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Joe? Cool

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  August 23, 2010 01:02 AM

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jcarter85donruss.jpgNot that we require one, but I'm not sure there's a specific reason why Joe Carter as the topic for this week's Silly Little Friday Baseball Post That Almost Never Gets Posted On Friday. More like a confluence of small coincidences. Among them:

The Sox, as they seem to do every other week, just wrapped up a set with the Toronto Blue Jays . . . the team for which Carter, a reputed RBI machine who hit 396 homers in his 16-year career, won two World Championships and achieved his greatest highlights -- or really, his greatest highlight. With apologies to Roberto Alomar, Roy Halladay, J.J. Cannon, and Danny Ainge, he's arguably the defining player in franchise history, for this reason:

If you can find a moment -- one moment -- in baseball history that captures the pure joy of victory and the game itself as much as Carter's delightfully exuberant reaction to his World Series-winning homer in Game 6 in 1993, topped off by Tom Cheek's pitch-perfect call of "Touch 'em all, Joe! You'll never hit a bigger home run in your life!," well, please do share it. Just don't give me anything that concludes with a less enthusiastic "Can you believe it?" than you heard on, say, the so-called Mother's Day Miracle.

During one media gig or another this week -- I can't recall which, but I think it might have been a WEEI appearance -- Peter Gammons referenced the infamous 1987 Sports Illustrated story . . . in which the Cleveland Indians -- surprising winners of 84 games the previous season -- were picked to win the World Series. SI, which made a habit of outsmarting itself with we're-smarter-than-you predictions in those days -- seriously, read the story and find one logical reason why they were the choice -- put a grinning Carter and Cory Snyder on the cover. (If you're unfamiliar with Snyder's work, think of him as an albino Wily Mo Pena, and you'd be close.)

cory-snyder-joe-carter-si-04-06-87.jpgThe smiles didn't last long. The Indians went 61-101 and finished seventh in the AL East despite Carter and Snyder combining for 65 homers and featuring a lineup that also included Brett Butler, Julio Franco, and Brook Jacoby. It probably would have helped to have a pitcher with more than seven wins, but Steve Carlton and Phil Niekro were a combined 90 years old. In late June that season, SI offered a followup explaining its folly.

Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay's clueless if hardly surprising comment that pitchers should be judged on their won-lost records above all else . . . which got me thinking about other common statistical misconceptions, which, in my usual roundabout and contrived way, led me back to the '80s and made me think of Carter. Long praised for his supposed RBI and clutch proficiency during his peak, it dawned on me that he's regarded as almst the opposite of J.D. Drew among those who are not statistically inclined or prone to utilizing common sense.

Carter did keep the scoreboard operators busy -- his lowest single-season RBI total from 1986-94 was 98 in '88, and that consistency simply has to be attributable to more than just his durability and good fortune to bat in the middle of some deep lineups. I mean, it's not my intent here to knock Carter, a gem of a guy who was one of my favorites, but the reality is that he wasn't much of a batting average (.259 career, shockingly low) or OPS (.306) guy, and his .771 career OPS is lower than Mike Cameron's (.787), Jason Varitek's (.781) and just slightly higher than Jeremy Hermida's (.775).

As you've probably noticed, whenever I find myself pondering a player's career or his place in the game, my second go-to resource, after the life-affirming baseball-reference.com, is a stack of old Bill James annuals . . . and not surprisingly but pleasant to discover nonetheless, he did spend a few words on Carter in his writings through the years.

In "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract," published in 2001, the author rated Carter as the 32d-best left fielder of all time -- sandwiched in the middle seat between No. 31, Bob Johnson, and No. 33, Bobby Veach, just as we all suspected -- while making a casual case that Barry Bonds was actually superior clutch player to Carter. (Remember, this was when Bonds was notorious for melting in the heat of the spotlight before his Ruthian performance in the 2002 postseason . . . and before he had to specially order his hats from BigHeadCaps.com.)

James addressed the contradictions of Carter's career in his "Player Ratings Book 1993":

Averaging 110 RBIs for seven years, Carter is the game's top RBI man. There are people who exaggerate the value of this. Brett Butler is a more valuable player than Joe Carter. But there are also people who want to give no credit for it, and that's not right, either. There haven't been an awful lot of player in baseball history who could drive in 100 runs every year.

In the following year's edition, James touched on Carter's Hall of Fame chances:

Joe is the kind of player that statistical analysts will tell you is badly overrated, but no GM will ever be able to resist. You might assume he is going skate into the Hall of Fame as easily as he can pass through Canadian customs, and you might well be right, but the Hall of Fame has never been kind to RBI men.

It certainly was not kind to Carter -- he lasted just one year on the ballot, getting 3.8 percent of the vote in 2004, the same number Fernando Valenzuela received the same year.

At last, our final semi-understandable reason for writing about Joe Carter today . . .

IC20.jpgHe had the reputation as a certified Red Sox killah . . . and after coming home from wherever I was Friday night and discovering that the Jays dropped 16 runs on Jon Lester and the Sox, I half expected to look in the box score and see . . .

Carter, J. 5 2 3 4

Old habits and all.

Turns out their chief tormentor that particular night was Lyle Overbay, which reminded us of two things: 1) We really need a third installment of our Red Sox enemies list (version 2.0 is here), because Overbay is at this point a first-ballot lock, and 2) there is a tremendous amount of shame in getting pummeled by a dude named Lyle.

It's hard to imagine Carter would have any enemies other than maybe Mitch Williams and a few opposing pitchers he dinged through the years, but it turns out that in this case the perception is the reality. Carter would belong on our Red Sox enemies list, at least a retro edition from the '80s and '90s, because the man habitually annihilated Boston pitching.

In 160 career games -- you have to love the near-perfect symmetry of practically a full season -- and 682 plate appearances against the Sox, Carter hit .269 with 37 homers and 109 RBIs. His OPS, .841, would have tied with his '94 season as the best of his career, and his adjusted OPS, 116, would have ranked as his fifth-highest, while his 328 total bases against the Sox trailed only the the 341 he compiled for the Indians in '86. Essentially, Joe Carter's lifetime totals against the Sox would rank as one of the two or three best seasons in his career.

Carter was particularly awesome at Fenway -- in 79 games and 336 plate appearances, he hit .312 with 22 homers, 65 RBIs, and a .954 OPS -- and the hunch always was that he'd come to the Sox at the end of his career a la Andre Dawson, a shell casing of what he once was. It just seemed like a move Lou Gorman might make.

It never did happen, though, with Carter retiring at age 38 after a rather productive final few innings with the Giants in '98 (seven homers and an .884 OPS in 115 PAs.). But . . . well, you know, Carter is a young 50, and the Green Monster is enticing as ever, and he can't possibly be older than Mike Cameron, and with Carlos Delgado hurting in Pawtucket, and . . .

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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