More than at any time in its history, today’s Hall of Fame voting is polarized on the basis of morality. No longer are the debates about who deserves a plaque in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum strictly about the merits of each player’s performance on the diamond. The extra question is whether any particular player augmented their playing ability with PEDs (Performance Enhancing Drugs). But, in today’s hyper-partisan universe, there’s another player that has spurred a Cooperstown debate that goes beyond his deeds on the field. We’re talking about Curt Schilling, the three-time World Champion starting pitcher turned political lighting rod.
Schilling has a lot in common with the current occupant of the Oval Office in that he pushes people’s buttons with his outspoken views and his Twitter account. Like President Trump, Schilling is a Republican and he’s not shy about it. Since a significant percentage of the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) originally plied their trade working in newsrooms in urban areas, it’s safe to say that there’s a liberal tilt in the overall electorate. Most writers that I personally follow on Twitter don’t espouse political views but the ones that do lean left.
Like Trump, Schilling is not a fan of the media and the feeling is mutual. Personally, I liked him in my years with ESPN but I know that feeling wasn’t universal in the media. I left ESPN in 2001 so my personal interactions occurred when he was pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies or Arizona Diamondbacks. As most of you know, Schilling worked as a studio and game analyst for the network from 2010 from 2016. After having been twice suspended for Tweets that were deemed offensive, he was fired in April 2016 for a Tweet about a transgender bathroom law in North Carolina.
Many articles have been written about Schilling’s political views and ambitions. I’ll circle back to the topic towards the end of this piece but first, let’s look at Curt Schilling the pitcher. Strictly based on his work on the mound, does he deserve a spot in the Hall of Fame?
Cooperstown Cred: Curt Schilling
6th year on ballot (received 45% of the vote in 2017)
- 216 wins, 146 losses (.597 winning %)
- Career: 3.46 ERA, 1.137 WHIP (walks + hits per inning)
- Career: 80.7 WAR (Wins Above Replacement)
- Career: 127 career park-adjusted ERA+
- 3,116 career strikeouts, over 300 strikeouts 3 times
- Won 20 or more games 3 times
- Member of 3 World Series Champion teams
- 11-2 with 2.23 ERA in 19 post-season starts
- 2nd in Cy Young Award voting three times
(cover photo: abc13.com)
If, after reading those credentials, you’ve already decided that Schilling deserves a plaque in Cooperstown, I’m inclined to agree with you. I’ll get into the pros and cons of Schilling’s candidacy after this review of his career highlights. If you’re pressed for time and already familiar with Schilling’s timeline, I won’t be offended if you skip to the “case for and against” section of this piece.
Curt Schilling was born in Anchorage, Alaska, where is father Cliff (a U.S. Army master sergeant) was stationed. As it often is with military families, the Schillings moved a lot before settling in Phoenix. As it was in his major league career, Schilling was a late bloomer, not making the varsity of his high school team until he was a senior. Schilling went on to Yavapai Junior College and was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 1986 January draft.
In July 1988, the Red Sox, in contention and needing starting pitching help, traded the 21-year-old minor leaguer along with rookie outfielder Brady Anderson to the Baltimore Orioles for veteran Mike Boddicker. The Red Sox were in a tight battle for the A.L. East; Boddicker went 7-3 with a 2.63 ERA, helping the Sox win the East by one game over the Detroit Tigers.
For the Orioles, this could have been their version of the famous 1987 trade that the Tigers made when they sent a minor leaguer named John Smoltz to the Atlanta Braves for journeyman starter Doyle Alexander but it was not to be. In both ’88 and ’89, Schilling was a September call-up for the Orioles and then joined the team full-time in 1990 as a reliever. In 46 innings, he posted a sterling 2.54 ERA for the O’s.
1990, however, was the end of Schilling’s Orioles career; in January 1991 he was dealt (along with outfielder Steve Finley and pitcher Pete Harnisch, both of whom had productive MLB careers) to the Houston Astros for slugging first baseman Glenn Davis. This was a franchise-killing trade for the Orioles. Finley and Harnisch became solid players in Houston while Davis only played 185 games in Baltimore, averaging .247 with 8 home runs per year over 3 seasons.
In his one season with the Astros, Schilling was again working out of the bullpen and had a 3.81 ERA in 75.2 innings. As it was with the Sox and Orioles, the Astros brain trust didn’t realize what they had in Schilling, dealing him in April 1992 to the Philadelphia Phillies for Jason Grimsley, who never pitched in Houston; Grimsley spent one season in the minor leagues and was released the following March.
Baseball history is full of Hall of Famers who were traded in their youth, before their true value as major leaguers had become apparent. Lou Brock, Ryne Sandberg, Jeff Bagwell, Pedro Martinez and Smoltz are just a handful of the famous names who were traded either as minor leaguers or as players who were in the infancy of their MLB careers. What would make Schilling unique among Hall of Famers is that he was traded by three different teams before he had his first season in the majors that could be remotely considered as part of a Cooperstown resume.
The Philadelphia Years
Finally, with his fourth MLB team, Schilling found a home in Philadelphia, with the Phils reaping the benefits of the decisions of three franchises to trade the future star. After having sported a mediocre 4.16 ERA in parts of four seasons in Baltimore and Houston, Schilling thrived in manager Jim Fregosi’s rotation. In his first year (1992), Schill went 14-11 with a 2.35 ERA (ballpark-adjusted for a 150+ ERA, which means he was 50% better than league average). He also led the major leagues with a 0.990 WHIP (walks + hits per 9 innings) and also allowed the fewest hits per 9 innings (6.6) in all of MLB.
He regressed a little bit in 1993 (going 16-7 with a 4.02 ERA) but this Phillies team was a great won and won the N.L. East title. Once in October, Schilling established himself as post-season ace. For the NLCS, Fregosi installed him as his Game 1 starter and, in two starts against the two-time defending N.L. pennant winning Braves, gave up only 3 earned runs in 16 innings (1.69 ERA) and was awarded the NLCS MVP Trophy.
In the World Series against the Toronto Blue Jays, he slipped in Game 1, giving up 7 runs in 6.1 innings. His Game 5, performance, however, was epic. The Phillies had just suffered a devastating Game 4 defeat, losing 15-14 while blowing a 5-run lead in the 8th inning. The Phillies bullpen was beat up and needed a rest. In this, an elimination game, the Phillies post-season ace delivered a complete game, 5-hit shutout in a 147-pitch effort. Although the Jays would go onto win the Series in Game 6 (thanks to Joe Carter’s walk-off home run), the 26-year old righty had emerged as a legitimate star.
Schilling suffered through injury plagued campaigns in 1994 and ’95 which means that, at the age of 28, he had really only had one Hall of Fame caliber season. His career record was 43-42 with a 3.56 ERA (translating to a 109 ERA+). In MLB history, only three Hall of Fame pitchers tossed fewer than Schilling’s 805 innings through their respective age 28 seasons.
Although he had just a 9-10 record, Schilling’s Hall of Fame caliber career began in earnest in 1996 as he posted a 3.19 ERA and led the N.L. with 8 complete games. In 1997, he made his first All-Star team (at age 30) and went 17-11 with a 2.97 ERA while leading the majors with 319 strikeouts. He followed up that campaign with a 15-14 record (3.25 ERA) in ’98; he led the N.L. with 300 strikeouts and all of MLB with 15 complete games. 1999 and 2000 weren’t quite as good (a 3.54 ERA in ’99 and 3.91 in a partial season in 2000).
Career Rejuvenation in Arizona
In the middle of the 2000 season, with the Phillies mired in their 7th straight losing season, Schilling was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for four players (Travis Lee, Omar Daal, Nelson Figueroa, and Vicente Padilla), all major leagues but none of whom would have a significant impact in the City of Brotherly Love.
Thus, Philadelphia became the fourth team to make a bad trade involving Curt Schilling even though, at the completion of the 2000 season, there was nothing about Schilling’s career that screamed “future Hall of Famer.” He had never won more than 17 games in a season and had just one campaign (1997) in which he earned Cy Young Award votes (he finished 4th). At the age of 33, he had a 110-95 record with a 3.43 ERA in just 1,902 innings. At the time, only Phil Niekro and Dazzy Vance had thrown fewer innings through their age 33 seasons and gone on to earn a plaque in Cooperstown. Interestingly, Schilling’s Arizona teammate (Randy Johnson) would become the third such late-bloomer; the Big Unit only had 1,734 innings under his belt by the end of his age 33 season.
2001, however, marked the beginning of a four-year run in which Schilling elevated his game from 2nd or 3rd tier starter into ace. Although he was officially the D’Backs 2nd starter, that’s only because his rotation-mate was the 6’10” Johnson. In 2001, he led the majors with 256.2 innings pitched while going 22-6 with a 2.98 ERA, good enough to finish 2nd in the Cy Young voting to Johnson.
In just their 4th year in in existence, Arizona made it all the way to the World Series, thanks in great part to their aces on the mound. In three starts in the NLDS and NLCS, Schilling tossed three complete games, won all three contests while giving up just 2 runs in 27 innings. His Game 5 win in the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals (a 2-1 victory) represented another big effort in a game in which his team was facing elimination.
In the World Series, first-year manager Bob Brenly‘s D’Backs were up against the three-time defending champion New York Yankees. Although either Johnson or Schilling could have started Game 1 on full rest, Brenly elected to go with Schilling. The decision was rewarded as Schill tossed 7 innings of 1 run ball, leading Arizona to a 9-1 victory. Not surprisingly, the Big Unit delivered an 11-strikeout, 3-hit shutout performance in Game 2, putting the D’Backs up 2 games to none.
After the Yankees won Game 3, Schilling drew the Game 4 start on 3 days rest at Yankee Stadium. In what has become a controversial story, with a 3-1 lead, Brenly pulled Schilling after 7 innings and 88 pitches in favor of closer Byun-Hyun Kim, who famously gave up a game-tying 2-run home run to Tino Martinez and Derek Jeter’s famous “Mr. November” walk-off shot in the bottom of the 10th. The controversy developed years later when FOX announcer Joe Buck, in his book Lucky Bastard (2016), said that Schilling had asked to be taken out of the game but, knowing Brenly was wearing a microphone, played to the mic and asked to stay in the game. On an Arizona radio station, Schilling told the Burns and Gambo show that Buck “is an assclown… I never in my life asked out of a game.”
Either way, as the series progressed to Game 7 in Arizona, Brenly tabbed Schilling to start the elimination game, again on 3 days rest and he was matched up against Roger Clemens. After seven innings, the game was tied at 1. In the top of the 8th, however, Yankees second baseman Alfonso Soriano hit an 0-2 pitch for a solo home run. Two batters later, Schilling was removed for reliever Miguel Batsita (for one batter) and then, coming out of the bullpen like a gunslinger entering a saloon, the Game 6 starter Johnson, on 0 days rest. Ultimately, the Diamondbacks did the unthinkable, rallying for two runs in the bottom of the 9th inning off the Yankees normally untouchable closer Mariano Rivera. The World Series belonged to Arizona; Schilling and Johnson were named co-MVPs.
Schilling had another superlative season in 2002, going 23-7 with a 3.23 ERA and once again finished 2nd in the Cy Young voting to Johnson. In the playoffs, the D’Backs were swept in the NLDS by the St. Louis Cardinals. In Game 2, Schilling was typically brilliant, tossing 7 innings of 1 run ball but lifted for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the frame and the Cards went on to win 2-1.
In 2003, Schilling missed about a dozen starts due to an appendectomy and broken hand. He went 8-9 with a 2.95 ERA. Johnson also had an off-year and the D’Backs missed the playoffs.
Reversing the Curse in Boston
After the 2003 season, Schilling was traded for the fifth time in his career, this time back to his original team, the Boston Red Sox. He was traded for pitchers Casey Fossum, Jorge De La Rosa, and Brandon Lyon. The return to Boston also represented a reunion with manager Terry Francona, who had skippered the Phillies in Schilling’s final four seasons in Philadelphia. In joining a talented team that had come one game away from the World Series in 2003, Schilling made it clear from the day of his arrival that his goal was to “reverse the curse” and help Boston to its first Championship since 1918.
Schilling, always renowned for his preparation for each start, was a good match with Sox catcher Jason Varitek, who Schilling praised on many occasions. For the third time in four years, Schilling was his league’s Cy Young runner-up (this time to Johan Santana). He delivered everything the Sox could have hoped for in the regular season, going 21-6 with a 3.26 ERA, out-pitching another future Hall of Fame teammate, Pedro Martinez.
Tabbed as the Game 1 starter in the ALDS against the Anaheim Angels, Schilling was the winning pitcher (6.2 IP, 2 ER) but injured a tendon in his right ankle on a play at first base in the 7th. Although he had 6 days of rest before his next start, Game 1 of the ALCS against the New York Yankees, Schilling was clearly impaired. He gave up 6 runs in 3 innings and was the losing pitcher for only the 2nd time in 13 post-season starts.
The Sox lost Games 2 and 3 to the Bronx Bombers, getting truly bombed (19-to-8) in Game 3 at Fenway Park. Famously, the Sox rallied to win Game 4 (in 12 innings) and Game 5 (in 14 innings), both on walk-offs by David Ortiz and both when they had to come from behind in late innings against the great Rivera.
Game 6 was a third consecutive elimination game for the Sox and the injured Schilling took to the bump at Yankee Stadium, with his tendons temporarily stitched back into place on his damaged ankle. This was the renowned “bloody sock” game in which of blood from the procedure could be seen on a national TV closeup. The patchwork job on Schilling’s ankle worked. He tossed 7 innings of one-run ball, leading the Sox to a 4-2 win. The next day the Sox won Game 7 by a 10-3 score to get to the World Series. After being the first team ever to come from behind from 3 games to none, the Fall Classic was almost an afterthought. The Sox swept the St. Louis Cardinals in four games with Schilling, of course, winning his Game 2 start in style (6 innings, 1 run, 0 ER).
2005 was a lost season due to returning too soon from surgery on his ankle and some other injuries. In his final two MLB seasons (2006 and 2007), Schilling went 24-15 with a 3.93 ERA (which translates to a solid 121 ERA+). The Sox, back in the playoffs in ’07, swept the Los Angeles Angels in the ALDS, with Schilling tossing 7 shutout innings in the decisive Game 3.
For Schilling and Boston, the ALCS was a near repeat of 2004. The Sox were down 3 games to 1 to the Cleveland Indians and had to win three in a row to return to the Fall Classic. The Sox did exactly that, with Schilling tossing 7 innings of 2-run ball in Game 6. Again, the Red Sox swept their N.L. opponent (this time the Colorado Rockies) in the World Series. In what would turn out to be the final start of his 20-year MLB career, Schilling went out in style, giving up just 1 run in 5.1 innings as the Game 2 winning pitcher at Fenway Park.
The Red Sox, after a 86-year drought from 1918 to 2004, had their 2nd World Championship in four seasons, with Schilling earning his 3rd ring in 7 years. Schilling didn’t know at the time that his final big league performance would be that Game 2 Series start; he signed on to come back for one final season in 2008 but was unable to pitch.
Portions of Schilling’s career highlights courtesy of his SABR Bio from Bill Nowlin.
The Hall of Fame Case for and against Curt Schilling
Let’s start with the arguments against Curt Schilling’s Hall of Fame candidacy. Other than his sometimes controversial Twitter feed, there are really only two somewhat legitimate arguments, in my opinion, against Schilling’s Hall case. Those two are his lower career win total and lack of hardware.
#1. Schilling’s 216 career wins are low for a Hall of Fame starting pitcher and his 3.46 is high. There is only one pitcher enshrined in the Hall of Fame who has both fewer than 220 wins and an ERA higher than 3.45. That one pitcher is Jesse Haines, a long-time hurler for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1920-1937 who finished with a 210-158 (.571) career record and a 3.64 ERA. Sabermetric pioneer Bill James, in his landmark book Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame (1995), referred to the induction of Haines (and 4 others) as “just absurd, absolutely beyond any kind of logical defense.” Haines was a Veterans Committee selection in 1970 during the time that Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch was the on that committee and had the force of will to help get several of his ex-teammates with the Cardinals and Giants into the Hall.
“I’m putting Schill in a corner for another year. He thinks he’s not getting elected because he’s a Trump guy. That’s not it. Schill is a borderline candidate… Schilling’s ERA (3.46) is higher than Kevin Brown’s (3.28). His win total (216) is comparable to Jerry Reuss’s (220). His strikeouts per season (155.8) are fewer than Mickey Lolich’s (177.0).”
— Dan Shaughnessy (Boston Globe, Jan. 8, 2018)
#2. He never won a Cy Young Award and only received votes for the award four times in his career.
So, let’s take a look at those arguments against. First, the point that his 216 career wins are low and his 3.46 is high. It’s absolutely true that 216 wins is a low total for a Cooperstown-enshrined starter. As we’ve already documented, Schilling was a late bloomer. Still, his win total would be only the 18th lowest. It’s not a deal-breaker.
What about the ERA? Well, that’s a topic where context is critical. Schilling, at his best, toed the rubber in pitcher-unfriendly Bank One Ballpark in Arizona and Fenway Park in Boston. Not to mention the fact, of course, that his career directly coincided with the offensively charged PED era. This is why the context-dependent adjusted ERA+ is crucial. ERA+ (in which 100 is average) adjusts for ballpark effects and the overall hitting-or-pitching-friendly environment of each individual season. Schilling’s career ERA+ is 127, which would put him tied for 21st best among Hall of Famers (along with Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, and Stan Coveleski). His 127 career ERA+ is better than 41 enshrined starters.
Kevin Brown, by the way (as Shaughnessy pointed out), had a better ERA than Schilling and an equal 127 ERA+. He’s a popular overlooked candidate within the sabermetric community. Some people forget, though, that Brown as named in the Mitchell Report on steroids.
Although he got off to a slow start, Schilling tossed 3,261 innings in his career. In the entire recorded history of baseball, for all starting pitchers with at least 3,000 innings pitched, Clemens is the only hurler with an ERA+ better than Schilling’s 127 who is not already in the Hall. Because of the context of the era in which he pitched, his career ERA is a plus for his Hall of Fame candidacy.
Now, about that lack of Cy Young hardware? It’s true, he didn’t win it. The Cy Young was first awarded in 1956, to only one pitcher throughout Major League Baseball. It wasn’t until 1967 that there was a separate award for the American and National Leagues. The only starters in the Hall (who primarily pitched after ’67) who don’t have a Cy Young Award trophy are Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro, Bert Blyleven and the recently inducted Jack Morris. Ryan, Sutton and Niekro won over 300 games each and, as we know, Blyleven and Morris each had to wait forever for their Hall calls.
Like Schilling, Blyleven only earned Cy Young votes four times in his career; Morris got votes seven times. The difference is that Schilling was actually the Cy Young runner up three times (twice to Randy Johnson and once to Johan Santana) while Blyleven and Morris never finished higher than 3rd.
If there’s one thing that made Schilling a great pitcher, it was his penchant for piling up high strikeout totals while limiting his walks to a handful. His career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.38 is the best in baseball since 1884 (with a minimum of 1,500 innings). That’s 1884, sports fans, less than 20 years after the end of the Civil War, not 1984.
Another point in favor is Schilling is that he is one of 16 pitchers in MLB history to record 3,000 or more career strikeouts. From that group, only he and Clemens are not in the Hall of Fame.
Among those 16 pitchers with 3,000+ K’s…
- Only two walked fewer than 800 batters (Schillng, with 711, and Pedro Martinez, with 760).
- Schilling’s 8.60 strikeouts per 9 innings are fourth best (behind Johnson, Martinez and Ryan).
- Only Greg Maddux walked fewer than Schilling’s 1.96 batter per 9 innings.
There’s more. Schilling struck out 300 or more batters three times in his career. Going back to 1901, the beginning of the modern game, the Big Unit and the Ryan Express are the only two pitchers to do it more times (6 times each). The only other pitcher to record three different seasons with 300 K’s? Sandy Koufax.
There are two other credentials on Schilling’s resume that, to me, make him a slam-dunk Hall of Famer. The first should be obvious if you’re familiar with his career; it’s his superb post-season record. The second is where he ranks in WAR (Wins Above Replacement). We’ll tackle Schilling’s career WAR first because it’s a short and sweet story.
Wins Above Replacement
OK, first let’s acknowledge that there are some readers who swear by WAR and others who think it’s a junk stat. For those of you in the “junk stat” camp, WAR is not necessary to appreciate the totality of Schilling’s career. For those who are WAR believers, it’s a stat that supersedes his other statistics to such a degree that there’s no rational argument that would lead to the conclusion that Schilling does not belong in the Hall of Fame.
Schilling’s career WAR was 80.7, which is the 26th highest in the history of baseball among pitchers. It’s better than 46 pitchers already enshrined in the Hall of Fame, including Sutton, Jim Palmer, Juan Marichal, Whitey Ford, Koufax and the recently inducted Tom Glavine and Smoltz.
Only Clemens and Mike Mussina (also on this year’s BBWAA ballot) have a higher career WAR and don’t have a plaque in Cooperstown.
If you want to dive into the weeds about how WAR for pitchers is calculated, I invite you to visit the Glossary. Suffice it to say that Schilling’s ability to pile up high strikeout and low walk totals play a significant role in the calculation of his high WAR.
Almost universally, baseball writers who use WAR as a sorting tool conclude that both Schilling and Mussina are Cooperstown worthy.
The Post-Season Ace
Despite his WAR credential, it’s completely unnecessary in building a Hall of Fame case for Curt Schilling.
As we detailed in his career highlights, Schilling was absolutely magnificent in October, going 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA in 19 starts. Among his six no-decisions, two were in the 1993 NLCS, in which Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams squandered the leads that Schilling had bequeathed him (the Phils went on to win both games). Despite no wins, Schilling was the ’93 NLCS MVP because of his two 8-inning starts in which he gave up just 3 earned runs. As we might recall, Schilling was also in position to win Game 4 of the 2001 World Series but Byung Hyun-Kim blew the save in that epic contest.
Among his 19 post-season starts, Schilling was given the ball five times in elimination games, contests in which a loss for his team would result in the end of that team’s season. One of those starts was with Philadelphia (Game 5 of the 1993 World Series), two with Arizona (Game 5 of the NLDS and Game 7 of the World Series) and two with Boston (Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS and Game of the 2007 ALCS). His team’s won all five games. In those five starts, Schilling pitched 39.1 innings and gave up just 6 earned runs (for a 1.37 ERA). Oh by the way, in those five starts he struck out 33 batters and walked just 4.
Incidentally, there are seven other pitchers who have toed the rubber at the start of five different post-season elimination games. Schilling is the only one of the eight whose teams are undefeated in those starts. The only starter with a record comparable to Schilling’s 4-0, 1.37 ERA is Justin Verlander, who has gone 4-1 with a 1.21 ERA in his five “win or go home” starts; the one blemish was the deciding Game 5 of the 2006 Fall Classic against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Beyond his brilliance in the elimination games, in 16 of his 19 post-season efforts, Schilling gave up two earned runs or less. He went at least six innings in all but one of those 16 starts (thus 15 quality starts out of 19 total). He only had three sub-par outings in his post-season career, his Game 1 loss in the ’93 Fall Classic, his Game 2 loss in the ’04 ALCS and his no-decision Game 2 team loss in the ’07 ALCS.
What’s notable about those 15 quality starts is that every single one exceeded the minimum requirements (6+ innings and 3 or fewer earned runs). In all 15 he gave up 2 or fewer ER. In the history of playoff baseball, only four pitchers have more than Schilling’s 15 starts with 6 or more IP and 2 or fewer ER.
As you can see, of the top 7 on this list, John Smoltz is alone in even approaching the consistency of Schilling’s superlative outings. In all of baseball history, there are 16 pitchers with 10 or more starts of this type. Only legend Christy Mathewson (with 10 out of 11) had a higher percentage of his post-season efforts that yielded 2 or fewer ER in 6 or more IP.
Taking this one step beyond, 10 of 19 Schilling’s playoff outings featured 7 or more IP and 1 or fewer ER. Only Glavine (with 13) has had more starts of this type but he needed 35 total efforts to get those 13, compared to Schilling’s 19.
In totality, there have been 26 pitchers who have tossed at least 100 innings in post-season contests. Here are the top 10, ranked by ERA:
Best Post-Season Starter in the last 50 Years?
There is one final crucial factor to consider when evaluating Schilling’s post-season impact. The first is that, not only was Schilling dazzling in the vast majority of his playoff starts, he often needed to be brilliant in order for his teams to win. When I evaluate a player’s post-season record with respect to their Hall of Fame candidacy, I ask myself, “to what degree was this player indispensable to his team’s pursuit of a World Championship?” To have some fun and coin a phrase, how many “Rings Above Replacement” or “Pennants Above Replacement” was that player worth? So, let’s look at the record.
In the 1993 NLCS (in which Schilling was MVP), the Phillies defeated the Braves in 6 Games.
- Game 1 (8 IP, 2 ER, 10 K, 2 BB). Schilling left with a 3-2 lead; MItch Williams blew the save in the 9th; the Phils won in the bottom of the 10th by a 4-3 score.
- Game 5 (8 IP, 2 runs, 1 ER, 9 K, 3 BB). Schilling had a 3-0 lead in the 9th. After a leadoff walk and than an error by 3rd baseman Kim Batiste, Schilling was removed and The Wild Thing allowed three singles and a sacrifice fly to blow that lead. Philadelphia, again, won 4-3 in 10 innings.
If Schilling had thrown a clunker in either game, the series would have gone to 7 games. If he had thrown two clunkers, the Braves would have had a World Series rematch against the Toronto Blue Jays. It’s clear that 1993 represents a “Pennant Above Replacement” for Schilling.
In the 1993 World Series, he did throw a clunker and lost Game 1. However, as we’ve detailed, he was brilliant in his 147-pitch Game 5 shutout, a 2-0 victory, an elimination game that kept the Phillies alive for one more contest. Anything less than magnificence and the series would likely have ended that night.
Eight years later, in 2001, the Arizona Diamondbacks defeated the St. Louis Cardinals 3 Games to 2 in the 5-Game NLDS. If they awarded a MVP trophy for the Division Series, it certainly would have gone to Schilling.
- Game 1 (CG shutout, 9 K, 1 BB). Schilling out-dueled Matt Morris in the D’Backs 1-0 victory.
- Game 5 (CG, 1 ER, 9 K, 1 BB). Schilling again outpointed Morris in the decisive 2-1 win.
Needless to say, if Schilling had delivered one lackluster outing, the Snakes would have likely been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
In the 2001 NLCS, the D’Backs defeated Atlanta fairly easily (4 Games to 1), with Schilling tossing a complete game 4-hitter with 12 strikeouts in Game 3.
In the World Series against the New York Yankees, Arizona won easily in Game 1. With Schilling throwing 7 innings of one-run ball, The D’Backs smacked around Mike Mussina for 5 runs in 3 innings, leading to a 9-1 victory.
After Kim blew a potential Game 4 victory in the Bronx, Schilling was back on the rubber for Game 7 in Arizona. Schill threw 7 innings of one-run ball until, as we recall, Alfonso Soriano led off the 8th with a solo home run, giving the Yankees a 2-1 lead. Schilling didn’t win the game but he kept the D’Backs in the game. When Luis Gonzalez‘ broken bat bloop single in the bottom of the 9th gave Arizona a 3-2 win and World Championship, Schilling had truly earned his first ring.
Suffice it to say that, without his two complete game victories in the NLDS and his Game 7 World Series performance, Arizona would not have won the Fall Classic. Count that as one Ring Above Replacement.
Now, if you look at the 2004 Boston Red Sox, it’s clear that the “bloody sock” performance in Game 6 of the ALCS was critical to the Sox eventual reversal of the Curse of the Bambino. An outing of 7 innings and 1 run was critical in the Sox 4-2 win.
Finally, in the 2007 World Series, Schilling pitched 5.1 innings while giving up just 1 run in Game 2 of the World Series, a 2-1 win over the Colorado Rockies. He also won Game 3 of the ALDS (by a 9-1 margin) and Game 6 of the ALCS (by a 12-2 score). Because of those lopsided scores, it’s fair to say that a “replacement” pitcher might have also one those contests.
Anyway, in totality, Schilling was absolutely indispensable in his team’s 2001 title run, pitched brilliantly in a crucial elimination game in the 2004 ALCS (which led to a World Championship), and was a contributing member to another one in 2007. Just looking at it subjectively, you could give the gritty right-hander two full “Ring Above Replacement” points for ’01 and ’04 and a half of a point for ’07.
What’s that worth? Three championships, indispensable for two and a contributing member of a third?
To these eyes, Schilling’s eleven overall post-season victories are worth 60 to 70 regular season wins. Some players are “bystanders” as their teams win championships, getting their rings on the basis of the efforts of their teammates. For two of Schilling’s three rings, his teams would not have won without him. All told, he is the most valuable starting pitcher in the LCS era, which started in 1969.
Win Probability Added
I just wrote that Schilling was the most valuable starting pitcher in the LCS era. Obviously, that’s just my subjective opinion.
Believe it or not, however, there is a way to calculate this, through a statistic called Win Probability Added (WPA). Unlike WAR, it’s really easy to figure out how this is calculated. Please enjoy the Glossary for a full explanation but the short version is as follows: every batter-pitcher match-up results in an outcome that increases one team’s chances of winning and decreases the other team’s chances.
When Kirk Gibson his his famous walk-off home run off Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, his WPA was 0.87. His team had a 13% chance to win the game when he entered the batters’ box. After his home run, the victorious L.A. Dodgers had a 100% chance of winning. 100 – 13 = 87. On the other side, Eckersley, on that one swing of the bat, had a negative WPA of -0.87.
As a starting pitcher, if you’re throwing a gem, you’re going to get a higher WPA if the outcome of the game is on the line than if your team is blowing out the opposition. In a scoreless or one-run game, each out has a measurable impact on the probability that your team will win. If you’re pitching in the 8th inning and your team is up 10-0, the statistical odds of a win don’t change much no matter what you do.
Here is the list of pitchers with the highest WPA since 1969:
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Mariano Rivera dominates this list. Of course, he pitched in 96 (mostly) high-leverage games. Schilling piled up his WPA “points” in just 19 appearances. On a per-game basis, the hurler that comes closest to Schilling is Madison Bumgarner, who I think is fair to say has been the second best post-season starter in the LCS era.
Among starting pitchers, for the results of each and every pitcher-batter confrontation, nobody had a greater impact on his teams’ odds of winning games than Schilling.
Schilling’s Cooperstown Progression
Curt Schilling hit the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot in 2013, a member of a power-packed first -year class that included Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza and Craig Biggio. Although Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro had appeared on previous ballots, this was the first really BIG ballot of PED-linked players. Famously, the writers did not elect one player from this group (although Biggio and Piazza have subsequently been inducted into Cooperstown).
On this ballot, Schilling earned 38.8% of the vote (just a bit more than the percentage for Bonds and Clemens), a solid first-year salvo and a number high enough for an inaugural vote that, historically, it usually leads to a plaque in the future. In 2014, Schilling’s total sagged to 29.2%, likely because he suffered in comparison to Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, who each became first-ballot Hall of Famers. Despite the addition of two more top flight starters in 2015 (Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez), Schilling rebounded to 39.2% the next year.
With no new starting pitchers joining the party in 2016, there were only three starting pitchers to choose from: Clemens, Schilling, and Mike Mussina. Schilling’s vote total was the best (at 52.3%) of the three.
The Tweet and Schilling’s Political Views
Something happened one year ago, in 2017. Bonds and Mussina both climbed up above 50% of the vote while Schilling sagged to 45%. From 2016 to 2017, Mussina and Bonds both received 40 more votes while Schilling had 31 fewer. How does one explain this? If a picture is worth a thousand words, in this case a Tweet was worth the loss of those 31 votes:
As he had previously done with some unpoular Tweets, Schilling took down this particular one fairly quickly but the damage was done. Several writers publicly admitted that they decided not to vote for him specifically because of this Tweet. For these writers, if Schilling thought so much about them that he was calling a t-shirt about lynching journalists “awesome,” that was a good enough reason to invoke the “character clause” of the rules for electing players to the Hall of Fame.
If you’d like to enjoy a short history of the character clause and the Hall of Fame, I invite you to take a look at the final segment of a piece I authored last year, Is Curt Schilling Tweeting his way out of Cooperstown? Suffice it to say that, whatever you think about Schilling’s occasionally inappropriate sense of humor or his political views, the Hall of Fame is filled with many players who had character traits vastly more repugnant.
The Early Vote for 2018
Anyway, with the voting complete and approximately 49% of the 2018 ballots revealed to Ryan Thibodaux and reported on his invaluable Hall of Fame Tracker, Schilling has bounced back from his Twitter-driven decline. Among the first 203 publicly reported ballots (out of 207 total, with 4 being anonymous), Schilling has shown a net positive gain of 15 votes.
Notably, two writers who publicly rebuked Schilling a year ago put him back on their respective ballots this year.
“I didn’t omit Schilling due to his politics last year; I omitted him because he suggested he wanted me (and other journalists) dead on Twitter…. I have always known his politics – how could you not? – and I voted for him in every year but the one where he made it clear he wanted me dead. I assume he still does, but at least he’s keeping his mouth shut about it now.”
— Jon Heyman (FanRag Sports, 12/7/17)
“If I’m to consider integrity, sportsmanship and character, I won’t support someone who advocates murder (and I don’t care if it’s a journalist or an animal). I withheld my vote for Schilling last year, and I was skewered by folks calling me a liberal snowflake (little do you know) who let politics enter the voting equation.
But I also kept my eyes and ears open the past year, not to Schilling’s political views but to what he did for mankind. And he did good things, especially when he organized deliveries of badly needed supplies to citizens of hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.”
— Kirby Arnold (Golfers West, 1/5/18) (formerly of the Everett Herald)
The restored endorsements non-withstanding, the loquacious three-time World Series champion is not going to keep silent just to curry favor with the Hall of Fame voters. For over a year, Schilling has hosted a two-hour radio show on Breitbart News radio, dubbed “Whatever it Takes with Curt Schilling.” Breitbart is the right-leaning news organization recently run former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.
According to a profile in Esquire, Schilling spends just a couple of minutes talking about baseball with the vast majority of the show being devoted to politics. Whether it’s on his show or when giving interviews, Schilling is not going to pull any punches.
“I promise you, if I had said, ‘Lynch Trump,’ I’d be getting in with about 90 percent of the vote.”
— Curt Schilling (TMZ, January 2017)
“I have zero control over it other than, as people say, ‘Well, if you just shut up.’ The thing is, I’m not going to shut up. I don’t owe anybody anything. If I have to shut up to get in the Hall of Fame, then I don’t want in,” Schilling said.
— Curt Schilling (Esquire Magazine, 6/29/17)
“I don’t want to have a beer with him. I don’t want to engage in a political debate with him. But I’d sure like to see him pitch again… His right-wing bluster has to be the reason people won’t vote for him; I can’t come up with any other intellectually defensible explanation.”
— Bob Ryan (Boston Globe, 1/8/18)
Going forward, Schilling has talked about running for the United States Senate against Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, the longest of long shots in a blue state in the age of Trump.
There is only one baseball reason not to vote for Curt Schilling for the Hall of Fame and it’s because he only won 216 games. In the last 40 years (among all pitchers with at least 2,000 IP), he has the 6th highest WAR, the 7th best ERA+, the 6th most strikeouts, the best strikeout/walk ratio, the 5th most strikeouts/9 innings, and the the 3rd best WHIP. Incidentally, and this is not in any way to cast a shadow on their superb Hall of Fame careers, Schilling bests both Tom Glavine and John Smoltz in every one of these particular categories.
It’s hard to say for sure but it seems that Schilling is no longer being judged by the Hall of Fame voters on the basis of his politics or itchy Twitter fingers. He will not make the Hall of Fame this year but, with four years left on the ballot, his chances are solid.
Two new starting pitchers will join the ballot next year, the late Roy Halladay (a likely Hall of Famer, maybe on the first ballot) and Andy Pettitte, who also has a strong post-season pedigree but is not in Schilling’s class if you look closely. After that, however, there’s nobody remotely in the same league as Schilling (or Mussina for that matter). The 2021 ballot is particularly lean, with the best players being outfielder Torii Hunter and pitchers Mark Buehrle and Tim Hudson. I would expect Schilling to make the Hall of Fame either that year or in 2022 with his Red Sox teammate David Ortiz, who will be on his first ballot.
Curt Schilling, inning by inning, batter by batter, was one of the very top pitchers in the game in the last 40 years. When you add in the fact that he had more impact on post-season baseball than any other starting pitcher in 50 years, you have an easy Hall of Fame choice.
Thanks for reading.