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100 Greatest Phillies

100 Greatest Phillies: 2 – Steve Carlton

Steve Carlton
Starting Pitcher

Career w/Phillies: 3697.1 IP / 241-161 / 3.09 ERA / 3,031 K

There are pitchers. There are Hall of Fame pitchers. And then there’s Steve Carlton.

Unquestionably one of the select few legends in pitching history, Carlton racked up awards, placed high on leaderboards and generally outclassed every hitter he faced during his career. Fifteen seasons of that career came as a Philadelphia Phillie.

How they found him is as much legend as the man himself: The Cardinals had trouble negotiating a contract for Carlton, so they angrily traded him to the Phils for their young ace, Rick Wise. While Wise would remain a solid starter for another decade, Carlton would become arguably his era’s best pitcher. Without a doubt, the Phils won a bounty.

The bounty began in Carlton’s first season, maybe … just maybe … the greatest single pitching season in baseball history. Ladies and gentlemen, the numbers:

346.1 IP, 27-10, 310 K, 87 BB, 1.97 ERA. Cy Young award. All-star berth. And of course, the distinction of having the highest percentage of his team’s wins in one season. The Phils won 59 games. In the games Carlton lost, not once could the Phils score more than four runs. It’s likely he could’ve finished the season with something like a 32-5 record. Just saying.

1972 must’ve taken a toll on Carlton because 1973 was his worst season until 1986. That year he went just 13-20 with a 3.90 ERA. Not terrible at all, but by Carlton’s standards, not good. From there he rattled off a slew of solid campaigns: 16-13, 3.22 in 1974; 15-14, 3.56 in 1975; 20-7, 3.13 in 1976. That year, the first Phillies playoff appearance since 1950, was the first indicator of Carlton’s burgeoning Hall of Fame rally. By this point he had captured the attention of Pirates all-world slugger Willie Stargell, who famously said “Hitting him is like trying to drink coffee with a fork.”

That’s because of Carlton’s specialty pitch: the slider. By 1976 it had become weapon No. 1 in Lefty’s arsenal. He threw it up, it turned down. It looked like a fastball, it was nothing of the sort. Hitters hated it. Fans loved it. Carlton honed his craft so well that by the late 1970s, he simply dominated on the mound. There was no setback.

In 1977 Carlton rolled off his second Cy Young campaign, finishing 23-10 with a 2.64 ERA. The 1978 and ’79 seasons seemed like off years, yet he still combined for a 34-24 record with an ERA hovering in the 3.20 range.

Then Lefty punched right back in 1980. As he entered the 35th year of his life, Carlton became a master pitcher, fooling hitters while coldly sizing them down. He finished the season 24-9 with a 2.34 ERA, earning his third Cy Young award. He then went 3-0 in the postseason, helping to lead the Phillies to their first world championship.

The swagger continued in 1981, as Carlton finished the strike-shortened season with a 13-4 record. He wouldn’t have the same postseason success against the Montreal Expos in the division series, losing both games he started. But 1982 was a fine season, as Carlton went 23-11 with a 3.10 ERA, earning his fourth Cy Young. Then a record, Carlton would be passed by Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens in that statistic.

From there Carlton’s career would slowly skid to a halt. He went 15-16 for a pennant-winning 1983 team, then 13-7 for a poor 1984 team. A horrendous offense made him 1-8 in an injury-shortened 1985, and the arm completely fell off in ’86, as Carlton started the season with a 6.18 ERA for the Phillies. Reluctantly, the Phils released Lefty, who thought he could still hang on. He signed with the Giants, then retired. Then he came back with the White Sox to finish 1986. He came back in ’87 with the Indians, then was released, before signing with the Twins, who left him off their postseason roster. He remained with the Twins in ’88 and tried to come back for ’89, but nobody would take him.

Most try to erase the final seasons of Carlton’s career, but whatever the case, his legacy is firm. He finished with 4,136 strikeouts, fourth all time. He also recorded 329 wins, 11th all time. He’s the franchise leader in almost every pitching category. Among lefties, he’s usually mentioned in the first breath. With the nickname Lefty, how could he not? He became a Hall of Famer in 1994, earning one of the highest election votes ever. Very guarded, very quiet, very focused, Steve Carlton – more than anything – was just plain legendary.

Comment: What else can be said about Lefty? Could be one of the five greatest pitchers in baseball history. Dominant for more than a full decade. Record-breaking. Well deserved of the honor of second-greatest Phillie of all time.

And you all know No. 1.

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