Steve Carlton vs. Mike Schmidt

June 26th, 2019 by Kyle Lutz | Filed under Baseball, General, MLB, Phillies, Sports.

Both are Hall-of-Famers, both are two of the best players in Phillies’ history and both had legendary careers, but who’s better? I feel Carlton is, for the record.

(Bill Ingraham/AP Photo)

The bias towards Schmidt in this town is interesting, especially since everybody hated him during his playing career. Now it’s the complete opposite, and not at a healthy medium either, like it probably should be. Sure, I love Schmidt myself for what he’s done for this organization, although I never got to see him play, unfortunately. And there’s no denying that he’s one of the best ever at the hot corner, if not the best; both offensively and defensively. Schmidt’s a likable guy as well, which makes it even easier to respect his playing-career accomplishments.

As for Carlton, he won 329 major-league games, 241 of them coming as a Phillie. He had a respectable winning percentage of 57.4, and struck out over 4,000 batters in 24 years in the majors. 15 out of his 24 major-league seasons were spent with Philadelphia, from 1972-86. Impressively, he won 20 or more games in his career six times, four of which culminated with a Cy-Young victory.

Carlton’s ranked 11th all-time in major-league victories, and second all-time among left handers (only Warren Spahn has more victories for a southpaw, with 363). Carlton became a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer in 1994, earning an impressive 95.6% of the vote. Schmidt was inducted a year later, earning a equally-impressive 96.5% of the vote, as a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer as well.

Individual accomplishments aside, back to the debate.

Let’s start with who was more valuable, in terms of WAR (wins above replacement). Schmidt has a career WAR of 106.5, to Carlton’s 90.4. That’s Carlton’s overall career WAR. His WAR for pitchers (an entirely-separate metric) is 84.1. But it’s tough to compare side by side WAR totals of a pitcher and a position player, so for this debate, I won’t consider this too much in terms of weighing in on my final decision as to who’s better. But it’s interesting, nonetheless.

Schmidt spent his entire 18-year career with Philadelphia (1972-1989), hit 548 career home runs, won three MVP awards, drove in 1595 runs, and for his career he averaged — per 162 games — 37 home runs, 107 RBIs and 102 walks. Despite a batting average of just .267, he made up for it with a strong eye, with a career on-base-percentage of .380, an average of 102 walks per year, and seven seasons with 100 or more walks. His MVP awards came in 1980 (the same year as the Phillies’ first World-Series championship), 1981 and 1986. Schmidt led the league in home runs on eight occasions, and walks/RBIs on four occasions. He finished his career with 2234 hits as well.

As for lefty, I consider his 1972 season one of the best for a starting pitcher in major-league history. The Phillies were not only the worst team in the league but one of the worst, in hindsight, in league history. They only won 59 games in 156 games; a winning percentage of just 38. Despite the lack of success that year, perhaps the lone bright spot came prior to the season — on February 25th — when they traded pitcher Rick Wise for St. Louis Cardinals’ starting pitcher Steve Carlton. Both were having issues with their respective teams, so a trade seemed worth it, in terms of providing each pitcher with a change in scenery.

Carlton that season went an incredible 27-10; winning an insane amount of his (crappy) team’s overall games; 46% to be exact (27/59). He led the league in wins, ERA (1.97), games started (41), complete games (30), innings pitched (346.1), strikeouts (310), batters faced (1351), adjusted ERA/ERA+ (182), FIP (2.01), and strikeouts to walks (3.56). He won the National-League Cy-Young-Award (the first of his career), earning all 24 first-place votes (Pittsburgh’s Steve Blass and Chicago’s Fergie Jenkins finished second and third in voting, respectively).

To me, not only was his ’72 season remarkable statistically, but — perhaps even more impressive — the fact that a pitcher carried such an atrocious team and won 46% of his team’s overall wins is insanely amazing. Perhaps that’ll never be accomplished again for a major-league pitcher, partially due to the amount of bullpen pitchers in the game today. Many wonder how many games the team would’ve won had it not been for Carlton’s dominant effort on the mound that season. It’s plausible to assume they would have won only 40-45 games, similar to the Detroit Tigers’ 2003 season in which they only won 43 games.

In 114 modern-era major-league-baseball seasons, only 21 teams have won fewer than 50 games; the ’03 Tigers being one of them. Philadelphia finished dead last, to no surprise, in the NL East that season, and 37.5 games back of the division-winning Pirates, who won 96 games. Fortunately for Carlton, the team improved after that season concluded, although you can’t do much worst than they did, as they won 12 greater games the following season (1973) and 86 games three years later.

Surprisingly, Carlton didn’t win NL-MVP honors that season, as he finished fifth and lost to Cincinnati’s Johnny Bench. Let’s compare, for a brief second, Bench’s and Carlton’s seasons that year, because I feel the latter got robbed in terms of winning the award (despite how fantastic of a player Johnny Bench was).

Bench- .270 BA/.379 OBP/.541 SLG/.920 OPS, 40 home runs, 125 RBIs, 87 runs, 100 walks, 8.6 WAR
Carlton- 27-10, 1.97 ERA, 0.993 WHIP, 346.1 IP, 87 walks, 310 strikeouts, 12.5 WAR

Comparing the two player’s stats above, Carlton out-shined Bench in the wins-above-replacement department, not to mention Carlton led the league (as mentioned above) in many pitching categories that season, whereas Bench didn’t even lead the league in many categories; mostly just home runs and RBIs. Wrapping up the Carlton vs. Bench MVP debate, Bench most likely won over Carlton due to the Reds’ success that season. Cincinnati won the NL-West division with 95 wins, beat Pittsburgh in the NLCS, and made it to the ’72 World Series, despite eventually losing to Oakland in seven games. To me though, Carlton was of much greater value than Bench was that year.

Back to the Carlton vs. Schmidt debate, Carlton’s ranked 15th all-time — in baseball reference’s fan elorater — in terms of the best pitchers, whereas Schmidt’s ranked 18th for position players. Now let’s compare the two’s career postseason statistics.

Carlton’s 6-6 in 16 career postseason games, with a 3.26 ERA and 8.7 hits/9. In baseball’s biggest stage, Carlton was a solid pitcher, going 2-2 with a very respectable 2.56 ERA in six career World-Series games (1967-68 with St. Louis, and 1980 and 1983 with Philadelphia). Although Carlton’s allowed a lot of hits/9 in his postseason career, he’s made up for it in ERA, home runs/9 (just 0.6), and overall consistency.

As for Schmidt, he has a career postseason batting line of just .236/.304/.386/.690. He hit just four home runs in 140 career postseason at-bats and struck out 27 times; a 162-game average of 122 times. Similarly, Schmidt struck out a ton of times as well in the regular season; 127 times/162 games.

Overall, while both players are fantastic both on and off the field, Carlton to me is the better player. This is due to his better career postseason numbers, his phenomenal, dominant ’72 season, and being — arguably — the second best left-handed pitcher of all-time; whereas, the same can’t be said for Schmidt in terms of the greatest right-handed hitters of all-time (even though he’s regarded as one of the greatest third baseman ever).

Despite the comparisons, opinions and debates as to who’s better, it’s still thrilling to watch games now from the early-mid ’70s and ’80s with both players. Schmitty and lefty, we Philadelphians love you both; no matter who’s better or worst.

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