Why Steve Carlton Should Have Won the 1972 National League Most Valuable Player Award

January 12th, 2014 by Kyle Lutz | Filed under Baseball, General, Phillies.
(AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy)

(AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy)

Steve Carlton, arguably the Philadelphia Phillies’ best pitcher in franchise history, came into the league with St. Louis in 1965. He wasn’t drafted, but instead, out of college no less, signed with the team for $5,000 two years prior in 1963. From there he transformed over time into one of the best pitchers in baseball, and in hindsight one of the best of all-time.

His repertoire included a sweeping curveball, a powerful ‘mid-90s fastball and a late-breaking slider, which all proved to equally be his out pitches. After seven seasons with the Cardinals, he was traded in February of 1972 for fellow starting pitcher Rick Wise, who made the National League All-Star team a year prior to the trade (1971). Wise was a strong, top-of-the-order starting pitcher at the time. In 1971, he went 17-14 with an impressive ERA of 2.88 in 272.1 innings pitched. He only pitched two seasons with St. Louis before being traded again, after winning 16 games in succession; this time to Boston,

With St. Louis, Carlton had three seasons with below-3 ERAs. Although he led the league in losses (19) in 1970, the previous three seasons he compiled an ERA of 2.70, a win-loss record of 44-31 and a winning percentage of 59. In two of those three seasons he also made the All-Star team. His minor setbacks on the mound mixed with his contract demands (he wanted $65,000 from St. Louis, which they refused to pay him. They offered him $60,000 instead) the next two years led to his subsequent trade to Philly.

It was a strange, peculiar scenario for both players, as both teams were willing to pay the opposite team’s player the amount they wanted (both wanted $65,000), but yet they were unwilling to pay their own the same amount for whatever reason.

In the end, both players got a new start, and many predicted Carlton to struggle with his new team given the fact that St. Louis’ lineup was so strong in backing him offensively.

For Carlton, in his first season with Philadelphia he not only pitched great (and exceeded expectations after his setbacks the previous few seasons) but pitched one of the best single-seasons in baseball history statistically. He won 27 games, had a winning percentage of 73 (27-10), a spectacular ERA of only 1.97 and 310 strikeouts in 346.1 innings pitched. He led the league in many pitching categories, including: wins, ERA, games started (41), complete games (30), innings pitched, strikeouts, batters faced (1351), ERA+ (182), and strikeouts/walks ratio (3.56).

Carlton won the National League Cy Young Award that season, to no surprise, collecting all 24 1st-place votes and 56% of the total votes (120/216). He also led all pitchers that season in WAR (wins above replacement) with 12.1., 5.1 wins more than fellow Hall of Famer Bob Gibson (among WAR metrics).

Now to the MVP debate/case for Carlton, Reds’ catcher Johnny Bench won MVP honors that season over Cubs’ outfielder Billy Williams. Carlton placed fifth. Cincinnati that season dominated from the get-go, and eventually went on to win the NL West Division title with 95 wins (and only 59 losses). They finished 10.5 games better than second place Los Angeles, while within the Phillies’ division (the NL East) then-rival Pittsburgh won the division with 96 wins (and as many losses as Cincinnati).

Cincinnati beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs that year, in the NL Championship Series, in five games. They advanced to the World Series, where they eventually lost in seven games to Oakland. Bench’s team’s success that season, coupled with his respectable stat line, most likely led to his victory in the MVP race that season, over Carlton and others.

As for Carlton, the Phillies finished dead last in the East, and only won a pitiful 59 games (for a winning percentage of just 38%), while finishing the season an eye-popping 37.5 games-back of Pittsburgh. The main reason I believe Carlton should have won the Most Valuable Player Award over Bench is the fact that considering how poor Philadelphia was that year, it was a season practically no pitcher had ever pitched in general, let alone for a cellar dweller team like Philadelphia. Winning 27 games out of your team’s total 59 is insane, and probably will never be accomplished again for any pitcher considering many factors.

Carlton was not only a solid three-pitch pitcher, with great command and speed, but a team leader, a clubhouse favorite and an overall excellent pitcher fundamentally. Additionally, what partially led to his abundance of wins and innings pitched (as well as strikeouts) was the fact that he was a total workhouse on the mound as well.

Bench’s statistics that season were as followed: .270/.379/.541/.920 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage/OPS), 40 home runs, 125 RBIs, 100 walks, 145 hits, 23 intentional walks and 22 doubles. He led the league in home runs, RBIs, sacrifice flies (12), and intentional walks. Although it’s tough to compare pitchers’ stats to hitters’, Carlton led the league in 10 pitching categories, whereas Bench led the league in six fewer categories (4), except among hitters.

Bench had 63 fewer batting average points compared to the NL MVP’s runner-up Billy Williams, who led the league that year with a .333 batting average. If not for Bench’s patience and high walk count, his on-base percentage would have been significantly lower due to his below average batting average that season.

The big argument against Bench winning the award is the fact that, when you think about it, winning MVP honors with only a .270 batting average isn’t acceptable, especially considering his All-Star status. To me, winning 27 games and an incredible 45% of your team’s total victories, coupled with a solid ERA and strikeout count, is way more valuable than hitting just .270 for a team loaded with talent already.

Carlton would go on to win three more Cy Young Awards, as well as making six additional All-Star trips and finishing within the Most Valuable Player Award top 10 voting four more times. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994, and is regarded as one of the best and most dominant, if not the best/most dominant, left-handed pitchers of all-time.

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