Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Forty Greatest Philadelphia Phillies of All Time, Part 6: ##1-5

The 2008 World Champion Phillies

We have finally reached the pinnacle: numbers one through five of the greatest Philadelphia Phillies of all time. For previous posts in this series, see here, here, herehere, and here.

5. Robin Roberts (SP, 1948-61)


Robin Roberts is the winningest right-handed pitcher in Phillies history, with 234, and was the National League's premier right-handed starting pitcher in the decade of the 1950s (199 wins, second only to Braves' southpaw Warren Spahn's 202). For decades he was the face of the franchise, and a humble guy to go along with it. The possessor of a fine fastball and curve, and even finer stamina and heart, Roberts emerged in 1949 as a 22 year-old when he won 15 games and posted a 3.69 ERA for the 3rd-place Phils. That was but an appetizer for the next six seasons, during which he won 20 or more games each year, a feat accomplished by only three other pitchers in National League history, viz., Christy Mathewson, Three Fingers Brown, and Ferguson Jenkins. [And that means Pete Alexander, Carl Hubbell, Warren Spahn, Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, and Steve Carlton never did it, not to mention anyone from more recent generations who appear allergic to pitching on less than 4 days' rest.]. He began his streak with the Whiz Kids in 1950 when, holding a one game lead over Brooklyn on the season's final day, he went the distance in a pennant-clinching, 10-inning 4-1 victory over the Dodgers at Ebbets Field. Over those six years, he posted a record of 138-78, starting 232 games and completing an amazing 161 of them. His best season came in '52, when he posted a 28-7 record and career-best 2.59 ERA (141 ERA+). He ended up leading the league in complete games 5 times, innings pitched 5 times, wins 4 times, strikeouts twice, and WHIP once. His career 69.7 WAR leads all Phillies pitchers. He was traded by the Phils to the Orioles after an abysmal 1961 season when, at the age of 34, he posted a 1-10 record and 5.85 ERA. But he rebounded nicely playing in the American League, posting three consecutive winning seasons. For his career, he posted a 286-245 record and 3.41 ERA. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1976.

4. Ed Delahanty (OF-2B-1B, 1888-89, 1891-1901)

"Big Ed" Delahanty is not merely the greatest hitter to play in a Phillies uniform, he is one of the preeminent hitters the game has ever known. In his first stint in Philadelphia, no one could have guessed this, as he hit .228 and .293 and slugged .293 and .370 in 536 at bats in 1888-89. After defecting to his hometown Cleveland Infants (!) of the new Players League in 1890, he returned to Philadelphia in '91, but again showed little potential, batting only .243 with a .339 slugging percentage and 85 OPS+. But the following year, 1892, marked a sea change from Delahanty's former mediocrity. That year, he batted .306, drove in 91 runs, and led the league in both triples (21) and slugging (.495), with a stellar OPS+ of 156. Over the next ten years, nine of them at the Baker Bowl, he would prove himself to be baseball's best hitter. In '93, Big Ed scored 145 runs, drove in a league-leading 146, hit 35 doubles, 18 triples, a league-leading 19 homers, batted .368, and led the league in slugging with a .583 mark (164 OPS+). In each of the next two years he hit .404, "slipping" to a mere .397 in 1896, a year in which he led the National League in doubles (44), homers (13), RBIs (126), slugging (.631), and OPS+ (190). Furthermore, on July 13 that summer, he became only the second player to hit 4 home runs in a game, this time in a losing cause against the Chicago Colts. Delahanty had perhaps his best year in 1899, when he led the league with 238 hits, 55 doubles, 137 RBIs, a .410 batting average, a .582 slugging percentage, and a 189 OPS+. After two more seasons in which he batted .323 and .354, Delahanty once again defected, this time to the Washington Senators of the fledgling American League, for who he would hit a league-leading .376 in 1902. But it was Big Ed's last hurrah. On July 2 the following season, he was kicked off a train for drunk and disorderly conduct and took off after the train on the International Bridge connecting Buffalo with Fort Erie, Canada. What happened next is murky, but the outcome is clear: Delahanty found himself in the Niagara River and ultimately met his demise going over Niagara Falls. Thus ended the career of a .346 lifetime hitter, the fifth-highest mark in Major League history. In his years for the Phillies, Delahanty had 2212 hits, 442 doubles, 158 triples, 87 home runs, 1368 runs, 1288 RBIs, 411 stolen bases, a .348 batting average, a .508 slugging percentage, and a cumulative 153 OPS+. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945.

3. Steve Carlton (SP, 1972-86)

"Lefty" is the single greatest pitcher I have ever seen in a Phillies uniform, and it is not even close. Combining a healthy fastball with a slow curve and devastating slider which, when working, came as close to being unhittable as any pitch I have ever seen, Carlton was as effective on the mound as he was inscrutable off it. He came to the Phillies in 1972 in a trade with the St. Louis Cardinals for Rick Wise. Even though Carlton had won 20 games in '71 and posted a 2.17 ERA along with 17 wins in '69, Phillies fans (including yours truly) were somewhat upset with the trade initially, considering the fact that Wise had won 17 games, posted a 2.88 ERA, and had no-hit the Cincinnati Reds on June 23, 1971, a game in which he also blasted two home runs. On May 30 of that season, our attitude appeared somewhat justified, as Carlton lost for the second time in ten days to the New York Mets, dropping his record to 5-6. But he would not lose again until he lost an 11-inning complete game, 2-1, to the Atlanta Braves on August 21—a span of 18 games, during which he won 15 consecutive decisions, climaxing with his 20th victory on August 17 against the Reds at Veterans Stadium, a game I vividly remember listening to on a small bedroom radio while on holiday in Wildwood, New Jersey. Carlton was particularly dominating in a 5-game stretch between July 23 and August 9, during which he pitched 5 complete games and allowed zero earned runs (were it not for an unearned run scored on August 1 by virtue of a John Bateman passed ball, Carlton would have pitched 5 consecutive shutouts). In those 45 innings, Lefty allowed a mere 22 hits, walked only 5, and struck out 37. At season's end, Carlton's record stood at 27-10—for a team that finished 59-97—with a 1.97 ERA (182 ERA+), 30 complete games, and 310 strikeouts in 346.1 innings. For that he was awarded the first of his then-record 4 Cy Young Awards (he also won in '77, '80, and '82). In my lifetime I consider this season to rank with Bob Gibson's 1968 and Pedro Martinez's 1999 and 2000 as among the greatest seasonal pitching performances in Major League Baseball. Carlton, of course, was not done. He would go on to win 20 or more games 4 more times, lead the league in complete games two more times, innings 4 more times, and strikeouts four times. The best of his remaining seasons was 1980, the Phils' first World Series championship team. That year he pitched 304 innings, had 13 complete games, struck out 286, had a record of 24-9, an ERA of 2.34 (ERA+ of 162), and a WAR of 10.2. In the postseason, he was 1-0 with a 2.19 ERA against Houston in the NLCS, and was 2-0 with a 2.40 ERA against Kansas City in the World Series, including a victory in the decisive game 6. 

Carlton is first on the Phillies' all-time list with 241 victories, 499 games started, and 3031 strikeouts; second in WAR with 64.6, in innings pitched with 3697.1, and in shutouts with 39; and third with 135 complete games. For his major league career he ranks 11th all-time with 329 victories, 9th in innings pitched with 5217.2, 14th in shutouts with 55, and 4th in strikeouts with 4136. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1994. Of all the left-handed pitchers who have played in my lifetime, Carlton is better than all but three: Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, and Randy Johnson. But only Carlton will forever be known as "Lefty."

2. Grover Cleveland Alexander (SP, 1911-17, 30)



When I began I fully intended to ensconce Steve Carlton in the second position on my list. But in the end, I just couldn't do it. Grover Cleveland "Old Pete" Alexander was simply too good—staggeringly good, as any who delve deeply into his years for the Phillies in the 1910s will quickly learn. As a kid I was well-taught by my father about the great players of the first half of the 20th century. From a child I knew that Alexander had won 373 games, third behind Cy Young and Walter Johnson on the all-time list. But until I actually studied his career, that big 373 was just a number—a big one, to be sure, but a bland statistic nonetheless. Old Pete came up to the Phillies at the relatively late (for that era; would that earlier call-ups were still the rule today in Philadelphia) age of 24. In his rookie year, 1911, Alexander promptly led the league with 28 wins, 367 innings, 31 complete games, and 7 shutouts, while posting a fine 2.57 ERA. The next year he regressed slightly, but still went 19-17 with a 2.81 ERA, and led the league in both innings (310.1) and strikeouts (195). Amazingly, this would prove to be the only year Pete failed to win as many as 20 games in his first 7 years in Philadelphia. In 1913 and 1914 he went 22-8 and 27-15, leading the league in wins the latter season. But it was his final 3 years in Philly that stand among the most remarkable stretches of pitching in the history of the game. In the Phils' pennant-winning 1915 campaign, Alexander went 31-10 with a staggeringly low, league-leading ERA of 1.22 (ERA+ of 228!). He also led the league that season in innings (376.1), complete games (36), shutouts (12), and strikeouts (241). In '16 he went 33-12 with a league-leading 1.55 ERA (172 ERA+), 389 innings, 38 complete games, 16 (!) shutouts, and a league-leading 167 strikeouts. Finally, in 1917, he won 30 games for the 3rd successive campaign (30-13) and once again led the league in ERA (1.83), innings (388), complete games (34), shutouts (8), and strikeouts (200). For three consecutive years he had won the league's unofficial triple crown of pitching. In his 7 years in Philly, he had posted a 190-91 record and a 2.18 ERA, leading the league in wins 4 times, ERA 3 times, complete games 5 times, shutouts 5 times, and strikeouts 5 times. Yet in 1918, in a move all too historically characteristic of Philadelphia's sports owners, the Phils shipped Alexander to the Cubs because, as owner William Baker confessed, he "needed the money." In '18, Alexander was sent to France to serve in the Army during WWI. When he returned in '19, he continued to excel, leading the NL in ERA his first two seasons in the Windy City and leading the league with 27 wins in 1920. Yet age (he was already 33 in 1920) and drink began to catch up with him, and though he remained an above-average pitcher through 1929, he never again regained the dominance he had while in the City of Brotherly Love. Alexander's career numbers (373-208, 2.56 ERA [131 ERA+], 437 complete games, 90 shutouts, 2198 strikeouts) continue to boggle the mind. One wonders what numbers he could have posted had he started his career earlier and taken better care of himself. Old Pete was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1938.

1. Mike Schmidt (3B, 1972-89)


Not many balls got between
these two guys

The question isn't whether or not Michael Jack Schmidt is the greatest player ever to play for the Phillies. The question is how high in the pantheon of greatest all-time Major League players Schmidt should be placed. Well, he was certainly no Ruth, Mays, Cobb, Gehrig, Williams, or Mantle. However, what he was, beyond all doubt, was the greatest 3rd baseman the game has ever seen. His offensive capabilities set him apart from Brooks Robinson; his speed and defensive prowess (10 Gold Glove awards on his resume) set him apart from Eddie Mathews; his lethal power set him apart from George Brett. The only thing that held him back, at least temporarily, was his reserved and somewhat prickly temperament which, at least early in his career, was the occasion of some conflict with the demanding and discerning Philly fan base. As he himself admitted in his memorable Hall of Fame induction speech—I can still hear it with the ears of my mind like it were yesterday—it was the acquisition of Pete Rose in 1979 that changed all that and set the table for both Schmitty's best seasons and the team's first World Series title in 1980, for which Schmidt and Steve Carlton were almost entirely responsible. Schmidt's career started inauspiciously. As a 23 year-old rookie on a miserable last-place Phillies' team in 1973, he hit a measly .196, striking out a ghastly 136 times in a mere 367 at bats. But the 18 home runs he hit provided a glimpse of things to come (a glimpse few of us in the stands saw at the time). 1974, however was a revelation, as the Phils dramatically improved—they stayed above .500 into late August—powered by newly acquired Dave Cash, a resurgent Willie Montanez and, above all, Schmidt's MVP-caliber play. Schmidt hit .282, scored 108 runs, drove in 116, walked 106 times (the first of 7 times he would walk more than 100 times), and led the league with 36 homers and a .546 slugging percentage. 1974 proved to be the first of Schmidt's National League-record 8 home run titles, second only to Babe Ruth's 12 titles in baseball history. [To put it into perspective, Schmidt's 8 titles are equal to the total titles won by Willie Mays and Henry Aaron combined.] He hit 38 homers in each of his next three seasons, showing the admirable virtue of consistency. And on 17 April 1976 he had his best game, becoming the 10th player, and the first since Mays in 1961, to hit 4 homers in a single game, in an 18-16 victory over the Cubs in the appropriately called Windy City. After a sub-par 1978 season, in which he hit a mere 21 homers and batted .251, the Phils acquired Rose, and Schmidt was never the same. In '79 he rebounded to hit 45 homers and drive in 114 runs, his highest total in 5 years. But it was in 1980 that Schmidt finally reached his potential,as he hit a league-leading 48 homers and 121 RBIs, batted .286 and led the league with a .624 slugging percentage and a 171 OPS+ (the first of 5 consecutive seasons he would lead the league in this barometer of offensive effectiveness). And it was his game-winning, 11th inning homer off Stan Bahnsen on 4 October at Olympic Stadium in Montreal in the season's 161st game that secured the Phillies' divisional title over the upstart Expos. [I can still hear the late Andy Musser's call, "He buried it."] Not surprisingly, Schmidt batted .381 with 2 homers and 7 RBIs against the Royals in the World Series to earn the MVP award for the series. After the season, Michael Jack was awarded, to no one's surprise, the first of his 3 National League MVP awards, an honor he would receive again in '81, in which he had his finest season. In that odd, strike-divided 107 game season, Schmidt led the league with 78 runs, 31 homers, 91 RBIs, 73 walks, a .435 OBP, a .644 slugging percentage, and a 198 OPS+, while batting a career-high .316. 

(image courtesy of the National Hall of Fame Library)
Indeed, while he never again would have such a monumental season, Schmidt continued to play at a high level through 1987, leading the league 3 more times in homers, 2 times in RBIs, walks, slugging and OBP, and 4 more times in OPS+, winning his third and final MVP in 1986 at the advanced age of 36. After a final top-notch season in '87, during which he hit his 500th career home run, Schmidt tore his rotator cuff and was never the same. After a little more than a year of subpar production, Schmidt retired tearfully in May of 1989 on the road in California, having gone 5-57 with no extra base hits in his previous 18 games. He finished his career with 1506 runs, 2234 hits, 548 home runs (15th on the all-time list, though 9th among those not tainted with the steroid scandal), 1507 RBIs, a .267 batting average, .380 OBP, .527 slugging percentage, 147 OPS+, and a team record 106.5 WAR (19th all time in Major League history for position players). Fittingly, he was elected into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibilty in 1995, to be inducted along with his good friend Rich Ashburn in front of a 28,000-strong sea of tens of thousands of red-clad, teary-eyed Philadelphians who made the trek to the storybook village of Cooperstown for the induction ceremony that took place on 30 July that summer. I was one of those fans, and it is a day I will never forget.


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