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Rod Carew or Kirby Puckett: Who Had the Better Career?


Twins Daily Contributor

Both are Minnesota Twins legends. Both are Hall of Famers. But who was better: Rod Carew or Kirby Puckett?

If you look at any ranking of the best Minnesota Twins players of all time, you’re going to find Rod Carew and Kirby Puckett firmly locked into the top five of that list. Both Carew and Puckett were legends whose names will be remembered forever. Today, we will dive into their careers and determine, once and for all, who had the better career.

The Case for Rod581289522_RodCarewAccolades(7).jpg.1c7ff3850d38051cfd5cc3bc48e7a5e8.jpg

The case for Rod Carew having a better overall career than Kirby Puckett starts with his numbers at the plate. Over the course of his career, Carew posted a higher batting average (.328 vs .318) and on-base percentage (.393 vs. .360) than Puckett. Carew’s career batting average ranks 30th all-time, and his seven career batting titles are tied for the fourth most in MLB history. Carew amassed over 3,000 hits in his MLB career, ranking 26th in MLB history. Even when accounting for era, Carew was still the better batter as evidenced by his career OPS+ of 131 compared to Puckett’s 124.

On the bases, Carew also has the edge. Over his 19 year career, Carew amassed 353 stolen bases, nearly triple the number of career steals as Puckett.

Another area where Carew bests Puckett is his longevity. While Puckett’s career was cut short (through no fault of his own), Carew was able to play at an extremely high level for 19 seasons in the Big Leagues.

Additionally, Carew reached a higher individual peak than Puckett ever did, marked by the MVP award that he won in 1977 as a member of the Minnesota Twins. In this season, Carew led all of baseball with a .388 batting average, .449 on-base percentage, and 1.029 OPS. Carew led the majors that season in hits (239), runs (128), and triples (178).

Carew was the standard of consistency during his Major League Baseball career. Carew was an all-star in 18 consecutive seasons, eclipsed a .300 batting average in 15 consecutive seasons, won four consecutive batting titles, and played in at least 140 games in eight consecutive seasons. Carew played for two different franchises, earning all-star appearances and MVP votes with each team.

The Case for Kirby869931329_KirbyPuckettAccolades.png.c6fa9fe4b7e1c59c82ebdc95bcaa8762.png

While Rod Carew bests Kirby Puckett at the plate, Kirby more than held his own on offense. Puckett led the Majors in batting average in 1989 and led baseball in hits on four different occasions and total bases on two occasions. Puckett didn’t break any home run records, but consistently put the ball in play and drove in runs, leading the Majors in RBI in his penultimate season in 1994.

A huge mark in Kirby’s favor over Carew comes in the field where Puckett was a wizard with his glove at one of the most important defensive positions in baseball, centerfield. Over his 10-year career, Puckett earned the Gold Glove award for best center fielder in baseball six times, including four consecutive from 1986-1989. While Carew wasn’t a butcher in the field, he certainly wasn’t dominant and played a position in second base that just doesn’t bring the importance of center field.

Where Kirby absolutely set himself apart from Rod Carew came in his performance in the absolute biggest of moments. Starting off with just clutch performance, Kirby was about as clutch as they come. In high leverage situations over the course of his career, Puckett posted a career OPS of .863 in 1,400 plate appearances compared to Carew’s .823 OPS in 2,095 plate appearances. 

Moving into the postseason numbers, the difference between the two becomes even more stark. Puckett played in four postseason series in his career, winning all four series en route to two World Series titles. In those four playoff series, Puckett amassed a .897 OPS, highlighted by a ridiculous .913 OPS across his world series appearances in 1987 and 1991. Compare that to Carew who was 0-4 in the four playoff series of his career where he hit just .220 with four extra-base hits.

The moment that all Twins fans will remember from Kirby Puckett, and the absolute highlight of a Hall of Fame career was his performance in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series that single-handedly kept the Twins’ playoff hopes alive and sent them to Game 7 where they would eventually win their second title. In this game, Puckett hit a triple in the first inning, robbed Ron Gant of extra-bases in front of the Plexiglass wall in the third inning, and then won the game in the bottom of the 11th inning when he launched a game-winning, walk-off home run in front of the Twins’ faithful. 

The Verdict

Kirby Puckett revitalized an entire generation of Minnesota Twins fans through his "clutchness" and late-game heroics. Puckett’s joy for the game was contagious and his leadership mindset and impact in the community made him a fan favorite for many. Rod Carew, however, had a better career than Kirby.

As previously mentioned, Rod Carew beats out Kirby Puckett in just about every offensive category. Carew similarly has the edge over Puckett in terms of value-added. Over his 19-year career, Carew contributed 72.3 fWAR, 3.81 per season compared to Puckett providing 44.9 fWAR over his 12-year career, 3.74 per season. Carew accumulated more individual hardware with his all-star games, MVP awards, and batting titles.

Whether fair or not, Puckett is hurt by his career being cut short. Only playing in 12 seasons, Puckett just didn’t have the runway to collect the number of accolades that Carew did. It’s entirely possible that if Puckett didn’t contract glaucoma, he would have gone on to have a 20-year career and rack up MVP awards and all-star game appearances, but with only 12 years, he just didn’t do enough to beat out Carew for the better career.

Who do you think had the better overall career between Rod Carew and Kirby Puckett, leave a comment below and join the conversation!


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Great Topic and nicely laid out.  The way in which you framed it really shows the strengths vs the weaknesses (if you can call them weaknesses) of each player.  Yes, Carew had better offensive stats and a longer runway--leading to more WAR.  But I'm going to say Kirby had the better "career."  The weight of those two World Series Championships and the key contributions of Kirby in them are what puts Kirby ahead of Rod for me.  Because what's the point of playing ?  It's to win the World Series right ?  And Puckett did that TWICE.  (As a kid who grew up living and dying with every at bat for Oliva and Carew this is quite difficult for me to choose Puckett over Carew, but, this is just how I feel today as I prepare to go out and shovel some Minnesota SNOW)!!  :)  

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I'm always going to lean towards Kirby for the simple fact that he hooked me on baseball.  I'm also not old enough to realistically remember Carew.

With Kirby, it's always going to be a "what if" conversation.  Perhaps not fair, but it is reality.

Carew's numbers are pretty crazy.  I mean, having a batting title trophy named after you is a pretty sweet gig if you can get it!

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I loved Carew and would hate to choose between them, but the thing that sets them apart was Kirby's determination to win.  His attitude was infectious, he did carry the team.  I was at all the Atlanta Brave games in the WS and Puckett was the center of attention in games six and seven.  So I take clutch Kirby, but not taking Carew hurts!  

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My 2 favorite Twins players. The heroics of Puckett in the 91 World Series does it for me. Trying to compare the 2 is tough. No doubt Carew was magical with the bat. No one in his era was better than him at getting on base. I was also amazed at how many times Rod stole home. The thing that impressed me most about Puckett was the fact he could hit almost any pitch to any part of the field even if it wasn't a good pitch to hit. Had Kirby waited for a better pitch to hit he undoubtably would have walked more and his OBP would have been much higher. If you break down each of their careers only looking at their bats Carew had more seasons but both had 12 really good seasons. Carews numbers in the other 7 seasons were good but they weren't like the other 12 and Pucketts were all really good. 

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Nice article, 2 different but great players in their own right. Carew was a better hitter, base runner and baseball ambassador but Puckett had more power, better defense and more intensity. I pick Carew because of his longevity, breaking the home stealing record and his loyalty to Oliva.

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1 hour ago, mikelink45 said:

I loved Carew and would hate to choose between them, but the thing that sets them apart was Kirby's determination to win.  His attitude was infectious, he did carry the team.  I was at all the Atlanta Brave games in the WS and Puckett was the center of attention in games six and seven.  So I take clutch Kirby, but not taking Carew hurts!  

You’re right on Game 6 in 1991.  However, as much as I appreciate all things Kirby Puckett for the Twins, he was NOT the center of attention in Game 7.  That designation goes to Jack Morris.  
Rodney had the greater overall career due to longevity - Kirby’s years with the Twins we’re better than Rodney’s. 

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Both spent 12 years with the Twins, so let's use those splits:

Carew   - .334/.393/.448 12x AS, ROY, MVP, 63.8 bWAR 

Puckett - .318/.360/.477  10x AS, 6x GG, 51.2 bWAR, 2x WS Champ, 1x WS MVP

Then let's take their age 26-32 season (arguably the best 7 years of each of their careers):

Carew   - .350/.414/.468   7x AS, MVP, 49.2 bWAR

Puckett - .329/.368/.498  7x AS, 6x GG, 36.8 bWAR, 2x WS Champ, 1x WS MVP

Carew never won a GG but fielding metrics didn't hate him at either 1B or 2B.

Puckett won 10 GG but fielding metrics don't like him very much, though we remember the big plays (kind of like Jeter)

If I had the #1 overall draft pick and these were my two choices (knowing these would be their stats), I would pick Carew. But I might also just flip a coin because you couldn't go wrong choosing either...

 

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5 minutes ago, Brock Beauchamp said:

Carew was better and I don’t think it’s a close contest. Puckett was barely above average as a hitter outside the Metrodome. Put Rod on that turf and he hits .400. Hell, he damned near hit .400 *without* turf. 

Give Carew the shifts that are used now and he would also hit 400.  You have an interesting take, but all players reflect their stadiums.  Mel Ott does not get all his HRs if he has a different home field.  Coors field provides benefits, but again, it is their stadium and if they take advantage of that they should not be thought of as less of a player.  Does the Green Monster diminish Red Sox players?  SI stadiums ranked

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Like trying to compare players from different eras, it's tough to say one was better than the other. Each had greatness in certain aspects of the game. I'll say it's a tie though I might pick Carew over Kirby if I was starting a team since there are more center fielders better than Kirby than there are second basemen better than Rod. But I'd like to have them both.

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2 hours ago, mikelink45 said:

Give Carew the shifts that are used now and he would also hit 400.  You have an interesting take, but all players reflect their stadiums.  Mel Ott does not get all his HRs if he has a different home field.  Coors field provides benefits, but again, it is their stadium and if they take advantage of that they should not be thought of as less of a player.  Does the Green Monster diminish Red Sox players?  SI stadiums ranked

If I’m comparing two players, yeah, I’m gonna evaluate whether the Green Monster gave one player an advantage the other didn’t have. If we don’t make an attempt to factor in individual advantages and disadvantages, there’s little point in comparing players at all. 

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Great analysis, Matthew.  This question is kind of like asking me which is a better car, a BMW or a Mercedes.  Both of these players are hall of fame guys who were elite players.  That being said, I think I give an ever so slight edge to Puckett as he was a more inspirational personality than Carew and I think did a little bit better job raising the level of play and energy of those around him.  Remember when he told his teammates before game six in 1991, "get on my back tomorrow, boys, I'm going to take us home."  He did take them home.  He was a remarkable leader. 

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A great article Matt, and well thought out and debated. But I think we have to define what is meant by "career" in this debate.

Even if we ignore the greater longevity of Carew...and mnfireman did an interesting 12yr breakdown between the two...his numbers are just better than Puckett's. And then you factor in similar accolades PLUS the longevity and I'd have to say Carew was better.

But if we talk about "career" as reaching the mountain top in the sport and individual accomplishment...despite it still being a team game...then Puckett had the better career as he reached and won the WS twice. So in that sense he had the better "career" by reaching that pinnacle.

They are both outstanding ballplayers to say the least.

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Good points by mnfireman. Kirby had highlights at the wall, but I never saw him lay out or dive for a ball.  

Can't blame him since the ground was concrete, but he never did it on grass field either.  

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I'd call it a tie.

Yes, Kirby got the rings, but Rod got the batting titles. They were both best at their position for a long time.

But Kirby never had to play for Calvin Griffith.

Kirby was the first guy to break the 3 million a year barrier. He was valued by management, and had a better team to play with than Rod.

Rod got traded because Griffith wouldn't pay him, and the guy would be an All-Star the next 6 seasons in Anaheim.

Pohlads were cheap, but not Calvin Griffith penny-pinching cheap. They went out an got a Blyleven, or a Morris, and put their teams over the hump. Calvin would shed stars once they became too pricey, replace them with our favorite user name, Hosken Bombo Disco, although Disco was really Willie Norwood. Hell, he even dumped Killebrew.

Impossible to compare really.

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