During his years in Toronto with the Blue Jays, his batting average hovered around the .250 mark.

1992 was arguably one of Carter's best years and he was rewarded handsomely by placing third in the American League MVP voting  that year. He amassed only 2.4 WAR that season, and yet Frank Thomas who was worth 7.6 WAR placed eighth.

Voting Results Batting Stats
Rank Tm Vote Pts 1st Place Share WAR HR RBI BA
1 Dennis Eckersley OAK 306.0 15.0 78% 3.0 0 0
2 Kirby Puckett MIN 209.0 3.0 53% 6.7 19 110 .329
3 Joe Carter TOR 201.0 4.0 51% 2.4 34 119 .264
4 Mark McGwire OAK 155.0 1.0 40% 6.8 42 104 .268
5 Dave Winfield TOR 141.0 2.0 36% 3.7 26 108 .290
6 Roberto Alomar TOR 118.0 3.0 30% 6.4 8 76 .310
7 Mike Devereaux BAL 109.0 0.0 28% 3.2 24 107 .276
8 Frank Thomas CHW 108.0 0.0 28% 7.6 24 115 .323
9 Cecil Fielder DET 83.0 0.0 21% 2.5 35 124 .244
10 Paul Molitor MIL 63.0 0.0 16% 5.8 12 89 .320

If we go by wins above replacement alone, Joe Carter placed 18th on the list of the top 20 AL MVP candidates. And yet somehow, he received 201 votes that year. Why? Because of his reputation as a home run hitter and an RBI machine.

All this information was not available back in the early nineties, and all voters had to look at were the triple crown categories: batting average, home runs, and RBI's. And when Joe Carter typically produced well in two out of those three categories, it was just assumed he was a great player.

Not only do advanced offensive statistics indicate Joe Carter's flaws, but the defensive statistics as well. Whether you go by Baseball Reference's defensive WAR or FanGraphs positional or fielding statistics, either way you slice it, Carter was not an exceptional fielder.

Don't get me wrong, I'm accusing Joe Carter of being a fraud or a shell of a baseball player. He managed to hit 20 home runs or more in all but 3 of his 15 seasons in the majors. Carter did that all on his own, and that's a very impressive feat.

However, his reputation as an RBI machine is something that he did have a great deal of assistance with. Had Carter not been the benefit of having such incredible hitters in front of him in the lineup, I don't think he would have nearly the amount of RBI's that he does.

It pains me to question how great Joe Carter truly was because in my mind, he was a legend. The iconic image of him celebrating his walk-off home run will be ingrained in my mind forever. It's only when I started to challenge his legacy that things became more clear.

Subtract the home run from the 1993 World Series and take away the game-winning catch from the 1992 World Series, and what legacy has Joe Carter left behind? Without those two career-defining plays, I honestly can't conjure up very many lasting images of Joe Carter.

A player's overall excellence should not be defined by one single play, but by the sum of great plays over their entire career. And if we use that basic formula to determine excellence, then I'm afraid Joe Carter just doesn't measure up.

Nobody can ever take away Joe Carter's home run off Mitch Williams to win the 1993 World Series. But say for a moment we did; I don't think very many people would remember Joe Carter otherwise.

Data and graphs courtesy of the ever useful Baseball Reference and FanGraphs

21 comments:

  1. Carter's statistical career may be far overrated, but his LEGACY is made up of the game winning home run. Had that been his only hit ever in a Jays uniform he may still be considered by many to be the quintessential Blue Jay. He single-handedly locked in my life time love of this team with one swing, and I bet he did the same for many other young Jays fans at the time.

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  2. Ben, I think you're right - just look at Matt Stairs with the Phillies. He hits a pinch-hit home run in the 2008 NLCS and instantly seals his place as a Phillies legend.

    I'm in the exact same boat as you - that home run solidified my love for the Toronto Blue Jays. It was the greatest moments as a Blue Jays fan. But I think as a child, because he hit that massive home run, in my mind I built him up to be this legendary player.

    In actuality, it was just a legendary moment, but I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world.

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  3. Joe was a great guy, a great Blue Jay, and the home run will never be forgotten. But on balance, he was definitely an overrated player.

    Fun curiosity about "Touch 'em all, Joe!": He actually didn't need to touch em all. If he had abandoned his trot, they still would have won (but only by one run).

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  4. I think there's a bit of confusion over Carter's legacy here. Was Carter a great Blue Jay? Absolutely. He was charismatic, the face and voice of the team during its greatest moments, came up with a lot of big hits, and obviously, came up with the biggest hit in Jays history.

    Carter's statistical legacy is something else. Should he go down as one of the Jays' greatest hitters? No. He had a knack for getting good contact with guys on base, had tons of power, and a lot of strike outs. He was an important piece of the offensive setup of the Jays as what he was; a power bat with a lot of holes in his swings.

    Stats are only part of what makes a player great, I feel.

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  5. sporkless, I've always found that weird how they count the entirely of walk-off home runs, even though like you said it was Molitor's run that scored the game. But a walk-off home run is much sexier.

    Dex, I'm not questioning Joe Carter's character or contributions to the Blue Jays organization whatsoever, because he did do a lot for the Blue Jays. However, I think that's just a very small part of being a great player overall.

    I agree with you 100% - when the Blue Jays needed Joe Carter to come up big, he did. Another one was the game-winning single in 1991 against the Angels to clinch the AL East.

    I think the best explanation I can offer is Joe Carter was always at the right place at the right time.

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  6. Joe Carter the legacy is not overrated. Joe Carter the player is overrated. In 1993, you could argue that Olerud, Molitor, Alomar, and Henderson were all demonstrably better hitters than Joe was.

    That said, he was in on the final play of both World Championships, and that's pretty cool. Plus, he's a demonstrably better hitter than Aaron Boone, Bill Mazeroski, and Bucky Dent (probably not as good as Kirk Gibson, though).

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  7. Roberto, I think that's a much better way of pitting it. Statistically, he's better than some of the other well revered playoff hitters in baseball history as you indicated, and at least he didn't boot a ball in the World Series a la Bill Buckner!

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  8. hmm - lets see here - clean up hitter on back-to-back world series winning teams. he drove 'em in when it mattered most. give your head a shake.

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  9. Anon, Carter did deliver when the Blue Jays needed to most, but it's outside of those key moments in which Carter struggled. I just believe the legacy of that walk-off home run compared to his entire career makes him a little overrated overall.

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  10. i really should get an ID so that I'm not posting as anonymous all the time.. i would like to add that i love the blog and i think the work you put into it shows..but this article struck a chord with me. Maybe I'm an oldtimer i was 19 and 20 years old when the Jays won their world series' ... so i clearly remember the impact Joe Carter's bat had on the lineup..consistently a 100 rbi guy...just put him in the lineup and he drove in the runs. A professional. You compare him to Carlos Delgado, but hey Carlos Delgado played during the steroid era when offensive stats across the board were significantly higher; you are comparing data produced by two very different processes. Personally i think Joe Carter would look awfully good hitting clean up behind Bautista in the Jays lineup right now..he hit over 100 rbi's in 10 different years. Do you think Bautista would get walked as often as he does if he had Joe Carter hitting behind him? Joe Carter's numbers were not Hall of Fame numbers not by any stretch, so no he doesn`t compare to Alomar. But at the beginning of the year when Cito was filling in that lineup, he knew he could count on 100 RBI's in that 4 spot...What was most important about Joe Carter was his consistency, he could be counted on to drive in runs. Year in year out. remember variation kills predictability, and thus strategy...think of our current silver-sluggers Hill and Lind.
    Is he the greatest Jay ever? No, not in my estimation, but certainly one worthy of being remembered as a key contributor to two world series titles.

    Anyways, keep up the good work on the blog, thank you very much; always providing me with quality Saturday morning reading.

    As Always,
    Go Jays!

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  11. Anon, thanks for the in depth comment and taking the time to post it. I appreciate the kind words as well. Trust me, this was a very difficult post to not only conceptualize, but to follow through on because I was afraid that I was portraying one of my childhood heroes as a fraud.

    I think part of it was that I was only about 8-9 years old when the Blue Jays won their back to back World Series. As a child, I couldn't process what statistics were, I just knew that Joe Carter hit a home run to win the World Series, and in my eyes he was a God.

    And years after that, in my mind I built him up to be this prolific slugger and that image just grew and grew as the years progressed. It wasn't only until recently that I started looking at Joe Carter's stats to see what kind of a player he actually was.

    I think if you plug a Joe Carter circa 1992/1993 in this lineup and he does a hell of a lot of damage. But he also probably strikes out a lot, and doesn't draw very many walks. Then again - that's not what he was paid to do, Carter was there to drive in runs and hit home runs, and he did that year in and year out.

    Just like you mentioned, when I look back and think of some of the best Blue Jays statistically of all time, I won't think of Joe Carter. But he was a key cog in those winning Blue Jays teams, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

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  12. Well, as a rabid 93 Phillie's fan I consider Joe Carter the most overrated player who happened to hit a lucky one over my favorite player, PETE INCAVIGLIA'S, head.

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  13. Ian I guess the 396 HR's I hit didn't mater also. Maybe I just got lucky for 16 years . You may want to define my career with the WS HR, but it is much more than that. How about in 86" when I was 1 hr, 1 sb, and 1 triple away from doing something that had never been done in the history of the game. ( 300 avg. 100 rbi's, 100 runs, 200 hits, 9 triples, 29 hr and 29 sb and double digits in doubles). All these numbers you guys come up with don't mean a thing to me. The bottom line is wins and championships. Everybody has a job to do on a team, mine was to drive in runs and hit hr's. Do you stats or championships?? It's a lot of guys that would trade their stats for a championship ring anyday. So don't lose focus on why we play the game!!!! Rings not stats!!!! But for all you wanna be's who couldn't play the game, the only way you can be involved in the game is to give your 2 cents from your laptops as if you are experts on the game!! I guess thats your legacy!! By the way, I'm glad you didn't enter the Webber contest, the people who won had a great time in the suite.

    Joe Carter (Yes the real Joe Carter!!!)

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  14. Hey Joe, i'm going to assume you are just reacting to the original piece. Because if you look too comments before yours, Ian said EXACTLY the same thing you did. compare:

    Ian - "Then again - that's not what he was paid to do, Carter was there to drive in runs and hit home runs, and he did that year in and year out."

    Joe - "Everybody has a job to do on a team, mine was to drive in runs and hit hr's"

    I know that Ian is too classy to speak in his own defense, but my reading is that he bent over backwards to insist that it was difficult for him to contrast the cold hard stats with his opinion of you as a player (and I suspect as a human being) and nothing there implies he thinks less of you in that regard.

    I know from being a long-time reader that he's one of the best Jay's bloggers out there, and writers like him greatly fuel an INCREASED passion for the game between the lines.

    It saddens me both that you see a bit of analysis as an offense (one wonders if you would be equally offended if one of your fellow commentators analyzed the production of a player on the field during a game he was working - don't you often get paid to do pretty much EXACTLY what Ian was doing here?) and also it saddens me when players do not appreciate that the person who invests his or her time in maintaining a quality blog is actually a FAR more loyal and involved fan of the team than the casual fellow who drags himself to the park only when the team is winning. and honestly would probably have trouble telling you what R-B-I even stands for, even if he knows who has the most of them.

    You have always impressed us Jays fans as being one of the happiest, and most positive players to have ever worn the uniform. It's for that reason that I hesitate to completely accept that I am indeed addressing the "real Joe Carter"

    If I am, I do hope you will confirm my high opinion of your personality and class by reconsidering the tone of your remarks. I respectfully suggest you are being unfair.

    If not, then I've been a victim of a marvelous troll and I tip my hat to whomever you really are.

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  15. "Do you think Bautista would get walked as often as he does if he had Joe Carter hitting behind him?"

    Here's something fun:

    Joe Carter at 27 in 149 games:
    (hitting clean-up most of the time for a very bad Indians team in '87)

    629 PA, 588 AB, 83 R, 155 H,
    27 doubles, 32 homers, 106 RBI
    27 BB, 105 K
    .264/.304/.480/.784

    Adam Lind, at 27, pro-rated to 149 G
    (hitting clean-up for a .500 team)

    646 PA, 595 AB, 67 R, 149 H,
    19 doubles, 31 homers, 104 RBI
    38 BB, 104 K
    .251/.295/.439/.734

    And Lind was considered by virtually every Jays fan to have been a grave disappointment in the 4-hole (you yourself implied as much by noting how often Bautista got walked.

    The difference in Lind's pro-rated stats and Carter's line is, essentially, 6 double and one homer.

    that's not necessarily slagging Joe, it's more taking note of how easy it is for fans to be more judgmental of some guys than others.

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  16. I'm pretty sure that in the old days we would have looked at Lind's HR total and concluded that he was doing a good job in the cleanup spot and called it a day. The way we measure things has changed. Mike Jacobs hit over 30 homeruns in 2008 and no less than two years later he was a journeyman minor leaguer. I don't think that would have happened in Carter's era. Nowadays we take a more hollistic view of hitters. We don't really value pure power hitters and pure speedsters if they can't also get on base and/or play good defense.

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  17. The one with McCain Punch.

    Roberto Alomar (Yes the real Roberto Alomar!!!!)

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  18. Anon/Joe, please check out this follow up post I wrote earlier today explaining everything.

    http://www.bluejayhunter.com/2011/10/is-this-comment-from-joe-carter.html

    Tammy, thanks for the kind words! And like I and the commenter said, Joe Carter was brought in to hit home runs and drive in runs - and that's exactly what he did. And you can't knock a player for doing exactly what they were paid to do.

    King_Cat, that's the beauty of today's statistics. It allows us to go further down the rabbit hole and either confirm or deny our suspicions about particular players.

    As you suggested, if you looked at Lind's basic numbers, you might assume Lind had an okay year. But if you dig a little deeper, you'll see he only got on base 29.5 percent of the time. It's something that your basic AVG/HR/RBI's aren't going to tell you about those players.

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  19. You know who has the best statistics? Great players on bad teams, because they carry the team but they never win any championships.

    I'd much rather have 3 or 4 great players on a good team, with unimpressive stats, and win a few championships.

    So was he over rated? No, we had him during the prime of his career, and we'll forever have the memory of his world series home run.

    If anything, the whole province should have a holiday on March 7 called "Joe Carter Day", as well as a giant iron statue of him outside the SkyDome.

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  20. Anon, I was kind of hoping they would create a giant Roberto Alomar statue with his fingers pointing upwards outside the dome, but one of Joe Carter leaping would be pretty cool, too.

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