It remains, in short, the most amazing season a pitcher has put together since at least Sandy Koufax, and very probably since long before him. And now, Steve Carlton’s 1972 campaign, when he won 27 of his rotten team’s 59 games, dates to 40 years ago.
So much has been written about Lefty’s work that it is amazing to consider that an extraordinarily relevant detail is usually omitted from the recounting – one that makes winning 46 percent of one team’s entire supply of victories all the more remarkable.
Steve Carlton did it in a strike-shortened season.
The first sport-wide in-season strike in American history would in later contexts seem so brief as to be almost quaint. But when Opening Day was pushed back by a week forty years ago, and each team lost between six and nine games, it was traumatic – and it contributed to the distinct possibility that Carlton missed an opportunity to win 30 games.
The Phillies were to open in St. Louis on Friday, April 7 – 43 days after they had obtained Carlton straight-up from the Cardinals for Rick Wise – and were then to return for the home opener and an additional game against Montreal beginning April 10. They should’ve been in Chicago on April 14th, but that was the last of the six games which were wiped out, simply cancelled with no attempt to squeeze in make-ups nor compensate for the havoc of imbalanced schedules that would, among other things, largely decide who won the American League East that year.
One speculates about a small alteration in a large swath of history at one’s peril. Just because the guy got caught stealing does not mean the team would’ve scored two runs when the next batter homered. They could’ve pitched to him differently or they could’ve hit him or the guy standing safely at second at just that moment could’ve invoked a Rapture of some kind. Contemplating Carlton opening up against his erstwhile Cardinal teammates on April 7th instead of against the Cubs on April 15th is rife with hypothetical disaster. He might have hurt himself there, or begun the path to a bad habit, or not faced the right batter he challenged in just the right way to uncover the keys that led to his marvelous season. For all we know, if the players hadn’t struck and the games hadn’t been cancelled, Steve Carlton might’ve lost 27 games for the 1972 Phillies.
But it is deliciously intriguing to note that Carlton won all four of his starts against the Cards in his first season out of their uniform. With Phils’ skippers Frank Lucchesi and Paul Owens adhering pretty rigidly to a four-man rotation, Carlton would’ve pitched in the second home game against the Expos on April 12 – and of course Carlton also won all of his starts (three of them) against Montreal in ’72. But if the original schedule had been observed, that would have pushed his third start from April 15 against the Cubs to April 17 against the Cards, and it probably would have denied him the chance to start the last game before the All Star break. Thus if you buy any of the argument that the strike “cost” Carlton, it probably cost him one start and the most his theoretical full season should’ve netted him was 28 wins instead of the actual 27.
Of course, since we’re down the What-If rabbit hole, the real fun comes when we look at the 14 starts Carlton did not win, in route to 27-10.
The first stunning overarching truth about Carlton’s 1972 season was that he did it almost all by himself. He lasted through 30 Complete Games, and only three of his 27 wins were saved by other relievers. For contrast, when Bobby Welch won 27 for the 1990 A’s, the sport had already changed so much that all but seven of those wins had saves (19 by Dennis Eckersley) and Welch threw just two CG’s – both shutouts. Incredibly, Carlton blew the lead in one of his own non-win starts five times during 1972, and could only blame the tissue-thin Phillies’ bullpen for one other defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. Amazingly, Carlton endured a five-game losing streak beginning May 13th. His own error was the fulcrum in a 3-1 loss to the Dodgers and Claude Osteen at home that night, and the other games in the skein saw Carlton surrender at least three earned runs. The streak ended with a no-decision exactly a month later when Carlton helped cough up his own 5-0 lead to the Reds. Johnny Bench and Julian Javier homered in the 7th, but it was still 5-3 Phillies when Joe Morgan doubled off Carlton to lead the 8th. Reliever Chris Short let the inherited run score, and then Hal McRae touched him for the game-tying homer to start the 9th. The Phils would lose it in the 10th.
There were four occasions when just slightly more offense from the Philadelphia bats might’ve gotten him another win or two. On June 16th in the Astrodome he struck out a dozen and gave up just six hits and four walks in ten innings, but the Phils could do nothing with Don Wilson and Tom Griffin, and Dick Selma lost it in the 11th on a walk-off homer to Jimmy Wynn. On August 21st, Carlton again did marathon work without a win: 11 innings of seven hit, two run ball. He struck out 10 more, but the Phils turned nine hits and a walk off Phil Niekro into just one score, and Carlton’s 15-game winning streak was snapped. At Shea on September 24th, he gave up a lead-off homer to Tommie Agee and then watched John Bateman throw away a squib in the 8th, setting up the game-deciding sacrifice fly by the very non-immortal Lute Barnes in a 2-1 defeat (one of seven career RBI in a cameo career by the Mets’ second baseman).
But the best bet for another Carlton win probably came at Candlestick on July 15th. Carlton struggled through five, and was trailing 4-0 when Joe Lis pinch-hit for him. In the seventh, the winds changed and Phillies scored eleven off the Giants, and Bucky Brandon would vulture the win.
In short, we all knew as it happened that Carlton was creating something none of us had ever seen before. Just how special it was is only becoming clear now, with 40 years to ponder it.