- Curt Schilling has all the credentials of a Hall of Fame pitcher, but his incendiary behavior since his retirement has kept voters from electing him.
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2018 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2013 election, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research, and was expanded for inclusion in The Cooperstown Casebook. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.
On the field, Curt Schilling was best when the spotlight shone brightest. A top starter on four pennant winners and three World Series champions, he has a strong claim as the best postseason pitcher of his generation. Founded in pinpoint command of his mid-90s fastball and a devastating splitter, his regular season dominance enhances his case for Cooperstown. He’s one of just 16 pitchers to strike out more than 3,000 hitters, and he owns the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio in modern major league history.
That said, Schilling never won a Cy Young award and finished with “only” 216 regular-season wins, a problem given that only three starters with fewer than 300 wins have been elected since 1992. Two of those—Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz—came in 2015, suggesting that others could follow in their wake.
Schilling was something of a late bloomer who didn't click until his age-25 season, after he had been traded three times. He spent much of his peak pitching in the shadows of even more famous (and popular) teammates, which may have helped to explain his outspokenness. Former Phillies manager Jim Fregosi nicknamed him "Red Light Curt" for his desire to be at the center of attention when the cameras were rolling. Whether expounding about politics, performance-enhancing drugs, the QuesTec pitch-tracking system or "the bloody sock," Schilling wasn't shy about telling the world what he thought.
For better and worse, that desire eventually extended beyond the mound. Schilling used his platform to raise money for research into amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and, after a bout of oral cancer, recorded public service announcements on the dangers of smokeless tobacco. In 1996, USA Today named him "Baseball's Most Caring Athlete.” But in the years since his retirement, his actions and inflammatory rhetoric on social media have turned him from a merely controversial and polarizing figure to one who continues to create problems for himself. Normally, that wouldn’t be germane to the Hall of Fame discussion, but his promotion of a tweet promoting the lynching of journalists during the tense 2016 presidential campaign brought his momentum to a screeching halt.
Schilling climbed from 38.8% in 2013 to 52.3% in ’16, even while taking a backseat to a quintet of pitchers—Martinez, Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson—whose hardware and milestones led to first-ballot entries. Due in large part to his social media battles, he plummeted to 45.0% in 2017, as several previous supporters left him off their ballots even when they had space to spare, either explicitly or implicitly citing the character clause. While he’ll benefit from a lack of 300-win pitchers to cut the line during his five remaining years of eligibility, his capacity for self-sabotage has placed his candidacy in a uniquely precarious position.
|Pitcher||Career WAR||Peak WAR||JAWS||Wins||Losses||ERA||ERA+|
|Avg. HOF SP||73.9||50.3||62.1|
The son of a career Army man, Schilling was born in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1966 as part of a family that bounced around the U.S. before settling in Phoenix. Though he impressed scouts at a tryout camp held by the Reds after his junior year at Shadow Mountain High School, he didn’t make the varsity squad until his senior year, and went undrafted out of school. After enrolling at Yavapai Junior College in Arizona, he pitched in the Junior College World Series, was chosen by the Red Sox in the second round of the now-bygone January draft in 1986 and signed for a $20,000 bonus.
Schilling put himself on the prospect map in 1987 by leading the Class A South Atlantic League in strikeouts at age 20, but midway through the next year, he was traded to the Orioles along with outfielder Brady Anderson in a deadline deal for pitcher Mike Boddicker. He debuted in the majors in September 1988, making four starts but getting rocked for a 9.82 ERA, and he was knocked around during a similar cup-of-coffee the following year. In 1990, he stuck around Baltimore as a reliever for about half of the 1990 season, putting up a 2.54 ERA in 46 innings. Even so, he didn't exactly impress Orioles manager Frank Robinson, his first big-league skipper, with his personal appearance. 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 a September 1990 game, he admitted to not having paid attention to the opposing lineup. “The ‘Who’s Up?’ story spread through the organization until it became synonymous with his name. Million-dollar arm. Ten-cent head,” wrote Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post. That winter, the Orioles sent Schilling to the Astros (along with outfielder Steve Finley and pitcher Pete Harnisch) for first baseman Glenn Davis, a deal that's still reviled in Baltimore, less for the future stardom of those departing than for Davis’ flop in Baltimore.
Schilling was not a big hit in Houston, either. After spending the 1991 season in the bullpen, he was traded to Philadelphia for Jason Grimsley just before Opening Day the following year. Six weeks into the season, he finally got another shot to start and was outstanding, completing 10 of 26 turns with four shutouts. He finished the '92 season 14–11 with a 2.35 ERA in 226 1/3 innings; his ERA and 5.9 WAR both ranked fourth in the league.
Schilling's ERA ballooned to 4.02 (99 ERA+) in 1993 as a full-time member of the rotation, but his 186 strikeouts ranked fourth in the league. More importantly, he helped Philadelphia win its first division title in a decade. He then earned NLCS MVP honors against Atlanta with two strong eight-inning starts in which he allowed a combined three earned runs and struck out 19, though he received a no-decision in both. Roughed up in the World Series opener against the Blue Jays, Schilling rebounded to throw a 147-pitch, five-hit shutout in Game 5 to stave off elimination, though the Jays won the Series on Joe Carter's famed walk-off homer in Game 6.
The combination of the 1994–95 players’ strike and a trio of surgeries—for a bone spur in his elbow, torn cartilage in his left knee and, most seriously, a torn labrum and frayed rotator cuff—limited Schilling to just 56 starts from 1994 to ’96, but he returned from his surgery with improved velocity and continued to miss bats. He whiffed 182 hitters in 183 1/3 innings in 1996, and though he made just 26 starts overall, his eight complete games led the league. Both his 3.19 ERA (134 ERA+) and his 4.9 WAR cracked the top 10.
Despite the fact that the Phillies had suffered three straight losing seasons, including a 95-loss campaign in 1996, Schilling chose to sign a below-market, three-year, $15.45 million extension in April 1997. While the hapless team went 68–94, he went 17–11 with a 2.97 ERA (143 ERA+) in 254 1/3 innings and a league-leading 319 strikeouts, the highest total in the majors since Nolan Ryan's 341 in 1977 and the most in the NL since Sandy Koufax's 382 in '65. He made his first All-Star team and placed fourth both in WAR (6.3) and in the Cy Young voting, losing out to Martinez, who struck out 305 with a 1.90 ERA for the Expos.
The next year, Schilling became the first pitcher since J.R. Richard in 1978 and '79 to notch at least 300 strikeouts in back-to-back seasons; he finished with a league-leading 300, and his 268 2/3 innings and 15 complete games—still the highest total since 1992—paced the circuit as well. His 6.2 WAR again ranked fourth. But the mileage soon caught up to him. Though Schilling 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, underwent off-season surgery to tighten his shoulder capsule and didn't make another regular-season appearance until April 30, 2000. Though not as dominant as in 1997 and '98, he pitched reasonably well; with the Phillies en route to a 97-loss season, he agreed to waive his no-trade clause and was sent to Arizona for a four-player package on July 26. The Diamondbacks, tied for first place in the NL West at the time of the trade, ultimately fell short of a playoff spot.
With Schilling and lefty Randy Johnson forming the league's best one-two punch, Arizona won the division in 2001. Schilling set career highs with 22 wins and 8.8 WAR and struck out 293 hitters in 256 2/3 innings, walking just 37 for an eye-popping 7.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He would have waltzed 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 Cy wins; Schilling placed second in the vote.
More importantly, the Diamondbacks won the NL West, and Schilling built on that dominant regular season by sparkling in the playoffs. In the first two rounds against the Cardinals and the Braves, he threw three complete-game victories and struck out 30, allowing just three runs. In the World Series against a Yankees team seeking its fourth straight championship, he yielded one run in seven innings in a Game 1 win, then duplicated that performance on three days' rest in Game 4. He was in position to get the win in that game too, until Diamondbacks closer Byung-hyun Kim allowed a game-tying, two-run homer to Tino Martinez in the ninth and then Derek Jeter’s walk-off solo shot in the 10th.
The Series wound up stretching to seven games, where Schilling again took the ball on three days' rest. He held the Yankees scoreless for the first six innings but departed in the eighth, trailing 2–1 after surrendering a homer to Alfonso Soriano. Johnson came out of the bullpen in relief, and Arizona rallied for two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning against Mariano Rivera to win the title. Schilling shared co-MVP honors with Johnson (and soon enough, Sports Illustrated’s Sportsmen of the Year honors as well). For the postseason, he had put up a 1.12 ERA, setting records for innings (48 1/3 innings, surpassed by Madison Bumgarner in 2014), and strikeouts (56) and walking just six.
Schilling was nearly as outstanding in 2002, with 8.7 WAR, 23 wins and 316 strikeouts with a 9.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the second of five times he’d lead his league in that category from 2001-06. “He’s Picasso with a machine gun,” marveled Blue Jays pitcher Dan Plesac. “The command of his fastball, to all four quadrants of the plate, [is] like no power pitcher in years.” Schilling’s WAR, wins, strikeouts and Cy Young vote total took a back seat only to Johnson.
After a 2003 season in which he was limited to 24 starts by an appendicitis and two fractured metacarpals (via a pair of comeback shots in the same game), Schilling waived his no-trade clause for a deal to the Red Sox, who were , fresh off their agonizing ALCS loss to the Yankees via Aaron Boone’s walkoff homer. 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 (the clause actually ran afoul of MLB’s contract rules).
Pairing with Martinez as Boston's co-ace, the 37-year-old Schilling put up another banner season, with 21 wins, a 3.26 ERA (148 ERA+ in hitter-friendly Fenway Park) and 203 strikeouts. He earned All-Star honors for the sixth time, but a torn tendon sheath in his right ankle hampered him as the postseason came around. Following an unexceptional Division Series start against the Angels, he was chased by the Yankees after just three innings in Game 1 of the ALCS. It didn't appear as though the injury would matter once New York built a 3–0 series lead, but when the Sox clawed their way back, Schilling took the ball for Game 6 in the Bronx.
The day before the start, doctors performed an experimental procedure—first tried on a cadaver—to secure a tendon in place using three stitches; TV shots that night routinely captured the blood in Schilling's ankle seeping through his sock. Nevertheless, his body held together long enough for him to turn in a seven-inning, one-run performance, helping the Sox 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 its first world championship in 86 years.
Despite off-season surgery, Schilling's ankle continued to trouble him well into the following year. Splitting his time between the rotation and closing—something he'd done regularly only in early 1991—he finished with an ugly 5.69 ERA in just 93 1/3 innings. He rebounded to throw 204 innings of 3.97 ERA (120 ERA+) ball in 2006, striking out 183 and finishing with a stellar 6.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but the Red Sox missed the playoffs.
Following a strong start in 2007, his season unraveled after he fell one out shy of no-hitting the A’s on June 7, as he lost six weeks to shoulder inflammation. Schilling struggled before mustering some semblance of his old form in the postseason: He threw seven shutout innings in the Division Series clincher against the Angels, rebounded from an ALCS Game 2 pounding by the Indians to yield two runs over seven innings in Game 6 and wobbled through 5 1/3 innings in Game 2 of the World Series against the Rockies—another sweep, as it turned out.
He never pitched a competitive game again. Schilling signed an incentive-laden one-year, $8 million deal to return to Boston in 2008, but further shoulder problems that winter led to a public battle with the team over his treatment. He didn't undergo surgery to repair his biceps tendon and labrum until June, and couldn’t rehab in time to rejoin the team.. The following spring, he announced his retirement.
Schilling finished with 216 wins, a lower total than all but 16 of the 62 starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame, only three of whom (Koufax, Smoltz and Don Drysdale) pitched in the majors during the post-1960 expansion era. The BBWAA voters have taken a long time to accept 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 (284 career wins and seven 20-win seasons) in 1991, it took until 2011—when Bert Blylelven (287 wins) was elected—for another starter with fewer than 300 victories to be elected by the writers. Given that it took the writers 14 years to elect Blyleven, that Jack Morris (254) was nearly elected before falling off the ballot in 2014 and that Smoltz gained entry armed with a Cy Young award and additional credentials as a dominant closer, it’s still not clear that a majority of voters has let go of win totals.
Schilling was the first among a wave of excellent non-300 win pitchers to hit the ballot, followed by Mike Mussina (270 wins) in 2014 and Martinez (219) and Smoltz (213) in '15. Pitching in the highest scoring era since the 1930s, those men 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 '70s who helped set that 300-or-bust standard, but they belong alongside them in Cooperstown just the same. Martinez and Smoltz went in without a fuss, which should open the door for Schilling and Mussina, with 2019 candidate Roy Halladay (203 wins) possibly benefiting as well.
Even so, Schilling's candidacy has far more than his regular season win total going for it. He was 11–2 with a 2.23 ERA in 133 1/3 postseason innings covering 19 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 totaling 48 innings. Other pitchers of his era racked up more postseason appearances and wins, but no starter from the post-1960 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 from lower-scoring eras, making Schilling's accomplishments all the more impressive.
Turning back to the regular season: Schilling's 3,116 strikeouts rank 15th all-time, and his 8.6 strikeout-per-nine rate ranks third among pitchers with at least 3,000 innings, behind only Johnson and Ryan and 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: His trio of 300-K seasons puts him in the company of Johnson, Ryan and Koufax as the only pitchers with more than two such seasons during the expansion era, and he finished in his league's top five in strikeouts eight times. What's more, he demonstrated 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 pitcher with at least 3,000 innings since 1893, when the pitching distance was first set at 60’ 6”.
Schilling never won a Cy Young award, but he placed second three times from 2001 to '04. Because he's all over the leaderboard in key pitching categories, he 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 clear the bar by a mile.
Schilling's ability to miss bats and prevent runs led to eight top five finishes in WAR and nine seasons of at least 5.0 WAR; among his contemporaries, only Clemens (14), Johnson (11), Maddux (11) and Mussina (10) had more, while Martinez had as many. His 79.9 career WAR ranks 26th all-time, six wins above the standard for Hall of Fame starters. His peak score of 49.0 WAR is 1.3 wins below the standard—a couple runs per year, spread out over seven seasons. His overall JAWS, however, is 2.4 ahead of the standard, good for 27th all-time, ahead of five 300-game winners (Glavine, Ryan, Mickey Welch, Don Sutton and Early Wynn) as well as 32 other enshrined starters. That's a Hall of Fame pitcher.
After debuting with 38.8% of the vote in 2013, Schilling lost and then regained around nine points over the next two cycles before climbing to 52.3% in ’16. The 50% threshold is significant. Leaving aside those on the current ballot, only Gil Hodges, Jack Morris and Lee Smith received that much support from the writers and never gained entry. The books are hardly closed on any of them. Morris is making his first appearance on the Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot this year, while Smith figures to surface on a future Today’s Game Era Committee ballot, perhaps as early as next year. Hodges, most recently a candidate on the 2014 Golden Era ballot, is sure to resurface again.
Schilling’s politics have been a significant part of his public persona going back to when he stumped for George W. Bush on Good Morning America just hours after the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series, an unpopular move in a state that voted heavily for Massachusetts senator John Kerry during that year's presidential election. But to the point that he surpassed the 50% threshold in voting, his candidacy had withstood numerous controversies and efforts to alienate voters, including but not limited to:
• His longstanding public feuds with high-profile writers such as ESPN’s Pedro Gomez, Newsday’s Jon Heyman and the Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy.
• The demise of his videogame company, 38 Studios, which received a $75 million loan from the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation to relocate from Massachusetts but went bankrupt and laid off its staff of 379 people without notice, violating federal law. The state of Rhode Island filed suit and recouped just $16.9 million in two partial settlements.
• A fall 2015 suspension from his job as an ESPN analyst for posting a Twitter meme that compared Muslim extremists to German Nazis.
• His January 2015 claim (later repeated) that his conservative political views were costing him votes.
That last claim was belied by back-to-back double-digit gains on the 2015 and ’16 ballots. Despite his surge, Schilling continued to run afoul of ESPN until being fired in April 2016 for “unacceptable” conduct stemming from his posting of an offensive Facebook meme about transgender bathroom laws, and his publicly commenting on the 2016 presidential election. While nobody should be content with an employer suppressing his public expression, employment in such a high-profile job within the Disney empire doesn’t come without certain expectations and conditions that Schilling repeatedly chose to violate.
Schilling’s rhetoric grew increasingly inflammatory after his firing. On Twitter, days before the 2016 presidential election, he praised a photo showing a pro-Donald Trump t-shirt that advocated lynching; “So much awesome here,” he said of a shirt that read, “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.” While Schilling later claimed his comments were “sarcasm,” by that point, several BBWAA voters proclaimed that they were withdrawing their support of Schilling’s candidacy at least for 2017, citing the same character clause that many voters use to justify not voting for players connected to PED use. Wrote former BBWAA president Susan Slusser, “I've voted for him previously. But seems to me like advocating murder goes against character clause.” Wrote another former BBWAA president, Jose de Jesus Ortiz, “[P]roposing lynching pretty much sinks his chance on my ballot on character clause.” Wrote Shaughnessy, “[Schilling] has transitioned from a mere nuisance to an actual menace to society.” Said Heyman in a radio interview, “There is a line there to me and he crossed that line by espousing lynching.”
They weren’t the only voters who shied from Schilling. Via Ryan Thibodaux’s ballot tracker, which collects the published votes of every voter willing to share (which 71.0% did in 2017, either before or after the election), Schilling was dropped from the ballots of 35 voters who had supported him the previous year. While 18 returning voters and 12 out of 15 new voters added him to their ballots, presumably on the strength of his statistical credentials rather than his offensive rhetoric, he was the only one of 34 candidates to lose significant ground relative to 2016. He dropped 7.3% from 2016, receiving 45.0%.
For his part, Schilling has refused to temper his views for the benefit of his candidacy. Just before the 2016 voting results were announced, he told Boston radio station WEEI, “I’m not going to change who I am to make people think differently of me… If my mouth keeps me out of the Hall of Fame, then it’s a flawed process.” He made similar comments before the 2017 announcement, calling the voters “some of the worst human beings I've ever known ... scumbags all across,” and adding, “I promise you if I had said ‘lynch Trump,’ I'd be getting in with about 90%.”
Schilling’s pro-lynching tweet went beyond the pale as far as public discourse is concerned. The “joke” moved from conversation his personally held beliefs (however noxious) to condoning violence against a specific set of individuals, and his claim of “sarcasm” doesn’t wash given his failure to apologize or repudiate the post. But while I can’t blame anyone for thinking less of the man given his conduct and his increasingly corrosive public persona, my study of the history of the character clause for The Cooperstown Casebook leads me to conclude that it’s a mistake to connect Schilling’s words to the “integrity, sportsmanship, character” portion of the Hall’s voting instructions. His comments had no bearing on his playing career, and I don’t believe that the character clause is worthy of increased investment by voters.
It remains to be seen whether the damage Schilling has inflicted upon his candidacy is permanent or if voters were simply sending him a little “chin music” with the intent of knocking him down temporarily. While he could regain the lost ground, he may find further ways to alienate voters, particularly given his current job hosting an online radio show on Breitbart, a far-right website that the Southern Poverty Law Center has called a “white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill.”
I wouldn’t invite Schilling into my own home, nor would I encourage anyone to view him as a role model, but from here, nothing in his career leaves a doubt that he deserves election. He ranks among the all-time greats via his run prevention skill, his dominance in the game’s most elemental battle of balls and strikes, and his repeated ability to rise to the occasion when the on-field stakes were highest. If that’s not a Hall of Famer, I don’t know what is.