Career Retrospective: Gary Carter
As everyone has heard by now, Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter died of brain cancer on February 16th. Let's take a look at what Carter was like as a prospect, and how his career looks in context with other great catchers.
Gary Carter grew up playing football (quarterback) and baseball (mostly shortstop), attending high school in Fullerton, California. He was expected to attend college at UCLA and was primarily seen as a football guy, but the Montreal Expos drafted him in the third round in 1972 and convinced him to sign.
At this point, he was renowned for arm strength and overall athleticism. He hit .239/.316/.366 in 18 games of rookie ball in the Gulf Coast League, but the Expos were impressed enough to move him to High-A in August, where he hit .320/.460/.440 in 20 games for West Palm Beach. He didn't show a lot of power, but he did demonstrate good strike zone judgment (13 walks, nine strikeouts in 50 at-bats) and was certainly impressive against much older competition.
Nowadays, a player with a similar profile (great athlete, third round pick, power potential, strong arm, holds his own against High-A pitching two months out of high school) would be at least a Grade B prospect. The main uncertainty was his position, but the Expos decided to make him a catcher.
The Expos sent Carter directly to Double-A to begin 1973, quite a jump for a 19-year-old. He hit .253/.347/.396 in 130 games for Quebec City, hitting 15 homers and drawing 63 walks. A late trial in Triple-A resulted in a 7-for-25 (.280) line with one walk and two doubles. He split his playing time that year between catcher and first base. A similar player now, holding his own and showing power against advanced minor league pitching at age 19, would be at least a Grade B+ depending on the exact scouting reports.
Playing full-time for Triple-A Memphis in 1974, Carter hit .268/.354/.488 with 23 homers, 59 walks, and just 75 strikeouts in 441 at-bats. He was promoted to the majors and hit .407/.414/.593 in nine games (11-for-27 with a homer, a walk, and two strikeouts), establishing himself as a leading rookie entering 1975. He would certainly have been at least a Grade A- prospect and probably a straight A given his age and performance.
Used as an outfielder/catcher in 1975, Carter hit .270/.360/.416 with 17 homers and 72 walks for the Expos. He slumped in 1976 (.219/.287/.309) and played just 91 games due to a broken finger, but he returned to full strength and regular catching duty in 1977, hitting .284/.356/.525 with 31 homers at age 22 and fully establishing himself as one of the young stars of the game.
Carter ended up playing a 19-year career with the Expos, Mets, Giants, and Dodgers, with a .262/.335/.439 line in 2296 games. He was named to 11 All-Star games. His Sim Score list of "most similar" players is a Who's Who of excellent catchers: Johnny Bench, Lance Parrish, Carlton Fisk, Yogi Berra, Jorge Posada, and Ted Simmons are his top comps. By Fangraphs WAR, Carter was the fourth-best catcher of all time, the ranking going Bench (81.6), Fisk (74.4), Ivan Rodriguez (73.4), Carter (72.5), Berra (71.4), and Joe Torre (70.8).