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Retrometrics: Joe Carter
Retrometrics will be an ongoing feature here at Blue Jays Way. From time to time, we will use the lens of modern analytics to look back at the players of yore. Numbers have always been a big part of the game of baseball. It is a game of one-on-one matchups with discrete outcomes and thus lends itself to statistical analysis. The more recent ‘Sabermetrics’ have revolutionized the way the game is viewed by providing more comprehensive tools for evaluating player performance. I suspect that revisiting the careers of retired players using advanced metrics will yield some interesting insights for many fans.
Joe Carter was an obvious first choice for this feature. His prominence in the 1992 and 1993 World Series victories has made him a Blue Jays icon and his abilities were suited to the priorities of the era in which he played. However, Carter’s deficiencies as a player have become more apparent as our understanding of the game has developed. Carter joined the Jays at the age of 31 prior to the 1991 season via trade from the San Diego Padres. In seven seasons with the Jays, Carter finished in the top 10 in MVP voting four times, was an all-star five times, hit 203 home runs and collected 736 RBI. In each of his first four seasons with the Jays (arguably the peak of his career), Carter had at least 100 RBIs and he slammed at least 30 HR in all but the strike-shortened 1994 season. Put more simply, Joe Carter was a star player of his era.
How do the advanced statistics look for Carter? Unfortunately, not so good. Carter clearly had a knack for hitting the ball out of the park and that is reflected by slugging percentages ranging between .489 and .524 in his first four years with the Jays. However, he was an all-or-nothing hitter. Even during his peak, Carter never posted an on base percentage above .330 and was generally closer to .315. Think about that; Adam Lind and Kelly Johnson had on base percentages of .314 and .313, respectively, in 2012.
Carter’s highest OPS was .841 in the strike-shortened 1994 season and he posted a .781 OPS over his career with the Jays. These are solid numbers, but not superstar calibre. Carter’s best ever OPS of .841 placed him 55th in all of baseball that year. To put it in context, the much-maligned Alex Rios topped out at .865 in 2006 and posted an OPS of .786 over the course of his Blue Jays career. And the comparison gets even worse for Carter – Rios had a cannon arm and good range in right field and was quick on the basepaths, traits to which Carter cannot lay claim. As such, Rios posted 18.9 WAR in six years with the Jays, easily outpacing Carter who posted a rather pedestrian 6.4 WAR over seven years (in fairness, Carter was much older and posted 6.7 WAR in his first two years before tailing off and eventually posting negative WAR numbers as he entered the steep decline phase of his career over his final three years in Toronto).
What should we conclude from this? Was Carter not worthy of the adulation he received as a star player in Toronto? I’m not sure it’s that simple. There has long been difficulty comparing players from different eras; the dead ball era of the early 1900s and the performance enhancing drug era are commonly cited because the number of runs scored per game changed league wide during these periods. But our understanding of the game and our priorities have changed over time as well.
Carter was a dangerous player because he was a threat to hit for extra bases at any time. I recall marveling at how he seemed to manage to swat an ugly pitch (usually low and outside) into the stands on a regular basis. In the early 1990s, baseball valued players who could drive in runs and Joe Carter drove in a lot of runs. We have since come to understand that, while driving in runs is obviously important, we may have underestimated how important it is to avoid making outs at the plate, run the bases well, and produce defensive outs and/or prevent runners from taking extra bases. Furthermore, we failed to properly consider the degree to which RBI are a function of one’s opportunities to drive in runs: namely, the ability of one’s teammates to reach base, and one’s place in the batting order.
It seems a little unfair to retroactively deem Carter mediocre on this basis. By any measure Carter was an above average player in 1991 and 1992 and a big contributor to the Blue Jays World Series teams. Like any player, Joe Carter had weaknesses. We’ve come to realize that though his strengths were undeniable, his deficiencies were fairly significant as well. This is certainly true of well regarded players from before Carter’s time too, but, unfortunately for Carter, this realization came before his legacy had been fully formed. He performed well according to the rules of the day and was praised accordingly. It seems a bit disingenuous to move the goal posts now, but such is life.
Advanced statistics have improved our understanding of the game, which is not to say that fans shouldn’t maintain affection for their heroes of yesterday. Joe Carter was one of the most prominent players during the golden years of the Blue Jays. Though my view on him may be a bit more nuanced now, I will always remember Carter’s years with the team fondly.