Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Shilling for Schilling

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 the thing that's most interesting to me about his career, isn't the bloody sock, of the 2001 World Series. It's the strange way it unfolded.
Not many future Hall-of-Famers were included as throw-ins in three separate trades. If you're considered that expendable, it's usually for a reason. By the time Curt Schilling became a star, he was pitching for his fourth major league organization. After being drafted by the Red Sox in 1986, he spent the next few years as a promising but flawed pitching prospect whose commitment to excellence was called into question. He certainly wasn't unique. There have been countless pitchers like that, who had enough talent, but for a variety of reasons just never fully committed themselves. Those guys end up as relief pitchers or minor leaguers or just high school coaches.
But Curt Schilling was unique. It may have taken him a while, but he became not just a good pitcher, but a great one. Part of that talent was always there, just waiting for him to activate it. But it also took a new work ethic and a commitment to excellence to push Schilling into elite company.
It's ironic that the first team to give up on Schilling was the Red Sox, where he would later put the final touches on his brilliant career. The Sox drafted Schilling in the 2nd round of the 1986 draft. Schilling got off to a good start in the minors, but in 1988 the Sox were in the postseason hunt and sent Schilling (and Brady Anderson) to the Orioles for veteran Mike Boddicker. Boddicker pitched brilliantly down the stretch and helped the Sox win the division by just one game over Detroit. The Orioles, on the other hand, were on their way to a 54-107 season.
Schilling showed good numbers, but the O's had several promising young starters at the time, and they decided (unfortunately) that Schilling was expendable; they were coveting slugging Astros first baseman Glenn Davis. But Davis was coming off a season where he'd hit just 22 HR in 93 games. And he was about to turn 30. But the Orioles traded for him anyway, giving up Schilling, Steve Finley, and Pete Harnisch. That's one of the most unbalanced trades in recent years, especially since Davis tanked in Baltimore and never hit well again. And Schilling and Harnisch both would perform better than the young pitchers the Orioles decided to keep (Ben McDonald, Bob Milacki, John Mitchell, Anthony Telford, and Jeff Ballard wouldn't make any All-Star teams. Schilling made six, and Harnisch made one).

Schilling pitched well in Houston, but the Astros were using him as a reliever. He was 24 years old and had pitched well as a starter in the minors, but the Astros kept him in the bullpen despite the fact that Harnisch was the only starter on the team who had a good year in '91. So the perpetually taken-for-granted Schilling was traded again, this time to the Phillies for the immortal Jason Grimsley.
Schilling thrived when given the chance to start. The Phillies finally decided to put him back in the rotation, and Schilling broke through in 1992, winning 14 games with a 2.35 ERA in 26 starts and 16 relief appearances.
Schilling took a step back in 1993, as his ERA shot up to 4.02, although he set a new career high in strikeouts at 186. But the real story in Philadelphia wasn't Schilling, but a hardscrabble young team that beat the odds and won the pennant for the first time in ten years. The NLCS MVP was none other than Schilling himself, who made two starts against the favored Braves and posted a 1.69 ERA, notching 19 strikeouts in 16 IP.
The Phillies lost the World Series (
as you may have heard) and never recaptured the spirit of the '93 team. Schilling pitched with some injuries in the mid-90's, and his performance from 1994-1996 was good but uninspiring. It looked like the flashes of brilliance he'd shown would never turn him from a good pitcher into a great one.
I don't know what happened to Curt Schilling in 1997. He was 30 years old and coming off injury trouble. I don't know much about pitching mechanics, or psychology, or whatever. But Schilling went to a level in his 30's that is pretty unprecedented in baseball history.
In 1997, Schilling won 17 games. That's not great, but the Phillies finished last that year, at 68-94. Schilling threw 254.1 innings, third in the league. His 2.97 ERA was very good, but just 8th-best in the NL. No, what really set the 1997 Curt Schilling apart was his 319 strikeouts. Schilling led the league in K's, becoming the first NL hurler to K 300 since Mike Scott in 1986. His previous career high was 186, and he had topped that by a full 133. I don't know of any other pitcher in recent years who added so many strikeouts to his record without pitching a lot more innings. Schilling was an All-Star and finished 4th in the NL Cy Young race (Montreal's Pedro Martinez took the award with his 305 strikeouts and 1.90 ERA).
To prove that '97 was anything but a career year, Schilling struck out 300 more batters in 1998. To put that in perspective, here's a list of the pitchers who have notched 300 or more strikeouts in back-to-back years (since 1901):

  • Rube Waddell 1903-1904
  • Sandy Koufax 1965-1966
  • Nolan Ryan 1972-1973, 1973-1974, 1976-1977
  • J.R. Richard 1978-1979
That's it. Waddell, Koufax, and Ryan are Hall-of-Famers. Richard well could have been, but he suffered a stroke at age 30 that ended his career.
Schilling was injured again in 1999, and his total strikeouts and his strikeout rate both suffered. Schilling started off well in 2000, but he was pitching more like the above-average guy from 1993 rather than the 1997-98 superstar. Schilling was eligible for free agency after the season, and the sad-sack Phillies weren't planning on making a major investment in the 33-year-old. But money wasn't an object for the Arizona Diamondbacks, who acquired Schilling for the 2000 stretch run. They gave up pitchers Omar Daal, Nelson Figueroa and Vicente Padilla as well as top prospect Travis Lee.
Schilling made the trade worthwhile even before Travis Lee flamed out. Arizona failed to make the playoffs in 2000, despite Schilling's good work. But the team decided to keep him with a new contract. And he rewarded them in 2001 by pitching better than he ever had.
Schilling went 22-6 with a 2.98 ERA. His strikeout total went back up to 293, in 256.2 IP. What made Schilling even better in 2001 was that his walk rate dropped to an impossible low level. He allowed only 39 walks to go with those K's. Back in 1997 and 1998, Schilling walked 58 and 61 batters, respectively, while striking out 300 batters. The 2001 version of Schilling had finally reached his superstar potential.
Schilling teamed with Randy Johnson to carry the Arizona rotation, literally. Only two other pitchers on the team pitched as many as 100 innings. Schilling and Johnson played a modern-day Koufax and Drysdale as they carried a bare pitching staff and an aging offense into the postseason, where they blew past the Cardinals and Braves before fighting off the Yankees in a classic World Series. Johnson and Schilling were named co-MVPs of the World Series, and the honor has never been more appropriate. Schilling threw 48.1 innings in the 2001 postseason, allowing just 6 runs with 56 strikeouts. In the World Series, he started three games and posted a 1.69 ERA.
Schilling and Johnson repeated their mastery in the 2002 regular season. The D-Backs went 98-64, with 47 of those wins coming from the twin aces. Schilling's ERA rose slightly to 3.23, but he topped 300 strikeouts for the third time in his career, finishing with 316 against just 33 walks for a superhuman strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly ten-to-one. The 'Backs were favored to win again in 2002, but were stunned by the Cardinals with an NLDS sweep. Johnson got hammered in Game 1, and Schilling was out-pitched by Chuck Finley in Game 2. The Cards just had to top Miguel Batista in Game 3 to win the series.
What Schilling and Johnson did in 2001 and 2002 was on par with the best performances by Koufax and Drysdale; perhaps even better. The 1960's Dodgers had great pitching depth behind their big two; the Diamondbacks had nothing. The 1966 Dodgers backed up Koufax and Drysdale with Don Sutton, Claude Osteen, Johnny Podres, Phil Regan, Ron Perranoski, and other fine relievers. The 2001 Diamondbacks had Byung-Hyun Kim, Miguel Batista, Brian Anderson, Erik Sabel, Greg Swindell and Albie Lopez. Looked at in that context, Schilling and Johnson were more important to their teams than Drysdale and Koufax were to theirs.
Both Johnson and Schilling were injured in 2003, and Arizona fell to third place. In the 2003-2004 off-season, the Diamondbacks were looking to cut costs. The great spending spree leading up to their 2001 title had caught up to them, and Curt Schilling's $12 million salary made him fair game. And so Schilling was traded to (and got a contract extension from) to the Red Sox. Boston gave up Casey Fossum, Brandon Lyon, Jorge de la Rosa and Michael Goss. Just as Schilling had come to Arizona in a salary dump, so too had he departed.
In Boston, Schilling once again defied age (he was 37) and expectations by returning from injury to go 21-6 with a 3.26 ERA. It was in the postseason, though, that he truly forged his legend.
In the ALDS, Schilling shut down the Angels in Game 1, but felt like he'd injured his ankle. After the Sox won the ALDS, Schilling pitched in Game 1 of the ALCS against the Yankees and got hammered. He was obviously hurting and left the game after three innings and six earned runs.
But as we all know, Schilling was determined to make a comeback. Jon Lieber outpitched Pedro Martinez to win Game 2, and the Sox suffered a humiliating 19-8 loss at Fenway Park to put them down 3-0 in the Series. Schilling was determined to come back and take his turn in the rotation, so he and team doctor William Morgan
devised a makeshift surgical fix. It boiled down to Morgan just stitching Schilling's right tendon down. It wasn't a permanent fix; it was just so he could get back on the mound. And get back on the mound he did.
After winning Game 4 and Game 5, the Sox sent Schilling to the mound in a must-win Game 6. He pitched like his old self, allowing just one run in seven innings. The Sox took home the 4-2 win, and Schilling took home a
souvenir. Schilling went on to win Game 2 of the World Series against the Cardinals, throwing six innings without allowing an earned run. The Sox won in a sweep.
Injuries limited Schilling to just eleven starts in 2005, although he did make 21 relief appearances down the stretch. Schilling didn't pitch in the ALDS, as Boston got swept by the White Sox.
Schilling had one more remarkable comeback left in him, as he defied injuries to return to the mound as a full-time starter in 2006 at age 39. He made 31 starts with a 3.97 ERA and posted a magnificent 183:28 K:BB ratio. He finally wound down, though, in 2007. He started 24 games and managed a 3.87 ERA in 151 IP. In the postseason, Schilling won his only start in Boston's ALDS win over the Angels, but got knocked around in two ALCS starts. Still, the Sox went on to the Series, and Schilling won his only start, lasting 5.1 innings in a Game 2 victory over the Rockies. That would turn out to be Schilling's last major league game. All the sweeter, then, that he got to celebrate when the Sox swept the Rockies to win the World Series.
Schilling signed a one-year deal to return to the Sox for the 2008 season, but he was never healthy enough to take the mound. He publicly speculated about returning to some team in mid-2009, but decided instead to retire.
Now, I've stated my belief in Schilling's Hall of Fame case, but I do admit that he's on the bubble with many people. Because he was a late bloomer, Schilling didn't accrue a lot of 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 player 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 necessary for induction. Quantity means you have to keep up your level of production for a great period of time. If quality were all it took to make it to the Hall, then Dwight Gooden, Orel Hershiser, Sam McDowell and Roger Maris would all be in. You have to sustain quality over a great number of 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 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.
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 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.
Okay, Schilling is pretty solid on quality; he was indeed an elite pitcher and established himself on that level. 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 80's, 90's and 00's, 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 leader board, 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 (as listed) 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).
When you put Schilling's career into perspective, it looks pretty good. But is he still on the bubble? What -- if anything -- separates him from Kevin Brown, David Wells, Chuck Finley, David Cone and the other starting pitchers from this 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.

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