Today’s Game: Joe Carter

All this week we're taking a closer look at the 10 people on the Today’s Game Era Ballot for the Hall of Fame.

Joe Carter had a knack for RBIs. Yes, we all know that runs-batted-in is a team-context stat — you need runners on base in order to drive them in — and that the whole idea of being a run-producer is fraught with contradictions and mazes. Still, there can be no doubt that Joe Carter was all about knocking in those runners. At Wichita State, he set an NCAA record in 1981 by driving in 120 runs.

He was the second pick in the draft, and in his first full season in Class AA at age 22, he drove in 98 runs.

He was traded to Cleveland in the famous Rick Sutcliffe deal (more on that in a minute), and in 1986, he led all of baseball with 121 RBIs.

And then, he just went about his business of driving in runs, year after year. He drove in 100 runs 10 times, same as David Ortiz, Willie Mays and Stan Musial. In 1988, he fell just two RBIs short of 100 (he went 0 for 10 in his last four games with a terrible Cleveland team playing out the string) or he would be tied with Henry Aaron with 11 such seasons.

If anyone could have a knack for RBIs, that person would be Joe Carter.

That walk-off homer he hit to end the 1993 World Series — that wasn’t just a great moment, it was a culmination of a baseball life. It's like he was BORN for that moment, born to get the RBI that sealed a World Series.

Wow, I loved Joe Carter. I was 17 when Cleveland traded Sutcliffe to the Cubs for Mel Hall and Joe Carter. It was late spring just days after I graduated from high school, and everything was changing. At first, we thought Mel Hall was the key to the deal — he had finished third in the Rookie of the Year balloting a year earlier, and he was actually younger than Carter. We didn’t know much about prospects in those days. Carter quickly established that he was not only the key to the trade but also the key to the future.

How good was he? We also didn’t know much about stuff like on-base percentage or advanced defensive metrics. A player was what the back of his baseball card said he was, and Carter’s baseball card said that he was a 30-homer-30-stolen-base guy (in 1987 … he came close two other years). His baseball card also said that he hit .300 (in 1986) and he hit for power (30 home runs six times) and, more than anything, that he was an RBI guy.

[caption id="attachment_23725" align="aligncenter" width="419"] If you wanted an RBI, Carter was your guy.[/caption]

So we didn’t think too much about Carter’s liabilities. He didn’t walk. At all. He never walked 50 times in a season, not even in 1990, when he played for the Padres and was intentionally walked 18 times. He struck out 2.6 times more often than he walked, putting him in pretty rarefied air: Among the 350 players with more than 7,500 plate appearances, only 20 struck out two and a half times more often than they walked.

The list includes Alfonso Soriano (1,903 strikeouts to 496 walks, wow), Andres Galarraga, Lee May, Matt Williams, Pudge Rodriguez and Garret Anderson.

There are some RBI guys on that list too.

Carter’s inability to walk wasn’t a bug. It was a feature. When you’re an RBI guy, you swing the bat. Carter’s 1,445 RBIs put him 64th all-time in baseball history. But his .306 lifetime on-base percentage is at the heart of why his career WAR is just 19.6, in the world of Gregg Jefferies, Claudell Washington, John Stearns and Dick Hoblitzell.

Carter was an irrepressibly likable and charming player whose love of baseball shined through everything he did. In Cleveland, we thought of him as the savior. When he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated before the 1987 season (“Indian Uprising!”), we thought it was the beginning of a thrilling new era of Cleveland baseball. That didn’t work out; the Tribe lost 100 games that season and Carter was traded two years later. But that wasn’t Joe’s fault.

It’s strange that he’s on this Hall of Fame ballot; he has no real chance of getting elected (even with three Blue Jays-related people on the committee). Then, maybe it isn’t so strange. Carter replaced Mark McGwire on the ballot — I wrote a little something about this at The Athletic — and I think it says a lot about the two men. McGwire was a much better hitter, but he used steroids, and as such his career has come to represent inauthenticity in the minds of so many. The homers, people will say, weren’t real.

Joe Carter, meanwhile, was exactly the player he was meant to be: an athletic and energetic force who hit with power, ran the bases well, played multiple positions as well as he could, rarely walked and lived for the chance to come to the plate with ducks on the pond and more RBIs there for the taking.