Curt Schilling may be remembered best for his role in helping the Red Sox
win the World Series in 2004, their first title in 86 years. (Rob Tringali/SportsChrome)
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2013 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to JAWS, please see here.
On a Hall of Fame ballot where the focus on one starting pitcher centers around his big-game ability, there's another starter who was even better when the spotlight shone the brightest. Curt Schilling has a strong claim to being the best postseason pitcher of his generation, and one of the best of all time, and his case for Cooperstown is backed by a strong track record of dominance during the regular season as well.
Schilling was something of a late bloomer who didn't click until his age 25 season, after he had been traded no fewer than three times. He spent some of his peak years pitching in the shadows of even more famous (and popular) teammates, which may have helped to explain his outspokenness. Whether expounding about politics, performance-enhancing drugs, the QuesTec pitch-tracking system, or a cornerstone of his legend, he wasn't shy about telling the world what he thought, earning the nickname "Red Light Curt" from Phillies manager Jim Fregosi.
In an ideal world, Schilling's time on the ballot should be smooth sailing, particularly relative to the candidacies of ballot-mates Jack Morris and Roger Clemens, pitchers around whom there's no shortage of controversy for much different reasons. However, he's in danger of being overshadowed by debates that have little to do with him — all the more reason to give his candidacy a close look.
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Born in Anchorage, Alaska, the son of a career Army man, Schilling was part of a family that bounced around the U.S. before settling in Phoenix, Arizona. Undrafted out of high school, he attended Yavapai Junior College in Arizona, and wasn't drafted until January 1986, when he was chosen in the second round by the Red Sox. He put himself on the prospect map by leading the A-level South Atlantic League in strikeouts in his second professional season at age 20, but midway through the next year he was sent to the Orioles along with Brady Anderson in a deadline deal for Mike Boddicker. He debuted in the majors that September, making four starts but getting rocked for a 9.82 ERA, and was knocked around during a similar cup-of-coffee stint the following year.
Schilling stuck around as a reliever for about half of the 1990 season, putting up a 2.54 ERA in 46 innings, but he didn't exactly impress Orioles manager Frank Robinson upon arrival. Recounted the pitcher in a 1998 Sports Illustrated profile, "I walk in, I got the earring and half my head shaved, a blue streak dyed in it. He says, 'Sit down,' and then just cocks his head and stares at me for a while. Finally, he says, 'What's wrong with you, son?' I just sit there and act dumb and say, 'Huh? What do you mean?'"
Schilling lost the earring and the blue streak, but his lack of maturity persisted. Summoned from the bullpen in September of that year, he admitted to not knowing who he was facing, an incident that spelled the end of his time in Baltimore. That winter, the Orioles sent him to Houston (along with fellow 2013 ballot newcomer Steve Finley and Pete Harnisch) for Glenn Davis, a deal that's still reviled in Baltimore. Which isn't to say Schilling was a big hit in Houston; he spent the 1991 season in the bullpen, notching eight saves and putting up a 3.81 ERA in 75 2/3 innings. The Astros traded him to Philadelphia for Jason Grimsley just before opening day the following year, and after six weeks in the bullpen, he finally got another shot to start. He was outstanding, completing 10 of 26 turns with four shutouts, and he finished the year with a 14-11 record and a 2.35 ERA in 226 1/3 innings; both his ERA and his 5.7 WAR ranked fourth in the league.
Schilling's ERA ballooned to 4.02 the next year as a full-time member of the rotation, but his 186 strikeouts ranked fourth in the league. More importantly, he helped a Phillies squad capture their first division title in a decade, and earned NLCS MVP honors against the Braves with two strong eight-inning starts in which he allowed a combined three earned runs and struck out 19, though he received no-decisions in both. Roughed up in the World Series opener against the Blue Jays, he rebounded to throw a five-hit shutout in Game 5 to stave off elimination, though the Jays won the series on Joe Carter's homer in Game 6 nonetheless. Injuries — including surgery for a torn labrum in 1995 — and the players' strike limited Schilling to just 56 starts over the next three seasons, but he returned from his surgery with improved velocity, and began racking up strikeouts. He whiffed 182 batters in 183 1/3 innings in 1996, reaching double digits in seven of his final 11 starts, and though he made just 26 starts overall, his eight complete games led the league. Both his 3.19 ERA and his 4.7 WAR cracked the top 10.
Though the Phillies were going through a rough patch, with three straight losing seasons including a 95-loss one in 1996, Schilling chose to sign a below-market, three-year, $15.45 million extension in April 1997. While the team was again hapless that year at 68-94, he was anything but. He went 17-11 with a 2.97 ERA (143 ERA+) in 254 1/3 innings, with a league-leading 319 strikeouts — the highest total in the majors since Nolan Ryan's 341 in 1977, and the highest NL total since Sandy Koufax's 382 in 1965. His 6.0 WAR ranked fourth in the league, and he made the All-Star team for the first time. He placed fourth in the Cy Young voting, losing out to the Expos' Pedro Martinez, who struck out 305 with a 1.90 ERA, more than a run lower than Schilling. The next year, Schilling became the first pitcher since J.R. Richard in 1978-1979 to reach 300 strikeouts in back-to-back seasons; he finished with an even 300, good enough to lead the league, and his 268 2/3 innings and 15 complete games — still the highest total since 1992 — paced the circuit as well. His 5.9 WAR again placed fourth.
The mileage caught up to Schilling. Though he earned All-Star honors for the third straight year in 1999 — starting the game for the NL squad, even — he made just three starts after July 23 due to shoulder inflammation, and after undergoing offseason surgery didn't make another regular season appearance until April 30 of the following year. Though not as dominant as he had been in 1997-1998, he pitched reasonably well; with the Phillies out of contention en route to a 97-loss season, he agreed to waive his no-trade clause and was sent to the Diamondbacks for a four-player package on July 26. The Diamondbacks were tied for first place in the NL West at the time of the trade, but they ultimately fell short of a playoff spot.
With Schilling paired with lefty Randy Johnson to form the league's best 1-2 punch, Arizona won the division the following year. Schilling set career highs with 22 wins and 8.5 WAR, and struck out 293 hitters in 256 2/3 innings while walking just 37 for an eye-popping 7.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He would have walked home with the Cy Young award had Johnson not struck out 372 and won 21 games himself en route to the second of four straight Cys. Schilling placed second in the vote.
He sparkled in the postseason, throwing three complete game wins in the first two rounds of the playoffs against the Cardinals and Braves, striking out 30 while allowing just three runs. Facing a Yankees team seeking their fourth straight championship, he yielded one run in seven innings in a winning effort in Game 1 of the World Series. He duplicated that performance on three days' rest in Game 4, but Diamondbacks closer Byun-Hyung Kim allowed a two-run homer by Tino Martinez in the ninth and then Derek Jeter's walkoff solo shot in the 10th. The series wound up stretching seven games, and Schilling again took the ball on three days' rest. He shut the Yankees down for six innings, but departed in the eighth, trailing 2-1 after surrendering a homer to Alfonso Soriano. Arizona rallied for two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning against Mariano Rivera, and the Diamondbacks were champions. Schilling shared co-MVP honors with Johnson; for the postseason, he had put up a 1.12 ERA in 48 1/3 innings, with a 56/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Schilling placed second to Johnson in the Cy Young voting again the following year, an 8.3 WAR campaign in which he won 23 games and struck out 316 batters while walking just 33, for a 9.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio; he led the league for the second straight year, and would go on to do so five times in a six-year span from 2001-2006. Limited to 24 starts in 2003 by an appendicitis and two fractured metacarpals, the result of a pair of comeback shots in the same game, he was done as a Diamondback. After the season, he agreed to waive his no-trade clause for a trade to the Red Sox, who had come agonizingly close to their first AL pennant since 1986, only to lose to the Yankees via Aaron Boone's walkoff home run in Game 7 of the ALCS. As part of the trade, Schilling signed a three-year, $37.5 million extension with a $13 million vesting option contingent on the Red Sox winning the World Series, something that hadn't happened since 1918.
Pairing with Martinez as the Red Sox co-ace, Schilling put up another banner season, with 21 wins, a 3.26 ERA (148 ERA+ in hitter-friendly Fenway) and 203 strikeouts. He made the All-Star team for the sixth time, but was hampered by a tendon problem in his right ankle as the postseason came around. After a solid but not exceptional start against the Angels in the Division Series, he was chased by the Yankees after just three innings in Game 1 of the ALCS. It didn't appear as though the injury was going to matter when the Yankees built a 3-0 series lead, but when the Sox clawed their way back into the series, Schilling took the ball for Game 6 in the Bronx. The day before the start, doctors performed an experimental procedure to secure a tendon in place using three stitches. Though shots of Schilling's ankle bleeding through to the sock were broadcast, his body held together long enough for him to turn in a seven-inning, one-run performance to help the Sox even the series and force a Game 7, which Boston won handily. He threw six innings of one-run ball against the Cardinals in Game 2 of the World Series, helping Boston to their first world championship in 86 years.
Though he underwent surgery on the ankle shortly after the World Series, Schilling's ankle would continue to trouble him well into the following season. After three ugly early-season starts sent him back to the disabled list, he reemerged as the team's closer before returning to the rotation late in the year. He finished the year with an ugly 5.69 ERA in just 93 1/3 innings and the Red Sox were dispatched by the White Sox in the first round of the postseason. He rebounded to throw 204 innings of 3.97 ERA ball the following year, striking out 183 and finishing with a stellar 6.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but Boston missed the playoffs.
Schilling continued in fine form the following year, until a June 7 outing against the A's where he came within one out of a no-hitter. Hit hard in his next two starts, he went on the disabled list for six weeks due to shoulder inflammation, and scuffled upon returning. He mustered some semblance of his old form in the postseason, throwing seven shutout innings in the Division Series clincher against the Angels, rebounding from a Game 2 pounding by the Indians to yield two runs over seven innings in Game 6, and wobbling through 5 1/3 innings in Game 2 of the World Series against the Rockies — another sweep, as it turned out. He signed an incentive-laden one-year, $8 million deal to return in 2008, but dealt with further shoulder problems that winter even before reporting to spring training. He publicly battled the Red Sox over his treatment; the team preferred he try to rehab first, so he didn't undergo surgery to repair his biceps tendon and labrum until June, and never made it into a game. In March of the following spring, he announced his retirement.
Schilling finished his career with "only" 216 wins, a lower total than all but 15 of the 59 starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame, only two of whom — Koufax and Don Drysdale — pitched in the majors during the post-1960 expansion era. The BBWAA voters have taken a long time to come around to the idea that pitcher wins aren't the ideal measure of success in a modern era where it's been shown that offensive, defensive and bullpen support are major factors in the compilation of those precious Ws. After electing Fergie Jenkins in 1991, it took 20 years — until Bert Blylelven's election in 2011 — for another starter with fewer than 300 wins to be elected by the writers.
Even so, Schilling's candidacy has far more than wins going for it. He was 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA in 19 postseason starts, helping his teams to four pennants and three championships; in the World Series alone, he was 4-1 with a 2.06 ERA in seven starts. Other pitchers of his era racked up more appearances and wins, but no starter from the expansion era with at least 100 postseason innings had as low an ERA. Among pitchers from that era with at least 40 innings in the World Series, only Koufax (0.94) and Bob Gibson (1.89) have lower ERAs; both pitched at a time when scoring levels were much lower, making Schilling's accomplishments all the more impressive.
Turning back to the regular season, Schilling's 3,116 strikeouts rank 15th all-time, while his 8.6 strikeouts per nine ranks third among pitchers with at least 3,000 innings, behind only Johnson and Ryan, just ahead of Roger Clemens. It's true that Schilling pitched in an era where strikeout rates were almost continually on the rise, but he was still ahead of the curve given those 300-K seasons; his trio of them puts him in the company of Johnson, Ryan and Koufax as the only pitchers with more than two such seasons during the expansion era. Eight times he finished in his league's top five in strikeouts. What's more, he managed impeccable control while doing so, leading the league in strikeout-to-walk ratio five times and placing in the top five another four times; his 4.4 ratio is the highest of any post-19th century pitcher.
Schilling never won a Cy Young award, but he placed second three times (all in the 2001-2004 period). Because he's all over the leaderboard in key pitching categories, scores very well in Bill James' Hall of Fame Monitor metric, which gives credit for awards, league leads, postseason performance and so on; on a scale where 100 indicates "a good possibility" of making the Hall of Fame, and 130 indicates "a virtual cinch," his 171 points clears the bar by a fair distance.
Schilling's ability to miss bats and prevent runs enabled him to finished in his league's top five in WAR and rack up eight seasons of at least 5.0 WAR; among his contemporaries, only Clemens (14) and Johnson (11) had more, while Martinez, Maddux and Roy Halladay had as many. His 76.1 career WAR ranks 25th all-time, 8.2 wins above the standard for Hall of Fame starters. His peak score of 46.7 WAR is one win below the standard — a couple runs per year, spread out over seven seasons — but his overall JAWS is 3.6 ahead of the standard, good for 29th all-time, ahead of five 300-game winners (Tom Glavine, Nolan Ryan, Mickey Welch, Don Sutton and Early Wynn) as well as 33 other starters.
That's a Hall of Fame pitcher, though you can bet that it may take some time for the BBWAA to notice; after all, it took them 14 years to elect Blyleven, and it's not yet clear that they can distinguish between his candidacy, founded as it is on dominance and run prevention, and that of Morris, based more on stamina and old-school win totals. Schilling is the first of a cadre of non-300 win pitchers who will hit the ballot in the next few years, with Mike Mussina, John Smoltz and Martinez soon to follow. Working in the highest scoring era since the 1930s, they more than held their own against lineups much deeper than their predecessors faced, working deep into counts to rack up high strikeout totals before yielding to increasingly specialized bullpens. The shape of their accomplishments may be different than the even larger cohort of pitchers from the 1960s and 1970s who helped set that 300-or-bust standard, but they belong alongside them in Cooperstown just the same.