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Shilling for Schilling

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Curt Schilling recently announced his retirement from baseball. Schilling missed 2008 due to injury, and it was looking less and less likely that he would be able to return in 2009. So at the age of 42, he’s hanging it up. I personally think Curt is a future Hall-of-Famer, but I admit that with his low career win total (216) and obnoxious personality, it will be tough to convince you.

Let me try:

Even though I do believe in Schilling’s Hall of Fame case, I have to admit that he’s on the bubble. Because he was a late bloomer — his big steps forward as a pitcher came at ages 25, 30 and 34 — Schilling didn’t amass big totals in counting stats. His 216 wins are very good, but they’re no ticket to Cooperstown. David Wells retired with 239 wins, and Kevin Brown finished at 211. Neither of them is likely to get the 75% of votes needed for induction.

What makes the difference with Schilling, though, is that he was a better pitcher than wins alone would indicate. Just looking at a pitcher’s win total can be deceiving; was Don Sutton (324) really better than Tom Seaver (311)? No. You have to look deeper.

Two things are required to make a Hall of Fame case: Quality and quantity. Quality means that, at their best, the candidate played at an elite level. This usually means winning the Cy Young or MVP, although that’s not absolutely necessary for induction. Quantity means you have to keep up your level of production over a significant period of time. If quality were all it took to make it to the Hall, then Dwight Gooden, Orel Hershiser, “Sudden” Sam McDowell and Roger Maris would all be in. All were brilliant at their peak, but they couldn’t sustain that quality over the years. That’s where the counting stats like hits, wins, home runs and strikeouts come in.

But quantity alone can be deceiving. Refer to the Sutton/Seaver comparison above; Seaver was a great pitcher for a long time, but Sutton was a very good pitcher for a very long time. You have to balance the two.

Let’s start with quality. How often did Schilling lead the league, and how many awards did he win? Schilling never won the Cy Young Award, and this is something that may be held against him. But the only reason Schilling didn’t win a Cy is because he was stuck in the same league (and on the same team) with a guy pitching even better than he was. Schilling shouldn’t be punished for being second-best to Randy Johnson, any more than you should punish Don Drysdale or Lou Gehrig. Schilling finished 2nd in Cy Young voting three times; that’s pretty darn good.

Schilling made the All-Star team six times and started the game twice. He led the league in wins twice and finished in the top ten 10 times. He never led the league in ERA, but finished in the top 10 nine times. He led the league in innings pitched twice, twice in strikeouts and four times in complete games. It should also be noted that he led the league in strikeout-to-walk ratio five times, and he was the leader among all active pitchers when he retired.

Schilling’s career ERA is 3.46. That’s good, but where does it rank historically? Well, if you look at the best ERAs in history, you’re going to get a bunch of players from the 19th century or the deadball era.

Enter ERA+. ERA+ shows ERA as compared to the rest of the league, and it also accounts for a pitcher’s home ballpark. Schilling’s ERA+ is 127; that means that his ERA was 27% better than league average, with adjustment for his home ballparks. Schilling’s ERA+ ties him for 43rd all-time. That doesn’t sound impressive until you consider that there are about 64 pitchers in the Hall of Fame. So Schilling seems to make the grade. Plus, the leader list referred to above includes several relief pitchers who didn’t log the innings Schilling did. Among just starting pitchers, Schilling is tied for 33rd all-time. BUT WAIT — the list also includes several young, active players like Johan Santana, whose ERA+ is only going to decline as they get older. Excluding those active players brings Schilling up to a 28th-place tie. According to ERA+, Schilling is not only a Hall-of-Famer, but is in the top half of Hall-of-Famers.

Finally, I have to mention Schilling’s excellent strikeout totals. Strikeouts tell you more about a pitcher even than wins; strikeouts occur independent of the offense and the defense and reflects solely on the pitcher and the batter. Schilling struck out at least 180 batters nine times in his career. He struck out at least 200 five times. And, most importantly, Curt Schilling struck out 300 or more batters in three separate seasons.

To put that in perspective, here is a list of every pitcher with at least three seasons striking out 300 batters in major league history:

  • Tim Keefe*: 1883, 1884, 1888
  • Sandy Koufax*: 1963, 1965, 1966
  • Nolan Ryan*: 1972, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1977, 1989
  • Randy Johnson: 1993, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002
  • Curt Schilling: 1997, 1998, 2002
    * – indicates Hall-of-Famer

Pitchers with just two 300-strikeout seasons: Charley Radbourn*, John Clarkson*, Toad Ramsey, Ed Morris, Amos Rusie*, Rube Waddell*, Walter Johnson*, “Sudden” Sam McDowell, J.R. Richard, Pedro Martinez.

(Ramsey and Morris were pitchers whose numbers were compiled in the fluky American Association in the 1800s. McDowell was a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer before the age of 30, but then injuries hit and he was never the same. Richard was also a big flamethrower who went down at age 30, stricken by a career-ending stroke).

Quick trivia question: In 1997, Pedro Martinez struck out 305, but finished 2nd in the league to Curt Schilling’s 319. Before Pedro, who was the first pitcher in modern history to strike out at least 300 batters without leading the league? Answer at end of article.

Okay, I think we can all agree that Schilling is pretty solid on quality; he was indeed an elite pitcher. What about quantity? Schilling’s 3261 career innings ranks 95th all-time. But this, again, is misleading, because the field is populated almost entirely by pre-war pitchers. We can’t blame Curt Schilling for the changing face of pitcher usage in this sport. So, again, let’s compare him to his contemporaries. I counted up the players who threw most of their innings in the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s, and among them, Schilling shoots all the way up to 18th. He’s just behind guys like John Smoltz, Dennis Eckersley, and Kenny Rogers and just ahead of Kevin Brown, Chuck Finley, and Orel Hershiser. Schilling’s innings total isn’t great, but it’s not as much of a weakness as you’d think at first glance. (Using a similar method to look at the Games Started leaderboard, he ranks 19th among his peers).

Schilling ranks 15th on the all-time strikeout list with 3,116. Everyone ahead of him either is a Hall-of-Famer or is (see the list) likely to be one: Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Bert Blyleven, Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez. (This is debatable; Blyleven’s Veterans Committee votes make me think he’ll get in eventually. Clemens is a whole other story, but that’s unrelated to his quality of play).

If you’ll indulge me for a second, I’d like to look at Schilling’s career with some more advanced statistics. (If you hate math, skip the next paragraphs).

Win Shares was a statistic developed by Bill James. James starts with a team’s wins and then works backward to apportion credit or blame as needed. Schilling finished his career with 254 Win Shares, 70th-best among pitchers. That sounds pretty borderline, but then Win Shares doesn’t account for the changes in pitcher usage; the list is dominated with 19th-century stars, and I don’t think any of us think that Charlie Buffinton (283) was a better pitcher than Juan Marichal (263). If you only consider pitchers who spent most of their career in the 20th century, Schilling ranks 55th. Still on the bubble.

Over at Baseball Prospectus, they’ve come up with a stat called Pitching Runs Above Replacement (PRAR). Simply put, this is how much better a player did compared to a replacement player, i.e. a cheap, easily available guy. It does a better job of adjusting for those 19th-century guys. Schilling is 26th in PRAR, which is great! He’s just behind Early Wynn, Christy Mathewson and Mike Mussina and just ahead of Pedro Martinez and Kid Nichols. Everyone ahead of him on the list is enshrined in Cooperstown except for: Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Bert Blyleven, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. It’s pretty rarified company.

The saber-head stats don’t totally agree, but they seem to support Schilling’s Cooperstown case. So is he still on the bubble? What — if anything — separates him from Kevin Brown, David Wells, Chuck Finley, David Cone and other starting pitchers from his era with similar records?

To me, Schilling ranks above those guys as is. But if you need a tiebreaker, look no further than the postseason. Schilling is 11-2 in postseason competition, with a 2.23 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 133.1 IP. In the World Series, he is 4-1 with a 2.06 ERA and 43 K in 48 IP. He has an NLCS MVP and a World Series co-MVP award, and three World Championship rings.

If you take Curt Schilling’s career, add 130+ brilliant postseason innings and three rings, what you are left with is a Hall-of-Famer.

(Trivia answer: Vida Blue. Blue K’d 301 with Oakland in his MVP season of 1971. But he just had bad timing; veteran Mickey Lolich struck out 308 that year. It was the only time either man reached the mark.)

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About Aaron Whitehead

  • The smell test says “meh,” which always rounds down to “no.” But being part of an iconic moment when Boston won the World Series will likely put him over the top.

  • I don’t subscribe to the smell test. We’re so often wrong about players that it pays to really look at them to see what we’ve missed. And “smell” is so subjective; there have to be some standards.