24 March 2009

Curt Schilling Retirement Retrospective

Curt Schilling has unofficially announced his retirement from Major League Baseball, following a 20-year career in which he went 216-146 with a 3.46 ERA that was about 27% better than the average of the leagues in which he pitched. He was named to six All-Star teams, and pitched in three of them, starting the 1999 and 2002 contests. He was the MVP of the 1993 NLCS and the co-MVP of the 2001 World Series.

He won several of the minor awards that MLB started handing out recently, like the Babe Ruth Award and the Hutch Award, but never won a Cy Young award or a regular season MVP. He finished 2nd in the CYA voting three times and 4th once, which gives him the highest award shares total of anyone who's never actually won it, for whatever that's worth.

Schilling was probably at least as famous for his outspoken nature as he was for his pitching prowess, making himself a regular fixture of talk radio call-in shows wherever he pitched and eventually blogging as well. Whether you liked him, whether you agreed with him or not, you had to give him credit for having a personality in a game that seems largely devoid of interesting characters these days.

He started out as a 2nd round draft pick of the Red Sox in 1986, when he was 19, but Boston would give up on him before he was 21. They saw his strikeouts dropping and his walks rising, took a look at the personality associated with those disturbing trends, and figured they could spare him. During the stretch drive in 1988 they traded him to Baltimore with Brady Anderson for Mike Boddicker, who helped the Sawx win two division titles in three years.

Though Schilling did well, winning 13 games for Baltimore's then-affiliate AAA Rochester as a 22 year old, Schilling was not yet ready for prime time, having pitched only a handful of mostly forgettable games in the majors when Baltimore sent him to Houston with Steve Finley and Pete Harnisch for Glenn Davis. He was 24, and already with his third different franchise.

It was allegedly in Houston that Schilling's career got the kick in the pants it needed, from none other than Roger Clemens. While Schilling was goofing off in the weight room at the Astrodome, the Rocket lectured the arrogant kid with the earrings and blue hair about how to approach the game better, and to his credit, Schilling took it to heart.

Though there was no obvious or immediate improvement while bouncing back and forth from AAA to the majors in 1991, Schilling re-focused himself. When the Phillies traded Jason Grimsley for him the following April, he finally put it all together, winning 14 games and pitching 226 innings with a 2.35 ERA that trailed only three others in the Senior Circuit.

The following year he won 16 more games and pitched 235 innings for the worst-to-first Phillies, who lost the World Series to the Toronto Blue Jays. Not that you can blame him for that, as he threw 147 pitches in a complete game shutout in Game 5, which may be why...

...he developed a bone spur in his elbow and a knee injury that limited him to just 82 MLB innings (plus 14 in the minors, during rehab) in 1994. The following year he had his season truncated in August when he needed shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, which also cost him the first several weeks of the 1996 season.

Like many pitchers who undergo such procedures, Schilling returned throwing harder than he had when he was young, as he had to be more disciplined to perform the rigorous work of rehabilitation. Though he went only 9-10, he struck out 183 batters, 10th in the NL, with a strikeout rate that was 5th among qualified pitchers.

In 1997 he led the NL with 319 strikeouts and was among the league leaders in several other categories, including ERA (8th), Wins (5th), WHIP (4th), Complete Games and Innings Pitched (3rd), K/W, shutouts and strikeout rate (2nd). On a personal note, I saw him fan 16 Yankees at Veterans Stadium on Labor Day that year, including the second, and so-far, last, Golden Sombrero of young Derek Jeter's career. When they asked him after the game what he thought of Schilling's fastball, he responded, "You're asking the wrong guy. I didn't even see it."

Schilling was just as good, if not better in 1998, but the Phillies stunk even more than usual, so he went 15-14 in a season that might have won more acclaim for him if it had been with a team that didn't lose 87 games. He went 15-6 for the 1999 Phillies, but again had a season (ahem...) cut short when he needed arthroscopic surgery on his pitching shoulder in August, and was not his usual dominant self upon his return in September.

Frustrated and unconvinced of the Phillies' long-term plans, Schilling sought a trade and got one to Arizona in the middle of Y2K. The following year the Diamondbacks became the fastest franchise in history to win a World Series, in just the 4th year of their existence, as they beat the Yankees in an emotional, exciting seven-game series.

The next year the Diamondbacks again won their division but were swept out of the playoffs by the Cardinals, despite Schilling's seven strong innings in his lone postseason start. He pitched fairly well again in 2003, but not often enough as an assortment of injuries limited him to just 168 innings, this after racking up over 250 in each of the previous two seasons.

That winter, Arizona, wanting to rebuild, actively shopped Schilling. Though he had expressed a desire to pitch either for the Yankees or the Phillies, it was Boston who eventually nabbed him, playing to his ego and talking him into joining the team, to take a run at history. They even somehow managed to work a million dollar bonus into the contract if he helped to deliver a World Series championship and end the Curse of the Bambino in 2004, despite the fact that such bonuses are not allowed per the MLB collective bargaining agreement.

Theo Epstein flew to Arizona and stayed the Thanksgiving holiday with the Schillings, playing to Schilling's well-known penchant for using the tools of the Information Age to inform his pitching approach, his desire to be a aprt of history, and even going so far as to describe what his and his wife's charity work might look like in Boston.

Meanwhile, Epstein had already worked out a deal with Arizona's owners, who , after asking the moon and stars of the Yankees, inexplicably let Schilling go for the frankly ridiculous sum total of pitchers Casey Fossum, Brandon Lyon, and Jorge de la Rosa, and minor league outfielder Michael Goss.

  • Fossum has been with three different teams since, and is 26-41 with a 5.90 ERA in 552 innings in the intervening years.
  • Lyon missed all of 2004 and half of 2005 with injuries, and is 11-15 with 42 Saves in 58 chances and a 4.04 ERA, since returning. He's expected to be the Tigers' closer this year, despite the 4.70 ERA he posted in 2008, which lost him the closer's job in Arizona.
  • De La Rosa never pitched for the Diamondbacks, and didn't do much for Milwaukee, Kansas City or Colorado either, amassing a 25-31 record and a 5.55 ERA in 404 innings over five seasons.
  • Michael Goss never got but a handful of at-bats above Single-A, and has been trying to stay afloat in the independent leagues since 2005.
It was, in short, a horrendous trade for the Diamondbacks, though a great one for Schilling and Boston. Schilling won 21 games and finished 2nd in the Cy Young Voting to Johan Santana, and helped lead Boston to their first World Series title in 86 years. Perhaps best of all, they came back from an 0-3 deficit to the Yankees in the ALCS to win the series, with Schilling famously pitching through an ankle injury that required him to change his bloody sock every few innings.

The following year, injuries again limited his contribution to the team, as he pitched only 93 innings and won eight games. His lack of availability in the playoffs helped lead to the Red Sox first round exit at the hands of the eventual World Champion White Sox, who had not won it all since 1917. So, in a way, Schilling helped to end two such streaks. Maybe the Pale Hose owe him a million bucks, too?

Healthy again in 2006, Schilling won 15 games and led the team with a 3.97 ERA, but Josh Beckett had trouble adjusting to the American League, and their teammates faltered, dropping to 6th in the AL in Runs and 11th in ERA. The Red Sox did not even finish 2nd in their division for the first time since 1997.

But the 2007 team came back with a vengeance, leading the AL in wins and ERA, finishing 3rd in runs scored, winning their first division title since 1995, and winning a second World Series in four years. Schilling missed more time due to injuries, pitching only 151 innings in the regular season and winning nine games, but he was healthy enough to go 3-0 with a 3.00 ERA in four postseason starts en route to his third World Series ring.

He re-signed with Boston for 2008, but his shoulder flared up again in spring training that year, and he would not throw another major league pitch. Now 42, he has decided to hang up his spikes, though probably not his laptop or cell phone.

Schilling likes the limelight too much to simply fade into obscurity.

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