Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Is Curt Schilling Worthy of the Hall of Fame?

Like the pitcher himself, Curt Schilling's candidacy for the Baseball Hall of Fame is controversial.

While I always admired Schilling as a pitcher, I didn't always admire him as a person. Schilling made himself a lightning rod, never missing an opportunity to look into a TV camera or speak into a microphone, which often led to controversy. Many observers, and even teammates, viewed Schilling as a blowhard and a glory-hound.

But the Hall of Fame is about baseball credentials, not personality.

I was thrilled when the Red Sox traded for Schilling after the 2003 season. I thought he would be the difference-maker for them, and that ultimately proved to be correct. Schilling was an extraordinary competitor and was a proven winner in the post-season.

Schilling's post-season resume is phenomenal. He was every bit as good in the playoffs as Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson. Schilling has an 11-2 record in the post-season. That's an .846 winning percentage, which is a Major League record among pitchers with at least 10 decisions.

The big righty pitched in five post-seasons and posted a cumulative 2.23 ERA and 0.97 WHIP, that latter of which is phenomenal.

He led three different teams (Phillies, Diamondbacks, Red Sox) to the World Series, pitched in four Fall Classics ('93, '01, '04, '07) and won three titles.

But the post-season, though critical and pressure-packed, is only part of a pitcher's resume. The regular season, which is the bulk of a pitcher's work, carries a lot of weight.

Here are Schilling's primary career stats:

216-146 record
3.46 ERA
3,116 strikeouts
1.14 WHIP

Right off the bat, the stats the jump out and separate him from most of his contemporaries are the strikeouts and the WHIP.

However, Schilling missed the 300-win threshold by a long shot. Naturally, that's long been thought of as a primary criteria for election. For perspective, a pitcher would have to win 15 games a year for 20 straight seasons, or 20 games a year for 15 straight years, to reach 300 — which sounds highly improbable in today's game of six-inning starts, 100-pitch counts, and seven-man bullpens.

Shilling's win total was hurt by the fact that he came up as a reliever with Baltimore in 1988. He was just 21 when he arrived in the majors, but over his first four seasons he made a total of just five starts. It wasn't until his fifth season that he became a full-time starter. That really hurt his career win total. Assuming he had averaged 10 wins over those four seasons, which isn't outrageous considering his subsequent accomplishments, he would have tacked on 40 wins to his career total. Finishing with 256 career wins would have made a better case for his inclusion in the Hall.

Schilling essentially won 60 percent of his starts, finishing with a career winning percentage of .597, which is 117th all-time. Considering the huge number of pitchers who have played in the majors over the past 100-plus years, that's impressive. But it's not outstanding.

The strength of the argument for Schilling is that he broke 3,000 Ks, something that only 16 pitchers in Major League history have accomplished. That's why it has long been a historic criteria for election. Schilling is 15th all time in strikeouts and even had three seasons in which he exceeded 300 Ks, which sounds just unbelievable. These days, a guy can lead the league with 230 to 240 Ks. The other side of the coin is that Schilling had just five 200-plus strikeout seasons in his career.

Another stat that bolsters Schilling's case is that he walked just 711 batters during his career, leading to a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.38. That is second all-time (to someone I've never heard of named Tommy Bond, who posted an amazing 5.03) and ahead of Pedro Martinez, who came in at 4.15. That ratio is really impressive. Schilling wasn't just a hurler with a blazing fastball. He was a control pitcher who could put the ball wherever he, or the catcher, wanted.

It's worth noting that Schilling's career WHIP (walks, plus hits, per nine innings) is 1.14, which is the 46th best percentage in history. Schilling's mark is ahead of such Hall of Famers as Tom Seaver, Fergie Jenkins, Don Sutton and Don Drysdale, the player Schilling is most often compared to historically.

For those who insist that wins are the major criteria for a pitcher, 216 may never be enough. Yet, there are many baseball fans and analysts who are dubious of guys who hung around for years, with less than stellar careers, just to get to 300. Guys like Phil Niekro (24 seasons), Don Sutton (23 seasons) and Gaylord Perry (22 seasons) have all been accused of this. Sutton was a 20-game winner just once, Niekro just three times, and Perry five times.

For his part, Schilling won 20 games just twice, and both times he led the league.

Some guys have "what if" careers that are marred by injuries. Fans are left to wonder how good they could have been and what would have become of their careers, if only they'd stayed healthy. But staying healthy is part of the game. You can only have longevity if you remain healthy. Some of that is luck, some is genetic, some is a product of taking care of one's self, and some is a result of not being reckless.

Schilling's career win total wasn't held back so much by injury as by GMs and managers in Baltimore and Houston who kept him in the bullpen for four years at the start of his career. Perhaps he was just a late bloomer. But if he'd been put into the rotation sooner, his career numbers would have all been even better. Schilling threw 226.1 innings in his first year as a full-time starter ('92). Clearly, he was a horse just raring to get out of the gate.

Schilling seems like a borderline candidate to many observers. Induction to the Hall is supposed to be reserved for the best of the best, the cream of the crop. So, the question is, how does Schilling compare with current members of he Hall?

At present, there are 61 former Major League pitchers in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Every eligible pitcher with 300 wins or 3,000 Ks since 1900 has eventually been voted into Cooperstown.

While Schilling's 3.46 career ERA isn't remarkable in any way, it is better than eight members of the Hall of Fame. And while 216 wins doesn't, at first glance, seem all that impressive, there are 19 pitchers in the Hall with fewer wins than Schilling. Most of them are players from long ago eras you've likely never heard of (i.e., Chief Bender, Jack Chesbro, Stan Covelski, etc.).

As Joe Posnanski noted on his blog, there are 31 pitchers in the Hall of Fame who were born in 1900 or earlier. There are also 31 pitchers in the Hall of Fame who were born after 1900. Joe makes the following cogent point:

"Men who pitched mostly before the end of Deadball in 1920 are overrepresented in the Hall of Fame. Before 1920, teams hit many fewer home runs and scored many fewer runs ... so ERAs were low. Pitchers started every third of fourth day, and they tended to pitch deep into games ... so win totals were high."

There are 24 pitchers in the 300-win club; 10 of them won their 300th game in 1920 or earlier. The "Deadball Era" is typically viewed as 1900 to 1919. This means that 42 percent of the pitchers with 300 wins pitched in either the Deadball Era or prior to the "modern era," which began in 1900.

The point is, over the years it has become increasingly improbable that a pitcher will win 300 games over the course of his career. Many baseball people think that Randy Johnson, who accomplished the feat in 2009, may be the last of his kind.

Most critically, wins can be a misleading stat for a pitcher because they are a team stat. Playing on a great team with a stingy defense and a potent offense really benefits a pitcher, while the opposite is a detriment to a pitcher's win total.

Lots of players get game-winning hits, but no one credits them with the win. While game-winning hits may be tallied somewhere, for some reason they aren't viewed as important as a pitcher's win total. And fielders who make game-saving defensive plays aren't credited with wins either.

Simply put, a win is a team effort and a team stat. Despite this, wins are still credited to pitchers and goalies.

Among Schilling's career accomplishments: he was a six-time All Star, a three-time World Series Champion, the 2001 World Series MVP and the 1993 NLCS MVP.

Schilling also led the league in strikeout-to-walk ratio five times, complete games four times, starts three times, wins two times, innings twice, strikeouts twice, batters faced twice, WHIP twice, fewest walks-per-nine innings twice, win/loss percentage once, home runs allowed once and hits-per-nine innings once. Importantly, all of those achievements were spread out over a 15-year span of high productivity, not a five to 10-year span.

What makes Schilling's accomplishments most impressive, perhaps, is that he achieved it all in the 'steroids era' and was never linked to PEDs in any way. In other words, he did cleanly.

Schilling did have the benefit of longevity that came with a 20-year career. However, he pitched in a total of just nine games over his first two seasons in the majors. If Schilling's exploits are viewed in the context of his 15-year peak, perhaps it would make those accomplishments more impressive to his doubters and detractors.

Schilling was one of the better pitchers of his time, but was he dominant? Well, he never won a Cy Young Award, but he did have four top-five finishes. He never won an ERA title either, but he finished second twice and fourth once.

Many of us see the Hall of Fame as a shrine to elite players, not merely very good ones. Yet, when one reviews the list of pitchers in the Hall (a group that exceeds all other positions by nearly 3-to-1), there are a number who don't appear elite, or as if they even belong. That can lead to problems, in which candidates are pushed for induction because they are as good as the lowest caliber players already in Cooperstown.

I must say I began my research into Curt Schilling's career as a doubter. I didn't think he merited induction to the Hall. But after careful analysis, I think he merits stronger consideration.

To summarize:

The case for Schilling: 3,000 career strikeouts; 1.14 WHIP; second best strikeout-to-walk ratio of all time; best post-season winning percentage of all time; four World Series and three titles.

The case against Schilling: no Cy Young Award, wasn't dominant enough in his era, 216 wins (better than 31% of pitchers in HOF), 3.46 ERA (better than 13% of pitcher in HOF).

Schilling is not amongst the very elite pitchers who have ever played the game. But he is certainly every bit as good as many who are already in the Hall, and even better than a number of others enshrined there.

If that is the ultimate criteria, then Curt Schilling should certainly be a Hall of Famer.

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