Rod Carew and the Plight of the Singles Hitter

Since World War II, only four players have come to bat 6,000 or more times, and managed a career OPS+ of 130 or better while hitting 200 or fewer home runs. These players, Minnie Minoso, Rod Carew, Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn, are rare in that they were able to become great players without ever being a home run threat. Minoso, with at least 2,000 fewer at bats and at least 50 more home runs than the other three is a bit of an outlier and therefore should be dropped, leaving Carew, Boggs and Gwynn. Carew is an extreme case with only 92 home runs in more than 10,000 plate appearances, making him one of only three players since 1900 to meet these criteria. The other two are Sam Crawford, who compensated for his 78 home runs by hitting 287 triples, still a record, and Eddie Collins, who still holds records for most hits, plate appearances and stolen bases for an alumni of an Ivy League university.

Carew, Boggs and Gwynn were the three great singles hitters of the last 60+ years. Obviously, they did more than hit singles, but that is the term used for players who, like them, don’t hit a lot of home runs. The reason there are so few players who meet this criteria is that some who we may think of as great singles hitter leadoff types, like Rickey Henderson, hit for more power than is sometimes remembered. Others, such as Lou Brock, did not produce enough offensive value to be great offensive players, while others, such as Jackie Robinson, had careers that were too short to accumulate enough plate appearances.

As first ballot Hall of Famers who did not play stand out defense or hit many home runs, Boggs, Carew and Gwynn were all unusual players. Most other Hall of Famers from the post-war era who slugged below .460, as these three all did, were either middle infielders, catchers, great defensive players like Brooks Robinson, or hitters like Henderson and Paul Molitor who hit for some power. Molitor, for example, who we do not think of as a power hitter, hit more than twice as many home runs as Carew and roughly 100 more than Gwynn and Boggs.

Today, Carew is less well known than Gwynn or Boggs. Gwynn became the seminal San Diego Padre, appearing in two World Series for that team. Boggs, who like Gwynn played much of his career at a time when many games were televised, played most of his games for the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, appearing in one World Series for each of those two teams. Carew split his time between the Minnesota Twins and California Angels at a time when the Angels were the second team in Southern California despite appearing in the playoffs twice. Carew also never appeared in a World Series.

In addition to splitting his career between two teams, Carew split his career between two positions, playing 1130 games at second base and 1184 at first base. Carew began his career as a second baseman in 1967 and did not play his first game at first base until 1975. He played through the 1985 season, but did not play a game at second after joining the Angels in 1979. This makes Carew harder to place in a historical context. From 1967-1975, he was the American League’s best second baseman. Had Carew spent his whole career at second base, he would probably be on the short list, with Joe Morgan, for the greatest second baseman of the post-war period. Morgan was the better defender and stole more bases, but their OBP (.393 for Carew and .392 for Morgan) and slugging percentages (.429 and .427 respectively) were almost identical.

From from 1976-1985, however, Carew was a first baseman, a position with different offensive expectations. He remained, however, a very good player for much of that time and a great player in 1977 when he hit.388/.449/.570 and won the AL MVP. His .388 batting average that year was the closest anybody had come to .400 since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. Carew’s 1977 season has been overshadowed by Gwynn’s .394 average in a very different offensive context in 1994, and George Brett’s .390 in an injury shortened 1980. Carew’s 10.9 WAR (According to Baseball Reference) season in 1977 was the best in the AL between 1967 (Carl Yastrzemski) and 1982 (Robin Yount) and was a much better season than Jim Rice’s famous 1978 season. Similarly, between 1960 and 1990, the only AL players to accumulate more WAR than Carew were Yastrzemski, Henderson and Brett. Overall, other than 1977, as a first baseman Carew was still an All Star, but no longer the best in a league that included Eddie Murray and, during Carew’s last years, Don Mattingly.

Carew was recognized during his career as a superstar, appearing in 18 consecutive All-Star Games, finishing in the top ten in MVP voting seven times and getting the support of 90% of Hall of Fame voters, his first, and only, year on the ballot. Nonetheless, since he has retired, the circumstances of his career, and the years following it, have helped overshadow Carew as many contemporary fans are unaware of just how unusual and good a player he was.