Thursday, March 8, 2012

Is Curt Schilling Hall of Fame Material?

A couple of notable players from baseball's Steroids Era - Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens - were at one time considered to be sure-fire-first-ballot Hall of Fame shoe-ins.  Next year, their body of work (no pun intended) will be scrutinized by Cooperstown's Hall of Fame voters for the first time, as 2013 marks their first year of eligibility.

Of course, we all know there's no way Bonds nor Clemens stand a chance of sliding into Cooperstown any time soon; certainly not on that first ballot.  Despite their remarkable career achievements, Barry and Roger are perceived to be two surly Poster Children for Performance Enhancing Drugs.  In time, the voters will gradually parole the pair for their Crimes Against Baseball; after all, both performed at Hall of Fame standards for the bulk of their careers (no pun intended), without the juice.  Had their careers ended the day before they began their performance enhancing regimen, they would already be enshrined, and I wouldn't have used this segue to examine the Hall of Fame credentials for Curt Schilling - a former right-handed pitcher who toiled for twenty major league seasons* (and has never been linked to performance enhancing drugs).

*Note:  Although Schilling spent the first three years of his major league career with the Baltimore Orioles (1988-90), he is still credited with playing for a "major league team" (technically).

Curt Schilling was actually drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the second round of the January, 1986 amateur draft.  After signing his first professional contract with those Bambino Cursed Bo-Sox on May 30, 1986, the young Schilling no doubt dreamed of joining a rotation featuring the aforementioned Roger Clemens; on a star-studded roster boasting other talented players such as Wade Boggs, Dwight Evans, Jim Rice, and Bill Buckner (the pre-World Series goat version).

Somehow, Schilling's dream job in Boston took a detour; by the time the hard throwing right-hander was given his shot in The Show late in the '88 season - it was with the hapless Orioles, working out of their hapless bullpen.  Schilling's career seemed destined only for obscurity; by the time he was dealt to the Houston Astros after the 1990 season, Schilling had a lifetime 1-6 record, with three saves (only 600 behind Mariano Rivera's current total).  He spent the entire '91 season working out of Houston's bullpen, notching eight saves in 56 appearances, with a so-so 3.81 ERA.

Schilling's next stop was to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1992, where he was gradually worked into the starting rotation, and flourished, on a team that floundered all season long; winning 14 games with an impressive 2.35 ERA and NL best 0.990 WHIP, Schilling was now a rising star.

The following season - 1993 - the Phillies shocked the baseball world by rising to the top of the National League, en route to their first World Series engagement in a decade; Schilling pitched well in one World Series outing vs the defending champion Toronto Blue Jays, and not so well in the other, posting a 1-1 record with a 3.52 ERA; Philly fell to Toronto in six games, highlighted by Joe Carter's dramatic 9th-inning World Series-winning home run off Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams in Game Six.  Philadelphia would have to wait until 2008 to make it all the way back to the Fall Classic; beating Tampa Bay's Rays in convincing fashion - four games to one.  Of course, Toronto has long been trying to figure out a way to once again get past the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays; oh my; in its quest to grab Title Number Three.

Meanwhile, Curt Schilling would spend the rest of the '90s pitching well enough, when healthy; but was frequently frustrated by arm troubles, and even more frustrated by his team's inability to reach the post season again.  The Atlanta Braves - the National League's Team of the Nineties - virtually owned the East; reaching the post season in Philadelphia simply wasn't going to happen, so Schilling lobbied for a change of venue, which was granted mid-way through the 2000 season.  Next stop:  The Arizona Diamondbacks.

Schilling's move to the Arizona desert was a fortuitous one; teaming up with the incredible Randy Johnson in 2001 to form one of the most imposing "one-two" pitching tandems in baseball history, the D-Backs captured their first National League pennant, then prevailed over the vaunted New York Yankees in a truly classic Seven Game World Series, as Johnson and Schilling were fittingly named co-MVPs.  Curt pitched brilliantly for Arizona in his three World Series starts (1.69 ERA), winning once and getting a no-decision twice.

Schilling's regular season work in '01 was superb, finishing second in the NL Cy Young Award voting to - who else? - Randy Johnson.  While Johnson's ERA was roughly half a run lower than Schilling's that season, Curt actually led the league in wins (22), games started (35), complete games (6), and innings pitched (256.2).  On top of all that, Schilling's strikeout to walk ratio (7.51) was the best in baseball; a feat  he would accomplish in four consecutive seasons.

While his regular season accomplishments are noteworthy, they may fall just a bit short in the voter's eyes when it comes to Cooperstown consideration:

216 wins - 146 losses (.597 winning percentage)
3.46 ERA
3116 strikeouts
128 ERA+
1.137 WHIP

Major League Baseball Network analyst Mitch Williams - a former teammate of Schilling's - contends that Schilling's 216 regular season wins during his 20-year big league career doesn't cut the mustard:  "He only averaged about 10 wins per season!"  According to the "Wild Thing", a player's post season accomplishments are meaningless; the only "true measurement" of a player's value is derived from regular season play:  "It's not the Hall of Post Season Fame", is Williams' perplexing concluding argument in his case against Curt Schilling's Cooperstown credentials.

It should be noted that a line drive once smacked off the "Wild Thing's" skull during one of his (unsuccessful) relief appearances, back in the day.  The only reason I know this is because Mitch has proudly repeated this story numerous times on the air, claiming no long-lasting ill-effects from the head whacking.  I'm not so sure about that; better get that noggin x-ray-ed again, Mitch; I think they missed something that first time around, old bean.

Perhaps a player's post season accomplishments have no "Hall of Fame" value when they don't help his team win post season games (for example, Game Six of the '93 World Series).  However, when a player performs at astounding levels during the post season, helping his team win not one, but three World Championships in seven years; that should count for something.  Bonus points should be awarded for helping one of his teams break an 86-year old curse one year, then helping them win the whole she-bang three short years later.

In essence, playing a huge role in a team's successful World Championship run is what matters the most. Repeating that magic on three separate occasions is the stuff of legends.  Curt Schilling was at his best when the games mattered the most - on baseball's grandest stage.  He was on the winning side in three out of four World Series showdowns.  Without his contributions, it is highly unlikely any of those teams would have even made it into the post season; let alone win it all.

In case anyone has forgotten, here's how Curt Schilling performed during his post season career:

11 wins - 2 losses (.846 winning percentage)
2.23 ERA
0.968 WHIP

In seven World Series starts, Schilling was 4-1 with a 2.06 ERA and 0.896 WHIP.

Curt Schilling belongs in the Hall of Fame.  Anyone who thinks otherwise, should have their head examined.

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