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 Rod
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 Kirby
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.
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!