Thrills Provided by Carter and Clark Not Enough for Today’s Game Ballot

This post is part of a series concerning the 2019 Today’s Game Era Committee ballot, covering executives, managers and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas on December 9. Use the tool above to read the introduction and other installments. For an introduction to JAWS, see here. Several profiles in this series are adapted from work previously published at SI.com and Baseball Prospectus. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2019 Today’s Game Candidates: Carter and Clark
Player Career Peak JAWS H HR SB AVG/OBP/SLG OPS+
Joe Carter 19.8 21.5 20.5 2184 396 231 .259/.306/.464 105
Avg HOF RF 72.7 42.9 57.8
Will Clark 56.5 36.1 46.3 2176 284 67 .303/.384/.497 137
Avg HOF 1B 66.8 42.7 54.7
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Joe Carter

Hailed as a reliable run producer for his 15 consecutive seasons with double-digit home-run totals and 10 with over 100 RBI, Carter is most famous for hitting just the second World Series-ending home run. His three-run shot off Phillies reliever Mitch Williams in Game Six of the 1993 World Series sent the Blue Jays to their second consecutive championship and produced a call for the ages from Tom Cheek: “Touch ’em all, Joe. You’ll never hit a bigger home run in your life!”

Unlike the first player to hit a Series-ending homer, Bill Mazeroski (Game Seven, 1960), Carter was unable to parlay his fame and his superficially impressive counting stats into a spot in Cooperstown. To the relief of a burgeoning stathead community that had begun spreading the gospel of on-base percentage, he received just 3.8% of the vote in 2004, his lone BBWAA ballot appearance.

Before landing with the Blue Jays, with whom he made all five of his All-Star appearances, Carter was involved in three significant trades. Drafted by the Cubs as the No. 2 overall pick in 1981 (Mike Moore was first), he reached the majors on July 30, 1983, but played just 23 games with the team before being sent to the Indians on June 13, 1984, one of four players dealt in exchange for Rick Sutcliffe, Ron Hassey, and George Frazier. Sutcliffe went 16-1 en route to becoming the only Cy Young winner to switch teams in midseason while helping the Cubs to their first postseason berth since 1945.

After six years in Cleveland, during which Carter averaged 25 homers, 88 RBI (with an AL-best 121 in 1986), 112 OPS+, and 2.4 WAR, he was traded to the Padres on December 6, 1989 in exchange for Sandy Alomar Jr. and Carlos Baerga — a pair who would become key players in the Indians’ mid-1990s resurgence — plus one other player. Nearly one year to the day after that, he was dealt to the Blue Jays along with Roberto Alomar in exchange for Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff, a deal that kicked off the heyday of Toronto baseball.

In his first year with the Blue Jays, the 31-year-old Carter made his first All-Star team amid one of his best seasons (.273/.330/.503, 33 HR, 108 RBI, 120 OPS+, 4.7 WAR) while helping the team win the AL East flag. He repeated the honor with similar counting stats but lesser OBPs (.309 and .312) and WARs (2.5 and 2.0) in 1992 and -93 as the Blue Jays won back-to-back pennants. He homered in the decisive Game Six of the 1992 ALCS against the A’s (off Moore, coincidentally) and then twice in the World Series against the Braves while batting .273/.346/.636. His final line in the 1993 Series was eye-opening in its own way (.280/.250/.560 with two homers, no walks, three sacrifice flies, and eight RBI).

Carter spent another four seasons in Toronto, but despite averaging 26 homers and 97 RBI (including 103 in the strike-shortened 1994 season), his productivity actually cratered; he hit .251/.301/.452 for a 92 OPS+ and an average of -0.2 WAR over that span due to dreadful defense (-10 runs per year via TotalZone). A final season, split between the Orioles and Giants, was similarly counterproductive (99 OPS+, -1.0 WAR despite 18 homers in 418 PA).

Indeed, the combination of low on-base percentages (10 seasons of .310 or lower, with a career high of just .335) and lousy defense (five seasons with at least -10 runs) made Carter’s contributions emptier than most. He’s the only player to record multiple 100-RBI seasons while finishing with a WAR below zero (three) and the leader in 20-homer, sub-replacement-level seasons (four). He had just five seasons above 2.0 WAR and eight (out of 16) above 1.0, and is the rare candidate with a higher peak WAR than career WAR. Among Hall of Famers, only Tommy McCarthy, a 19th-century right fielder who should have been enshrined as a pioneer — he popularized innovations such as the hit and run, fake bunt, and outfield trap — has a similarly skewed line (16.2/18.9/17.6). McCarthy is also the only enshrined player (including relievers!) with a lower JAWS. Carter’s rejection by a BBWAA electorate that had never heard of WAR or JAWS probably had more to do with his lifetime .259 batting average — lower than all but three Hall of Famers (Harmon Killebrew, Rabbit Maranville, and Ray Schalk) — than his low OBPs, but the result was the right one. With all due respect for the big moments he produced over his 16-year career, his election via the Today’s Game panel would be nothing short of a travesty.

Will Clark

Renowned for his intensity and a sweet left-handed swing, “Will the Thrill” spent more than half a decade as one of the game’s elite hitters, earning All-Star honors six times and leading the Giants to their first pennant in 27 years. Had he not hung up his spikes after an impressive age-36 season, Clark might have finished with hit and home-run totals that put him squarely in the Hall of Fame conversation for years. Instead, he fell off the BBWAA ballot after receiving just 4.4% in his 2006 debut.

A New Orleans native, Clark passed up a chance to sign with the Royals after they drafted him in 1982 to attend Mississippi State, where he was teammates with Rafael Palmeiro. He won the Golden Spikes Award as the top collegiate player in the country in 1985 while helping Mississippi State to the College World Series, then was drafted second overall by the Giants. (Future teammate B.J. Surhoff was first.) He homered in his first professional plate appearance, at A-level Fresno, and then, less than a year later, did so as well in his first major-league plate appearance off future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, then pitching for the Astros. After hitting a respectable .287/.343/.444 (121 OPS+) as a rookie, Clark bashed 35 homers — a total he would never surpass — while hitting .308/.371/.580 for a 152 OPS+ and 4.2 WAR in 1987, helping the Giants to their first postseason appearance since 1971.

Clark would maintain that level of offensive productivity over a six-year stretch from 1987 to -92; his 152 OPS+ (.303/.378/.515, that while playing half his games at pitcher-friendly Candlestick Park) tied Barry Bonds for second in the majors behind only Fred McGriff (154). From 1988 to -90, he was annually the runner-up in the metric, first to Darryl Strawberry, then to teammate Kevin Mitchell (who also beat him in the MVP voting), and then Bonds. His 1989 slash numbers (.333/.407/.546) ranked second, third, and fourth in the league, respectively, while his career-best 8.6 WAR ranked second to the Braves’ Lonnie Smith (!). The performance helped the Giants win the NL West, and in Game One of the NLCS against the Cubs, he went 4-for-4 with two homers and six RBI, the last four of them via a grand slam off Greg Maddux.

Clark won NLCS MVP honors by going 13-for-20 with six extra-base hits and eight RBI, helping the Giants to their first pennant since 1962. Alas, he cooled off in the earthquake-marred World Series, going 4-for-16 without an RBI as the Giants were swept by the A’s.

After a subpar 1993 season, Clark departed for free agency and inked a five-year, $30 million deal with the Rangers. The move prevented Palmeiro, also a free agent, from returning to Texas, which led him to call his ex-teammate “a lowlife” before recanting. Clark hit .329/.431/.501 with 13 homers and a 141 OPS+ during the strike-shortened 1994 season, in which the Rangers somehow finished atop the four-team AL West despite a 52-62 record. In four more seasons in hitter-friendly Texas, he remained productive (120 OPS+) while helping the Rangers to two more division titles, but struggled to stay healthy, averaging 125 games a year and topping 20 homers just once. After the 1998 season, he effectively swapped places with Palmeiro, signing a two-year, $11 million contract with the Orioles while Palmeiro, who had signed with Baltimore when Clark usurped his spot, returned to Texas on a five-year deal.

That aging Orioles club, which also included Surhoff and Today’s Game ballot-mates Harold Baines and Albert Belle — not to mention 38-year-old Cal Ripken Jr. — weren’t much fun. They went 78-84 in 1999 while Clark was limited to 77 games by a left thumb fracture and surgery to remove bone chips in his left elbow. After a hot four months in 2000 (.301/.413/.473), the nowhere-bound O’s shipped him to the Cardinals at the July 31 trade deadline. In St. Louis, he peeled off one of the greatest post-deadline performances: .345/.426/.655 with 12 homers — one in each of his first four games with his new team, starting with a pinch-homer — and 2.1 WAR in 51 games while filling in for an injured Mark McGwire. The Cardinals won the NL Central and advanced to the NLCS, but fell in five games despite Clark’s .412/.500/.706 performance in 20 PA.

Though he finished the season with a 145 OPS+ and 3.9 WAR, and had interest from the Cardinals to return, Clark opted to retire to spend time with his family, including young son Trey, who had been diagnosed with Pervasive Development Disorder, a form of autism. By retiring when he did, he finished with career totals unremarkable in a Hall of Fame context; of the 21 enshrined first basemen, only five had fewer hits, and three of them (Killebrew, Hank Greenberg, and Johnny Mize) had far more homers. In terms of the advanced stats, Clark ranked among his league’s top 10 in WAR just three times and ranks 30th in peak score at the position, ahead of just four enshrinees and behind other non-Hall of Famers such as Keith Hernandez (41.3), John Olerud (39.0), and Mark Teixeira (38.0). He’s 26th in JAWS, ahead of just six Hall of Famers including Tony Perez (45.3) and Orlando Cepeda (42.4) but again behind Hernandez (50.8), Olerud (48.6), and Jason Giambi (46.34). While a very good player, he’s just not strong enough to merit election.

We hoped you liked reading Thrills Provided by Carter and Clark Not Enough for Today’s Game Ballot by Jay Jaffe!

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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12 Comments on "Thrills Provided by Carter and Clark Not Enough for Today’s Game Ballot"

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bosoxforlife
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bosoxforlife

Two more members of the Hall of the Very Good, now can we talk about Dwight Evans.

fordhamflash
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fordhamflash

Joe Carter wasn’t even Very Good. He was a hair above mediocre

slamcactus
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slamcactus

That’s a bit harsh. In today’s game he probably retires/fails to land a job after that awful ’95 season and is remembered fondly as a guy with a few all-star level seasons who fell off a cliff at 35. Still not a HOFer, but a fringe member of the hall of very good (especially with those epic walk-off home runs to his name).

fordhamflash
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fordhamflash

He had a .771 OPS in a career that was mostly played during the steroid era. His wRC+ is 5% above league average

toddball
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Member
toddball

To be fair, his offensive prime was just prior to the “steroid era”. That being said, yes, he was merely a good, solid outfielder.

steex
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steex

Of course, if you’re clean, you might expect to be a bit lower compared to a juiced league average than you would be compared to everyone else clean.

slamcactus
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slamcactus

When do you think the steroid era began? I’ve always generally thought of it as starting post-strike in 1995 (not that there weren’t steroids before then, but that’s the time when HR figures went bonkers and HOF voters consider performance to be suspicious). Carter was 35 and already washed up at that point. Push it a few years earlier and the point is the same – Carter turned 30 in 1990. I’m not sure many people think of Carter’s peak seasons from ’86-’90 as included in the steroid era. The 80s and early 90s certainly aren’t thought of as a period of massively inflated offense.

This is a guy who had a short peak that included a couple of 4-win seasons and a couple more 2-3 win seasons. He’s overrated because he hit dingers at a time when dingers were down across the league, but I don’t think “a hair above mediocre” is quite fair to describe that career.

slamcactus
Member
slamcactus

Also, call me old fashioned, but I think big moments matter at least a little bit when we think back on careers in retrospect (in a way they don’t matter in the context of a lot of the discussion that happens on this site, which involves how to value players moving forward).

steelehere
Member
steelehere

I get your point but the Hall of Very Good is a very tired cliche. It’s about as bad as any fanbase putting the word “Nation” after it.