25 March 2009

Curt Schilling Not Cooperstown-Bound

Curt Schilling announced his retirement yesterday, which immediately begs the question of whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame.


There, now that the suspense is gone, let me explain.

There are really only two arguments for Curt Schilling going to the Hall of Fame. These are, in the order of their importance:

  • He helped end an 86-year World Series drought in Boston, and helped win two other championships as well, amassing an overall postseason record of 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA in 133 innings. Without this, we wouldn't even need to address this question.
  • When he was healthy, he was one of the best pitchers in the game, winning 20+ games three times and fanning 290+ batters four times.

Taking the second part first, Schilling has been quite good in the postseason. His 133 innings, 11 wins, 120 strikeouts, and .846 winning percentage are all among the top 10 all time for career postseason performance. Ten of the 12 postseason series in which he was involved were won by his team, including three of four World Series.

In my mind, however, this should only be a tie breaker, not an argument unto itself. Dave Stewart and Orlando Hernandez were also great in the playoffs, but the rest of their careers don't measure up. Greg Maddux was so great in the regular season that nobody will care about his 11-14 record in the playoffs when it comes time to vote for him. Schilling will get a few extra votes for helping his teams to win three World Series, but I'm not sure that will do it for him.

And that's it, really, because nothing else holds up for very long. The more closely you look at his career accomplishments, the less impressive they seem.

His 216 career wins rank just 80th all-time, far fewer than most of the pitchers in the Hall already. In terms of his competition, that total is also way lower than not just future locks for Cooperstown like Randy Johnson (295), Greg Maddux (355), and Tom Glavine (305), but also borderline cases like Mike Mussina (270) and definitive 'no's like Jamie Moyer (246) and David Wells (239). And these are his contemporaries. Older guys like Jim Kaat (283), Tommy John (288) and Bert Blyleven (287) have been shut-out with much more significant career totals, and in some ways, better cases for the Hall.

Or, if you'd prefer to compare him to current Hall of Famers, it's no great chore to find some to whom Schilling compares favorably. Herb Pennock, for example, went 240-162 with only a 106 adjusted ERA and two 20-win seasons. Hal Newhouser won only 207 games and averaged 100+ walks a year for a decade, whereas Schilling, eventually, had impeccable control. Rube Marquard won only 201 games and rarely led his league in anything. Jesse Haines has a very similar record (210-158) but only a 108 adjusted ERA. There are others, but you see where this argument could go: "Because Player X is in the Hall of Fame, Schilling should be, too."

The trouble with this is twofold:

1) Some of those pitchers are so-called special cases, who lost time due to WWII, or pitched in an extreme era, or otherwise were somehow worth more than the apparent sum of their ERA and Win totals.

B) This approach waters down the talent level, turning the Hall of Fame into the Hall of Pretty Darn Good.

Just because Haines and Pennock (and Jim Bunning, and Ted Lyons and Eppa Rixey and...) are in Cooperstown doesn't mean that they belong there. Writers make mistakes, and it doesn't help things to compound those mistakes by adding more players of this caliber to what was supposed to be a shrine to the best of the best.

So if we can't justify his enshrinement based on him being better than several existing Cooperstown residents, we're left looking at Schilling's own accomplishments, and how they compare to his competition in his own career. Was he one of the best pitchers in his own era?

Yes, sometimes.

For example, his career winning percentage of .597 is quite good, but not even as good as contemporaries like Andy Pettitte, Mark Mulder and Roy Oswalt. Or even Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, for that matter. Granted, Schilling pitched for a lot of bad teams early in his career, which skews that number a bit, but he hasn't pitched for a losing team since the Phillies in Y2K, so that certainly helps.

Not a fan of Wins and Losses? Think they're archaic and a poor measure of a pitcher's worth? Well, generally I agree with you, so let's see what else we can come up with...

Earned run average is much better, as it doesn't rely on the hitters, like Wins. Schilling's career ERA is 3.46, which is pretty good, especially in this day and age. That ranks 11th among current major leaguers, behind Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, Johnson and Maddux, but also behind (believe it or not...) Roberto Hernandez and nearly tied with Tim Hudson and Carlos Zambrano.

His adjusted ERA of 127 (i.e. 27% better than the leagues in which he pitched) also ranks 11th among current major leaguers, though just 46th all-time. If you remove the players who were predominantly relievers (Mariano Rivera, Hoyt Wilhelm, Doug Jones?!?) and the pitchers who thrived in the Dead Ball Era (Smoky Joe Wood, Addie Joss, Rube Waddell, etc.) Schilling ranks around 20th to 22nd all-time, depending on whether you want to include the likes of Walter Johnson and Pete Alexander, players whose careers straddled the lines of the Dead Ball Era.

That's still pretty good, but only about as good as Kevin Brown and Sal Maglie (both 127), and not nearly as good as Harry Brecheen (133) or Spud Chandler (132), who admittedly had shorter careers. Contemporaries like Randy Johnson (137), Pedro Martinez (154) and Greg Maddux (132) blow Schilling away in this regard. Younger pitchers like Oswalt, Johan Santana, Brandon Webb and Roy Halladay are all better than Schilling at relative run prevention, though these have a while to pitch yet and will inevitably drop off over time.

Schilling's career strikeout total, 3,116, is also a point in his favor, as only 16 men in history have struck out more than 3,000 batters, and he is 15th among them. John Smoltz is likely to pass him in 2009 if he can pitch even half the season, but then nobody is likely to bump him down for several years, at best.

Of the 14 men ahead of him, 12 are either in Cooperstown already or are likely to be. The other two are Bert Blyleven, who could still pick up another 12% of the voters in the next three years, and Roger Clemens, who was considered a lock for the Hall before his name got rightfully tied to the steroid scandal. Personally, I'd vote for him anyway, but the BBWAA probably won't.

Though that's just one thing, it's a big one. Even if you believe that strikeouts are boring and fascist, you have to admit that they're effective. When the baseball writers see him on their ballots, they'll certainly see that Schilling took care of his own business more often than all but about 15 guys in history. That is pretty impressive.

But is it enough? Sure, Schilling eventually developed impeccable control as well, leading his league in WHIP and in Walks per nine innings twice each. He also led in K/W ratio five times, and his career rate is the best of anyone since the 1800's (Tommy Bond), at which time it took between six and nine balls to walk a batter, depending on the year. That is, Schilling has the best ratio of strikeouts to walks of any pitcher who's tossed at least 1000 innings since they invented the 6-pitches-or-fewer walk.

On the other hand, Schilling never led his league in ERA (real or adjusted) or shutouts, or strikeout rate, some of the signs of dominance you see frequently from Hall of Fame pitchers. He was often a workhorse, during the infrequent healthy stretches, leading the league in starts three times, in Wins and Innings pitched twice each, and in complete games four times. But herein lies the trouble. Schilling amassed 3,261 innings in his major league career, good for 95th place all time, but fewer than Kenny Rogers, or John Smoltz.

It's also way fewer than Mike Mussina, Randy Johnson, Maddux, Glavine or Clemens, his primary competition for enshrinement in Cooperstown. As it happens, it's also far fewer innings than those pitched by Dennis Martinez, Charlie Hough, Jack Morris, and Frank Tanana, none of whom is likely to ever be in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown unless they buy a family pass.

Despite pitching for 21 years, he averaged just 155 innings per season, if you include 2008, when he had an $8 million contract from the Boston Red Sox but did not throw a pitch. For comparison's sake, Smoltz averaged 162 innings per year, and that includes the missed Y2K season and four years where he intentionally pitched only in relief (and was excellent at it). David Wells averaged 164 innings per year. Jamie Moyer? 170 IP/year. The Big Unit? 192. Mike Mussina averaged almost 198 innings. Maddux and Glavine and Clemens are all over 200.

You get the point, I think: Schilling was great on certain occasions when he was healthy enough to pitch every 5th day, but such times were infrequent. He had five or six seasons (1997, 1998, 2001, 2002 and 2004, probably 1992) when he was among the five to ten best pitchers in baseball, though you'd be hard pressed to say he was ever the best, even in those years. He had five other years in which he pitched fairly regularly, and with decent success.

And then he had ten years lost all or partly to his either lack of focus (as was the case early in his career) or, more often, to injuries. Edgar Martinez will suffer from the same problem: great peak value, but not enough time when he was fully healthy.

Not that the injuries are necessarily his fault, but neither should we simply ignore them and give him credit for what he might have done if healthy. Don Mattingly and Orel Hershiser and Albert Belle don't get credit for lost time, and neither should Schilling. If I had to give odds, I'd say 8-5 he probably will eventually get in. I just don't think he should.

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1 comment:

thegue said...

I don't think Blyleven was going to get in until the Netherlands did well in the WBC, and I argued my point here: http://baseballbullsh.blogspot.com/

I also made comments #153 #154 on ESPNs. To summarize for Schilling, for each generation, anywhere from 5-8 starting pitchers get in (sometimes they overlap). It is not a stretch to say Schilling rates anywhere from 5-9 on the list, and with Clemens going down in flames over steroids, moves up a notch.