So, a few days ago, I looked at this year’s Hall of Fame class, and I promised I’d come back to the case of Curt Schilling. So, to strike while the iron is still relatively hot, let’s take a look at him.
Let me start with the disclaimer that I’ve come to loathe the man for his post-playing antics. 50% “I want to be honest about my biases”, 50% “I need the catharsis of saying it”. To-MAY-to, to-MAH-to. For those who don’t know, after his playing days ended, Curt took a $75M loan from the state of Rhode Island to start a video game company (38 Studios) when his only background in the field was that he liked playing them. He promptly ran the company into the ground, but then re-emerged as a full-of-shit “small government, except for multi-million dollar loans to ex-jocks for their vanity projects” conservative. I suppose that was eye-rollingly tolerable, but he’s since leaned into his second life as “Alex Jones Lite” and frequently graces Twitter with all sorts of bigoted trash while promoting his show on Breitbart.
All of that makes this next part hard to say: Curt Schilling probably belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
One can view his full stats here, but to give a few highlights: Schilling was one of the premier power pitchers of his generation (3116 strikeouts, currently sitting 15th all-time). What’s more, he did it with pretty great control — his Ks/9 weren’t that much worse than Greg Maddux, who’s widely lauded as the best control pitcher in modern history. He also played for three World Series winners (2001 for Arizona; 2004 and 2007 with Boston). If there’s a statistical knock on his candidacy, it’s that his win totals are kinda low (216) because he spent the first half of his career playing for mostly-bad teams in Philadelphia (he arrived in time for the 1993 World Series trip, but then they blew up the team around him). The other knock is more of a feel thing — somewhat borne out by things like Cy Young and MVP voting — that he never really felt like a best-of-the-best guy, more like he topped out at “really good” (not that there’s any shame in that).
Let’s start with the “character clause”/off-field stuff first, because it’s probably easiest to dispense with. There have been people who say they won’t vote for him because of his political views. Besides the fact that it just feels wrong to punish him for what is ultimately free expression, I would argue that the character clause, even if one were to apply it, should apply to their career as a player, not to what they do in their personal life outside baseball. You wouldn’t catch me at his induction ceremony even if you paid me, but nothing Curt Schilling did in his playing days casts the slightest shadow on his candidacy.
So then there’s the low win total. On one hand, I think the sabermetrics movement has cast the idea of the win in a new light, and 300 wins isn’t the Holy Grail it used to be. On the other hand… that’s pretty freakin’ low. It wasn’t so long ago how we were talking that Don Sutton shouldn’t be an automatic Hall of Famer at 324 wins; now we’re just gonna drop down a hundred-some wins like it’s no big deal?
Except… Pedro Martinez is the game-changer here. There is not a sane person in the world who would argue that Pedro Martinez is not one of the most electric pitchers of his generation. You simply cannot have a conversation about great pitchers of the 90s and 00s without him. On a personal level, I was once working a contract in Albany, and I seriously considered driving the 3-ish hours to Boston — after a full day’s work — to try to scalp a seat at Fenway because his rotation spot was up that day. He was that good.
And guess what? Pedro finished his career with 219 wins. So if you want a Hall of Fame that includes Pedro Martinez, then all of a sudden, the 210-220 range is in play, at which point maybe we need to recalibrate our radar and admit that’s what a great pitcher looks like now. If you somehow don’t want a Hall of Fame with Pedro Martinez? Go watch cricket because you’re clearly not a fan of baseball. It doesn’t kill the argument entirely — there’s a case to be made that Pedro was a transcendent talent but that the queue for non-Pedro pitchers should start at 240 or 250 wins — but it takes some of the sting out of it.
Now let’s take a look at the idea that Schilling was merely “really good” rather than “great”. An interesting comparison here is Kevin Brown — other than the World Series rings and strikeouts, Brown and Schilling are pretty statistically similar pitchers. But Brown’s Cooperstown case was a one-and-done with 2% of the vote. Is Schilling THAT much better than Kevin Brown?
Let’s come at this from the top down. Who amongst Schilling’s contemporaries were absolutely better than Schilling? I would think you’d get little argument on Randy Johnson, Maddux, Martinez, Roger Clemens, and perhaps Tom Glavine.
After that, who else could you credibly could put in conversation? We’ll put the aforementioned Kevin Brown in the bucket to start, just for grins. Mike Mussina? Most of his stats other than wins aren’t nearly as good. I think Johan Santana at his peak was better (if it’s a “Space Jam” scenario where you have to win one game, give me Santana over Schilling) but he was injured so much that he only had 4 or 5 truly great seasons. The third guy of the Braves’ trinity, John Smoltz? An oddball career that included reinventing himself as a closer for three years, and then going back to the rotation. Roy Halladay also feels like he could fit (long time staff ace, win totals suffered because he played for a lot of bad Toronto teams), but you put his stats next to Schilling and it’s not really much of a contest. Anyone else? There’s a few other names like Roy Oswalt and Mark Buehrle that briefly wave hello to my brain and then leave, but no one jumps out as a serious contender.
(Aside: there’s also a few guys like Jamie Moyer who are nobody’s idea of a great pitcher, but managed to pile up more wins just on longevity. Since we’re talking about greatness, let’s just say those aren’t the droids we’re looking for and move on.)
So let’s say you give ALL those guys the benefit of the doubt — which I wouldn’t — and that’s still only 10 guys, with Schilling knocking at the door at #11. Eliminate a couple (I wouldn’t make a serious case for Halladay or Santana) and Schilling’s a top 10 generational pitcher, unless I’m forgetting someone obvious.
So set aside the wins or the fact that he was only sporadically a Cy Young finalist. Should a Top 10 pitcher be in Cooperstown? I would argue yes.
I will say it’s no great crime that he’s struggled to get in. First, there’s been a glut of pretty good candidates the last few years, particularly as the voters have had to grapple with the PED guys on the hitting side. Looking at his stats, Schilling’s a better pitcher than I remembered, but some of his value was tied up in the un-sexy workhorse stats. I also don’t think it’s anyone’s fault that it took us a few years to recalibrate toward the notion that 250 wins is the new 300 and 225 is the new edge of reasonable. So all the people rending their garments about how Schilling is being punished can probably simmer down a little and give it a few more years. He’ll probably get in eventually, and he probably deserves to.