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March 24, 2009

Prospectus Today

Curt Schilling Bows Out

by Joe Sheehan

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Alas, 38 pitches no more. Curt Schilling announced the end of his baseball career yesterday via a post on his popular blog, writing "it is with zero regrets that I am making my retirement official." While there had been some speculation that Schilling would continue his comeback from a torn right labrum, possibly with a contender other than the Red Sox, the damage after a long career is understandably too much to overcome. Schilling was effective right up to the point where he couldn't pitch any longer.

When any player of Schilling's stature retires, the question immediately turns to his viability for induction into the Hall of Fame. Schilling occupies an interesting place, without the win total that has been something of a bright-line test for the electorate in the last generation, but with a number of considerable markers, both statistical and otherwise, that should make him a strong candidate.

Jay Jaffe's JAWS system is the best way to open this discussion. Using Clay Davenport's Translations and the metric Wins Above Replacement Player, Jaffe's system measures both a player's career and peak value, and places that in the context of the value of all BBWAA Hall of Famers. JAWS functions like the NCAA's RPI does for basketball teams, providing an initial ranking as a starting point for discussion, but not serving as a bright-line test for inclusion. It also has the benefit of not being an innumerate mess.

About a year ago, Jay included Schilling in a JAWS analysis of some veteran, nominally-active pitchers:

Schiling is no shame in the JAWS department either, with a peak that, while shy of the benchmark, is middle-of-the-pack in this esteemed group. He does run the risk of trimming his career mark by one or two WARP if he comes back and can't pitch better than replacement level, but if he's that bad, he's unlikely to get too many shots to seriously threaten falling below the benchmark and damage his overall portfolio.

We know now that Schilling didn't return, and he finished his career with the same numbers that he had at the end of 2007: 216 wins, 146 losses, a 3.46 ERA, and 3,116 strikeouts. Whatever his JAWS numbers-and they clearly place him within a group of pitchers fully qualified for the Hall-you have to acknowledge that the BBWAA hasn't elected a starting pitcher with so few victories since 1984, when Don Drysdale and his 209 got in. At 3,261 innings, Schilling's career is short by Hall standards, and while reaching the 3,000-strikeout level is perhaps the best traditional marker he has going for him, the voters have worked very hard to keep the fifth guy on the list out of Cooperstown.

Schilling never won a Cy Young Award, though he did finish second three times, twice to Randy Johnson and once to Johan Santana. Subject to the same deficits in starts and decisions that mark pitchers in his era, he won 20 games three times, all in the same four-year stretch that he was the runner-up in those Cy races. With a body that kept breaking down, Schilling had no definable peak to his career, save perhaps 2001-04, a stretch that included a 24-start 2003 campaign. It surprised me when I noticed it, but Schilling never made at least 30 starts in three consecutive seasons, and never made 100 starts in any three-year span. His lack of durability within a 20-year career is why his totals in innings and wins are so low.

The changing standards for pitcher workloads, and the effects that they have on statistics, will be the underlying issue in the Schilling debate. Then again, maybe not, because Schilling has a set of markers outside of his regular-season stats that should elevate him in a way that they won't do for, say, Kevin Brown. Schilling pitched in four World Series, making seven starts with a 2.06 ERA. His teams won three of those Series. His post-season career is excellent: 19 appearances, all starts, with a 2.23 ERA in 133 1/3 innings. In an era where the postseason runs longer and means more in the evaluation of teams than it ever has before-for better or worse-you have to consider post-season performance as a positive marker more than ever before. Like Bernie Williams and also like John Smoltz, Schilling has a post-season resumé that changes the discussion. Schilling's post-season performance defines his career. He contributed to championship teams, and he did so in a big way. The 2001 World Series. Pitching through a shoulder problem in '07. The bloody sock.

If the narrative means anything-and it absolutely should mean something-then Curt Schilling may have locked up a spot in the Hall of Fame on October 19, 2004. On that date, Schilling underwent ad hoc pre-game surgery on his right ankle, took the ball, and held the Yankees to four hits and one run over seven innings as blood seeped from the ankle into his uniform. That start helped the Red Sox tie the ALCS at three games apiece. Eight days later, the Sox would be World Champions for the first time since 1918. That game remains the defining moment for baseball in this century.

Is there anything we're missing? Schilling was something of a polarizing figure at times, outspoken in a way we're not always comfortable with when it comes to athletes, and perhaps particularly baseball players. He is the most prominent athlete, and probably the most well-written one, to speak directly to fans via a blog, as opposed to through the media. He's devoted countless hours and dollars to the search for a cure for Lou Gehrig's disease.

Schilling is also one of the approved "clean" players of his era. The process for gaining this label is largely inscrutable, but factors include quotability, skin tone, and affability. I'm going to be indelicate here and point out that Schilling is a pitcher who struggled to stay healthy for much of his career, and had his greatest effectiveness and durability late in that career. Through his age-29 season, Schilling had thrown 988 1/3 innings, had two 200-inning seasons (and didn't lose one to either strike-shortened campaign), and never received a Cy Young vote. From the ages of 30-33, he threw 200 innings three times, made three All-Star teams, and got Cy votes in one season. From 34-37, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball.

Maybe this doesn't mean anything, and frankly, I don't know or care what the reasons are for that career shape. What I do know is that "an oddly late peak" has been used as evidence against many players, and if the standards, such as they are, were applied to Schilling's stat lines, name removed, heads would be scratched. Schilling gets a pass because he's Curt Schilling, and not because any rigor has actually been applied to the issue. As I say, it's not my fight, but I find it curious why career shape matters for some people and not for others.

Regardless, Curt Schilling is fully qualified for the Hall of Fame. Whatever nitpicks you can make about his low win and innings-pitched totals are more than outweighed by his post-season performance and his starring role in some of the game's great moments during his career. If the Hall of Fame is to evolve as an honor, the men and women who award that honor have to be able to look past the traditional milestones for induction and consider performance in the context of the modern game. Schilling's value within that context is well above the established standards, and I look forward to his induction speech nearly as much as I do those of Rickey Henderson and Manny Ramirez.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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