Tagged: Steve Carlton

40 Years Of Steve Carlton

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.

The Hall, And The Meaning Of Stats

Don’t look it up. Try (at least first) to figure it out. I’ll answer it at the end of this first part of the post – and I’m doing it this way to underscore why a malleable attitude towards statistics and Cooperstown is mandatory.

Here goes: Who led the American League in home runs in the 1980’s?
Somewhere else on the web, somebody dismissed my support (and that of the 400 BBWAA electors who voted for him) of Bert Blyleven by claiming you can’t put a pitcher in the Hall of Fame who averaged only 13 wins a season.

Pitcher                                             Wins Per Season

Bob Gibson                                             14.76

Gaylord Perry                                          14.27

Allie Reynolds*                                        14.00

Tom Glavine*                                           13.86

Sandy Koufax                                          13.75

Steve Carlton                                           13.70

Chief Bender                                            13.25

Early Wynn                                              13.04

Bert Blyleven*                                          13.00

Dizzy Dean                                               12.50

Dazzy Vance                                            12.30

NOLAN RYAN                                           12.00

         * not in Hall of Fame

You can make a million different arguments about what this statistic means – and then move on to whether or not it really means anything in terms of the Hall. But the Blyleven (exactly 13 wins a year) versus Ryan (exactly 12 wins a year) comparison certainly is startling.
A much fairer, and slightly more subjective, view of the issue is provided by what we might call “Adjusted Wins Per Season.” It’s not a complicated formula. You just assess a pitcher’s “incomplete seasons” – only half a year in the majors, or less, or the last year when they were released on May 15th, or, particular to Koufax, the first two seasons of his career in which he was forced to stay on the major league roster (but was seldom used) because of a then-extant rule requiring such treatment for any free agent signed to a ******** bonus. You then throw out these “rump years” (and any scattered wins gathered in them) and re-divide.
Let’s do this for the same mix of a dozen pitchers, HOF and NON-HOF, as above:

Pitcher                     Adjusted Wins Per Season        “Rump” Seasons

Dizzy Dean                               16.50                                 Three

Sandy Koufax                           15.9                                   Two

Steve Carlton                            15.52                                 Three

Bob Gibson                              15.50                                 One

Allie Reynolds*                         15.17                                 One

Tom Glavine*                            15.05                                 Two

Dazzy Vance                             14.92                                 Three

Gaylord Perry                            14.27                                 One

Early Wynn                               14.19                                  Two

Chief Bender                             14.13                                 One

Bert Blyleven*                           13.00                                 None

NOLAN RYAN                            12.76                                  Two

         *not in
Hall of Fame

As usual when you research something – however trivial it might be – unsought data turns up. In this case it would include the suggestion that the voters need to reexamine the candidacy of Allie Reynolds. Somebody else interesting turns up in that “adjusted” category – Ron Guidry, at 15.27.

But the most fascinating is the comparison it provides for Blyleven and Ryan. Their ERA’s are similar, their 20-win seasons are similar (and unimpressive: Ryan, 2; Blyleven, 1), their average seasonal win totals are similar (adjusted or not). The differences are the no-hitters and strikeouts, and while I would agree they are enough to have made Ryan the first-ballot Hall of Famer he was, I don’t see how their absence has left Blyleven to decades of also-ran status.
By the way, the answer to the trivia question at the top: Mike Schmidt led baseball (and obviously, the National League) in homers in the ’80s with 313. Dale Murphy was second with 308. Eddie Murray was third overall with 274 and thus led those who played in each league during that decade. But your American League top homer man of the ’80s, and fourth overall in the game, was Dwight Evans with 256. I happen to think Evans deserves serious consideration for Cooperstown – but surely not for that stat.

Fell victim to myself – and was contacted by a bunch of other suckers – to an eBay scam that, while clearly focused to rip off specialists in a very small branch of baseball memorabilia collecting – serves as a reminder to think carefully about the ingenuity people can muster while pursuing the proverbial ill-gotten gains.
To eBay’s credit, in my case at least, it and PayPal refunded my money, even as the seller claimed he was the victim, and smeared, and all the like. The ID was “tarheels17032” and the man, a Randy Howard operating out of a post office box in suburban Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, put up for bid a “box” of vintage 1971 O-Pee-Chee baseball cards (the Canadian version of Topps). The illustration showed the retail box, and in it, 36 seemingly unopened packs in good shape. Upon arrival, I couldn’t resist opening a pack.
I was surprised, initially, as to how easy that was. The packages were barely sealed. As a kid, I actually opened packages of these cards when they originally came out, and they were stuck together for the long haul. But the biggest surprise awaited inside. The cards had clearly not spent the last 39 years in those packages. Some had creases and seriously stubbed corners, others didn’t. At least two cards that were not directly facing the gum in the packs, nevertheless had damage from having had gum stuck to them. The packages were in better condition than the cards – a physical impossibility if the packs had been unopened.
Unless we were dealing with cards granted the ability of locomotion, which had escaped their packs and managed to somehow injure themselves, then return home like salmon swimming back to spawn, there was something seriously amiss here.
Mr. Howard at first agreed to “take a look” at the cards if I wanted to return them to him. He then refused delivery at the post office in Dauphin, Pa. When I filed a complaint with eBay, he wrote: “First of all, please re-read my description. No where do I EVER describe in any of my auctions that something is ‘unopened.’ I’m not the original owner nor do I profess to be. I specifically state in my auctions to ask any questions prior to end of auction. I also state that all items are sold as is…”
As the complaint moved through eBay, he later posted that I had tampered with the packages. Needless to say, the eBay folks did not exactly buy that (since I had a registered mail receipt marked “refused” – he could not have seen the packages). Nor did they buy the ‘I never explicitly said these were unopened packs’ defense.
My travails with memorabilia sellers are not your concern. But when several other collectors advised me that there were several instances of this exact kind of rip-off involving supposedly unopened packs, I thought it merited mention here. The story as I understand it is that either two people working in cahoots, or one using two different eBay ID’s, buy up old empty card boxes, and empty wrappers that match the boxes. Lord knows where they get the gum, but they fill the “packs” with off-condition common cards, seal them just closed enough, then stick them in the empty box, and make big money selling not vintage unopened packs or boxes, but garbage.
Once eBay returned my money I thought it would be fascinating to open up Mr. Howard’s packs to see what was inside. Not one of the packs didn’t include something impossible. Several packs included not 1971 O-Pee-Chee cards (yellow backs), but ordinary 1971 Topps (green backs). The O-Pee-Chee cards were issued in series that year, so all the cards in each pack should have been restricted to Series One, Series Two, or Series Three, etc. But many were intermixed between the series. Topps and O-Pee-Chee made their money on making sure kids had to keep buying to get a full set, so they had state-of-the-art “randomizing” processes to be certain there were lots of doubles in a box and never anything like a run of cards in numerical sequence in a given pack. Nevertheless, nearly all the packs came out that way (one produced numbers 234, 235, 238, 240, 241, 242, 243, 244). And virtually every card in the box was a “common” – no stars, no rare cards.
But the piece de resistance was the fact that the battered cards in that first tentatively-opened pack proved to be just the start, in terms of damage and bad condition. You do not have to be a collector nor a detective to doubt that this card had always be in that pack: