The second-winningest lefthander of all time behind Warren Spahn, Carlton is also second on the all-time strikeout list behind Nolan Ryan. He was the first pitcher ever to win four Cy Young Awards, and had six 20-win seasons.
When he had his first tryouts in 1963, scouts questioned whether he could throw hard enough to make the ML, but Carlton, a dedicated worker at conditioning throughout his career, built himself up with weights and his fastball became his strikeout pitch. He also had a decent curveball with a sharp downward drop, and a sneaky pickoff move that tested the limits of the balk rule. In 1969, he began to develop his slider, a pitch that broke down and in to righthanded batters, and it became a devastating complement to his fastball in mid-career. Carlton was also dangerous at the plate, with a .201 career average and 13 HR.
Carlton had a respectable 1967 season (14-9, 2.98) to help the Cardinals win the WS, but began to earn national recognition in 1969. He started and won the All-Star Game and set a since-broken ML record with 19 strikeouts against the Mets on September 15. Ironically, he lost the game 4-3 on a pair of home runs by Ron Swoboda.
In 1970, a contract dispute kept him out of spring training, and he had trouble controlling his breaking pitches all season and lost 19 games. He went back to his fastball more the following year and won 20 games for the first time.
Carlton asked for a $10,000 raise to $65,000 in that off-season and the Cardinals’ management balked. Instead, they traded him to the Phillies for Rick Wise, a deal that will always be one of the most notorious in Cardinals history. Carlton was phenomenal in 1972, pitching as well for an entire season as any pitcher ever. He went 27-10 for a Phillies club that won only 59 games. He led the league in wins, ERA (1.97), strikeouts (310, only the second lefthander ever to reach 300), and complete games, and enjoyed a 15-game winning streak. Of course, he won his first Cy Young Award.
He was less impressive in the three seasons that followed, partly due to occasional soreness in his left elbow. Two changes helped him regain his form in 1976. He adjusted his stance on the rubber, which improved his control, and he began pitching to his old friend and former Cardinal batterymate, Tim McCarver, though Bob Boone was the Phillies regular catcher. Carlton’s slider was crackling, and his combination of power and finesse gave him 20 victories in 1976. The Phillies won their first NL East title. In 1977, he led the NL in wins (23-10) for the second time and the Phillies won another division title.
By this time, Carlton was working out with Phillies conditioning coach Gus Hoefling up to two hours a day. Always an intense competitor and a private, seemingly unemotional personality, Carlton took umbrage at some items in the Philadelphia newspapers, and in 1978 he stopped talking to the press altogether. He led the league in strikeouts and wins in 1980, and posted a 2.34 ERA, his best since 1972. In the postseason that year, he was nearly flawless, winning once in the LCS and beating the Royals twice in the WS. In 1982 he topped the NL in wins, strikeouts, and shutouts to earn his fourth Cy Young Award.
Carlton began to show signs of wear in 1983, despite leading the league in strikeouts for the fifth time. He began to have trouble completing and winning his starts, and he lost his role as the Phillies’ ace to John Denny. In 1984, at the age of 39, Carlton was 13-7 for a .500 ballclub. But his ERA was up and his strikeout total well down, and he only completed one game. The following year he was only 1-8 after 16 starts before going on the DL. The Phillies asked him to retire in 1986, but Carlton refused and was released. He then broke eight years of silence in the media to voice his reasons and thank the Philadelphia fans for their support. He finished his career in brief, desperate flings with the Giants, White Sox, Indians, and Twins, but his ERA stayed above 5.00.