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January 7, 2013

Wezen-Ball

Through the Years: Curt Schilling

by Larry Granillo

With the Hall of Fame announcement scheduled for this week, now is a good time to look back at the early careers of some of this year's most talked-about nominees. (And with the early exit polls looking as they do, it might be nice to remember just how great some of these players were.) This post was originally written (mostly) in 2009.

If this year's Hall of Fame ballot weren't explicitly designed by the baseball gods to ruffle a serious amount of feathers, one of the most intriguing new names would almost certainly be Curt Schilling. He's been in the news recently for many non-baseball reasons, but, as a player pitching for the World Champion Diamondbacks and Red Sox who struck out more than 300 batters three separate times, he was a great regular season pitcher whose postseason success may legitimately boost him into Cooperstown. With the hoopla at the top of the ballot, however, it might be a while before voters give him his fair due.

Curt Schilling first appeared in the 1989 Sporting News preview guide as one of the Orioles "top rookie prospects," with TSN saying that he "promises to be sleeper from Boddicker deal, but might not wake for a year." The following year was his first full season in the majors, and he performed well in his bullpen roll. That offseason, however, the Orioles traded him, along with Pete Harnisch and Steve Finley, to the Astros for Glenn Davis. Davis never worked out for the O's and Schilling never quite worked out for the Astros. He was traded to the Phillies just as the 1992 season began, but it was too late for the magazines. This is what the '92 TSN guide had to say about Schilling on the Astros:

"Righthander Curt Schilling, who opened the season as the Astros' closer, had eight saves overall but was so ineffective at one point that he was sent to the minors."

After a month-and-a-half of relief duty for the Phils, he was moved into the starting rotation and never really looked back. The '92 season saw him put up 147 strikeouts in 226 innings, and post an ERA of 2.35 (150 ERA+). It was a great beginning to his life as a starter. His success didn't go unnoticed, although it was viewed with a little caution.

"Although Mulholland (a league-leading 12 complete games) will be the No. 1 starter, Schilling and Rivera have developed faster than expected. Schilling, acquired from Houston before the start of last season, compiled a 14-11 record and a 2.35 earned-run average in 226 1/3 innings of work. Opponents hit just .201 against him (the lowest figure in the league), and his 10 complete games ranked second only to Mulholland's 12."

Schilling's 1993 season wasn't quite as good as the year before, but he did seem to start learning his role as a power pitcher. His strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio increased dramatically, but his ERA suffered, with his ERA+ dropping to 99. He did post a 16-7 record, though. It was enough to label him the "staff ace" of the NL pennant winners.

"Schilling's career-high 16 wins established him as the staff ace even before he won the NL playoff Most Valuable Player award and subsequently shut out Toronto in Game 5 of the World Series. Schilling's emergence and the continued development of Tommy Greene made it possible for the Phillies to shop No. 2 starter Terry Mulholland over the winter."

The strike-shortened season of 1994 was one to forget for the newly minted ace. He posted a 2-8 record on the season, with only 58 strikeouts and 28 walks in 83 innings pitched. Injuries caused him to miss two months of playing time in May and June before the players struck. As the 1995 season began, hope had returned that a healthy Schilling would be able to help the Phillies.

"Curt Schilling and Tommy Greene, arguably the team's two best pitchers, spent most of last season either pitching in pain or stuck on the disabled list, and the Phillies still finished fourth in the league with a 3.85 ERA. ... Schilling and Greene were hampered by injuries last season, but are healthy and will be counted upon to lead the staff. In 1993, the duo combined to go 32-11 in 64 starts with a 3.74 ERA; in '94, they went 4-8 in 20 starts with a 4.50 ERA."

Schilling pitched much better in 1995. With 114 strikeout and 26 walks in only 116 innings pitched, he posted a strikeout rate of nearly 9 strikeouts per 9 innings and a strikeout-to-walk rate better than 4:1. He was sidelined with a shoulder injury in late July, though, and had to undergo surgery in the offseason. He wasn't able to return to the rotation until May of '96, but he pitched well when he did. For the remainder of the season, he posted a 3.19 ERA (134 ERA+) in 183 innings, with 182 strikeouts. It wasn't enough to help the 67-95 Phillies, though. At least his contribution wasn't unnoticed.

"Schilling proved his surgically reconstructed right shoulder was healthy last year and should be considered among the top pitchers in the NL."

The 1997 season was his best season to date. In 254 innings, Schilling struck out 319 batters while only walking 58. His 2.97 ERA (143 ERA+) was good for 8th in the league, and his 17 wins (for a 68-win team) placed him 5th in the NL. It was the first year he received any Cy Young votes, finishing fourth. Heading into the 1998 season, the Phillies were certainly pleased to have Schilling at the top of their rotation.

"After striking out an NL-righthander record 319 batters and winning a career-high 17 games last year, Schilling has established himself as one of the game's dominant power pitchers. The ultra-competitive Schilling enjoys anchoring the rotation, and he wants to win 20 games and the Cy Young Award."

Schilling followed that great '97 season with another great season. Technically, his numbers were down across the board, but they were still dominant. In 268 innings that year, he struck out 300 batters and walked only 61, and his ERA of 3.25 was still good enough for a 134 ERA+. That offseason, Kevin Brown signed a 7-year, $105 million contract with the Dodgers, upping the ante for all pitchers.

"If Kevin Brown is worth $15 million a year on the open market, Curt Schilling isn't far behind. The workhorse righthander pitched a league-leading 269 innings in 1998, and again was the leader in strikeouts-per-inning. Perhaps the most telling statistic was the club's 8-1 record when scoring five or more runs in Schilling starts (or perhaps it was the 22 starts in which he received three or fewer runs of support). After again leading the majors in pitches thrown, how much does the 32-year-old have left? Schilling wants to duplicate Roger Clemens' mid-30s success."

The 1999 season looked to be more of the same for Schilling as it began (he started the All-Star game, for example), but, as the season wore on, his arm and shoulder started acting up again, limiting him to only five appearances in the second half. He opted for surgery that December, and wasn't able to re-join the rotation until April 30.

The contract extension that Schilling signed with the Phillies in 1997 was set to expire at the end of the 2000 season (though there was a club option), making him a very valuable commodity at the deadline, especially for a team in the middle of another 65-97 season. As the deadline approached, it was Arizona who made the Phillies the best offer, trading Omar Daal, Travis Lee, Nelson Figeuroa, and Vicente Padilla for the ace. Schilling pitched well in his 13 starts for the Diamondbacks that season, but it was well short of spectacular. The Dbacks were not deterred, though, and they were able to convince Schilling to sign a 3 year, $32 million deal with the club. This matched Schilling with the other most dominant pitcher in the NL, Randy Johnson, and quickly set up the Dbacks for one of the most improbable World Series victories in history. The preview guides were very excited at the prospect of those two pitching together for the entire season. From the 2001 TSN:

"Only the Yankees can match the one-two punch of lefthander Johnson, who has won the last two NL Cy Youngs, and righthander Curt Schilling.
...
Schilling, acquired in July from the Phillies, will be motivated by his 5-6 record after the trade. More important, he will be more than a year removed from December 1999 shoulder surgery and thus should be able to reach back for extra zip when he needs it. The club had enough faith in Schilling to give him a contract extension through 2004."

And from the 2001 Athlon:

"Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling comprise as good a twosome as any in the game. Johnson still touches 100 mph with his four-seam fastball, and his 89 mph slider makes him death to right-handed hitters. Schilling can be overpowering as well."

The Dbacks went on to win the 2001 World Series, beating the Yankees in 7 games. Johnson and Schilling were responsible for all four Arizona victories in the Series, and the two pitchers each pitched in the deciding Game 7. It was enough to earn them co-MVP awards. Athlon had this to say the next spring:

"Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling give the Dbacks the best 1-2 power punch in the game after combining for 52 victories in '01, including nine in the postseason. They are dominant enough to do it again."

At this point in Schilling's career, I think it's impossible to say that anyone was ignoring or underestimating him anymore. It's far from the end of Schilling's story, though, as he finished second in the Cy Young voting three more times. And, oh yeah, pitched one of the more memorable games of the last generation.

Schilling was definitely an interesting pitcher. It took him a number of years before his talent and his health were able to sync up to form something memorable, but when they did, he was a monster. The fact that he struck out 300 batters in three separate years and then led three separate squads to World Series titles has to make him one of the most successful pitchers of his generation. In the end, I think it'll be enough to put him in Cooperstown (eventually).

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