19to21: February 21, 2007
Just how do baseball players, executives, umpires, Negro Leaguers, maybe coaches some day, get elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame? (Hereinafter referred to as the Hall of Fame, or HOF.) Outside of the special committees that have been created to enshrine African-Americans that segregation left on the outside of Organized Baseball over a period of some 50 years, the Hall of Fame has, pretty much from the beginning, been served by essentially two entities – members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, (BBWAA) and some form of Veterans or “Old-Timers” Committee. Although the voting and eligibility rules of these two groups have changed many times over the past 70 years or so, the relationship between the two groups has been more or less consistent. To wit, the BBWAA has passed judgment on the credentials of “modern” individuals who retired fairly recently, while the Veterans Committee has handled the relative Old-Timers -- those players, executives, umpires, etc., whose careers were further in the past, and who have not been elected, for whatever reasons, by the BBWAA. Thus, the process is pretty clear. Less clear are the standards used by these two august bodies.
Fortunately, a definitive study of the defacto standards of the HOF committees over the years was made some dozen or so years ago, by the present senior baseball advisor for the Boston Red Sox, one Bill James. Originally titled, “The Politics of Glory,” and later re-printed as “Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?” James’ 1994 work, in addition to possibly being James’ best book, is still very relevant and a must-read for anyone who wants to have some understanding of how the Hall of Fame really works (ed). In addition to analyzing the past actions of the committees, James also presents several tools, not so much for judging who should be elected to the HOF, but moreso for who might be elected to the HOF. While James, as always, presents his own opinions as to who should or should not be in the Hall (Hint: Don’t write him if you’re a George “Highpockets” Kelly fan), his assessments, both statistical and otherwise, of the electability of potential Hall of Famers are of most interest during the yearly discussions of who is or isn’t elected to the Hall, and why. In fact, James’ treatise is also helpful in assessing the chances of players who aren’t even eligible yet. Case in point… Curtis Montague Schilling, pitcher, currently also under contract to James’ employer in Boston. Assessing the HOF chances of Schilling contemporaries Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson and Tom Glavine is easy. Assessing Curt Schilling is not. As of the close of the 2006 season, Schilling career record was;
Other stats of note include a .600 winning percentage, a strikeout/walk ratio of 4.38, and a strikeout rate (strikeouts per nine innings) of 8.73. As to where Schilling stacks up to his peers from throughout major league history, he is second in career strikeout/walk ratio (behind 19th Century hurler Tommy Bond, who pitched under almost completely different rules and circumstances), 12th in strikeouts per nine innings, 14th in total strikeouts, 33rd in the Black Ink Test, 48th in Adjusted ERA, and 94th in wins.
Equally, if not more, important are his remarkable postseason numbers;
In 15 postseason starts, Schilling has had exactly two outings wherein he was not either victorious over, or dominating of, another postseason team… the first game of the 1993 World Series, and the first game of the 2004 ALCS, when his ankle was so unstable and painful that he should have been on crutches, or under the surgeon’s knife, which would, of course, happen before his start in game six of that same series.
But, will he make the Hall of Fame? Notice, the question is not “Is he a Hall of Famer?” or “does he deserve to be in the Hall of Fame,” but, “will he, at some point, be elected to the Hall of Fame?” In “The Politics of Glory” James makes the point, which may seem obvious, but which needs to be stated anyway, that previous individuals elected to the Hall of Fame, be they correct or incorrect selections, set the standard(s) for future elections. This fact is especially enlightening in Schilling’s case in that, in terms of the “common” stats typically used by the electorate(s) to determine Hall of Fame worthiness, (e.g., wins, winning percentage, earned run average) Schilling does not generally have an overwhelming resume outside of his strikeout total. Since many of the electors are simple souls at heart, and tend to look first and last at wins and won-loss records, it might be helpful to see what 20th Century Hall of Famers have won-loss records similar to Schilling, or win totals less than or close to Schilling’s. It is a distinguished and surprisingly large grouping of 10… in order of total wins; Charles Albert Bender, Don Drysdale (who James says does not belong in the Hall), Jack Chesbro (ditto, he’s also the weakest entry in the group), Dazzy Vance, Ed Walsh, George Edward “Rube” Waddell, Vernon “Lefty” Gomez, Sanford Koufax, Addie Joss (who really wasn’t qualified because he didn’t play 10 years) and Jay Hanna Dean, better known as “Dizzy.” Compare their career statistics to Schilling’s…
(Note: This is not to say that the electors WILL compare these nine pitchers’ stats to Schilling’s, or even that they SHOULD, just that, on some level, maybe subconsciously, Schilling MAY be judged on the past accomplishments of these nine. Trying to actually and accurately predict the actions of either group of Hall of Fame voters is an art along the lines of that practiced by Kremlinologists in the 1950s, who determined standing within the hierarchy of the Soviet Communist Party by where individuals stood on the balcony above Lenin’s Tomb for the May Day Parade)
These pitchers cover well over 100 years of baseball history, starting with Waddell and Chesbro in the late 19th Century and coming up through the present, thus representing most phases of “modern” baseball – the Deadball Era, the high-scoring 20s and 30s, the station-to-station long ball game of the 50s, the New Deadball Era of the 60s, and the present Juiced Era. Although drawing comparisons over such a diverse set of conditions is tricky, it’s safe to say that Schilling places himself in the middle of the pack in the two statistics that are the most effective in making period adjustments—Black Ink and Adjusted ERA. It’s worth noting that his .600 won-lost percentage also puts him towards the middle of the group, ahead of Waddell, Drysdale and Vance, and tied with Chesbro. He also has had a longer career than the other 10, and will, by the end of the 2007 season – which may or may not be his last year – have more wins than everyone else in this group. This in addition to being way out on front in strikeouts and strikeout/walk ratio. Even though his ERA+, W-L% and strikeout/walk ratio may well slip before the end of his career, it would seem a safe conclusion that Schilling, as judged against these nine Hall of Famers, hasn’t hurt his chances of getting elected some day.
Another way of looking at Schilling’s career is the electors’ fascination with big or significant numbers. The combination of 200 wins and 3000 strikeouts may prove to be an alluring one, although, as Don Sutton can tell you, even 300 wins isn’t an automatic ticket to Cooperstown.
There are other career characteristics that have previously factored into Hall of Famer selection. As James points out in “Politics of Glory,” big years (be they by pitchers or hitters) will also influence the electorate in a positive fashion. That’s how Chesbro got into the Hall, and that’s probably how Walsh got in as well, although he could have merited election for the overall body of his work. And, it certainly helped Waddell, Vance, Dean, Gomez and Drysdale to have big years on their resumes. Although Schilling has never won the Cy Young Award, having had the bad luck to match his big years up against super years by other pitchers, he has had some eye-catching campaigns, going 22-6, 23-7 and 21-6 and striking out 319, 316 and 300 men at various times.
Then there are the intangible factors. Those aspects of a player’s or manager’s career that can’t really be measured in statistics, but that catch the eye, and the vote, of the electorate. For instance, Wilbert Robinson was a fair-to-middling 19th Century catcher who won exactly two pennants and zero World Series as a manager. But, he’s in the Hall of Fame because he was Uncle Robbie. Or take Drysdale… a big, blond, photogenic fireballer with charisma. James suggests that his persona is one of the reasons he got in. Or take Lefty Gomez. If you gave his pitching record to Joe Blow, old Joe probably wouldn’t have made the Hall. But, because he was the Singular Castillian, a character, and a great interview that all the sportswriters loved, Goofy Gomez is a Hall of Famer. Ditto, Dizzy Dean and maybe Rube Waddell (about whom sportswriters like Fred Lieb and Charles Dryden concocted phony stories that added to his legend). In other words, there are some people who are in the Hall of Fame (Hughie Jennings is another one) because they are mnemonic. In this measure, Schilling qualifies in spades. He’s a big, blond fireballer who never met an interview he didn’t like and who even calls up sportstalk radio stations to vent his many and varied opinions. He’s highly visible off the field in charity work. He is, in short, a character – a combination of Gomez and Drysdale. And, of course, he has to his credit one of the most unique and memorable moments in all the long history of the National Pastime… the Bloody Sock. A moment so defining that it needs no further explanation except to note that the medical procedure performed on Schilling’s ankle so that he could pitch in the 2004 ALCS and World Series could well have made the New England Journal of Medicine under the heading of, “Don’t Try This… at Home or Anywhere Else.”
But, you know, when it finally comes the time to cast the ballots, none of that may matter as much as Curt Schilling’s ace-in-the-hole… he is simply the greatest clutch pitcher of his generation. A “red light” player, as they say. Here, the comparison to Lefty Gomez is instructive.
You have to think that Gomez’ World Series performances were a major factor in getting him into the Hall… after all, he has the record for most wins without a loss in the Series. And Schilling’s record, except for the two poor outings already mentioned, blows Gomez away. Take away the game before the Bloody Sock, and his first World Series appearance in 1993 at the age of 26 (his second season as a starter), and he’s 8-0 with a 1.17 ERA in the post season. Even as is, Schilling’s peripheral stats are far better than Gomez’, and his October ERA is eight-tenths of a run better than that compiled by Gomez – and both pitched in hard-hitting eras.
There are other pitchers to whom Schilling can be compared. Using James’ Similarity Scores, the 10 pitchers in major league history with records most similar to Schilling are, in addition to the already-mentioned Hall of Famers Dazzy Vance and Don Drysdale; Kevin Brown, Bob Welch, Orel Hershiser, Mike Mussina, David Cone, Milt Pappas, Lou Burdette and an especially intriguing pitcher who will be discussed later, John Smoltz. One of the points James makes about Similarity Scores and Hall of Famers is that those in the Hall tend to be better than their best comps. And, this is largely the case with Schilling. Ranking Schilling with his 10 comps first by ERA+ we find…
Schilling – 127
Brown – 127
Smoltz – 126
Mussina – 125
Drysdale – 121
Cone – 120
Hershiser – 112
Pappas – 110
Welch – 106
Burdette – 98
Now ranking them by Black Ink…
Vance – 66
Schilling – 42
Smoltz – 34
Burdette – 25
Hershiser – 20
Brown – 19
Cone – 19
Mussina – 14
Welch – 9
Pappas – 5
By these measures, among Schilling’s 10 comps, only Dazzy Vance was a better pitcher, although Smoltz does deserve some consideration. It also might be noted that only Smoltz’ 15-4, 2.65 and Hershiser’s 8-3, 2.59 post season records are anywhere near Schilling’s marks.
So, that’s it. Curt Schilling will be a Hall of Famer by acclamation when he first comes on the ballot. The BBWAA will fall all over themselves to vote for him. Right? Wrong. Because there’s another factor in the HOF voting that James mentions that will also come into play in Schilling’s case. That is… who else is on the ballot. While there should be no doubt that Schillling has been a great pitcher, he is an exact contemporary of no less than four other pitchers who are demonstrably better than he is, and all of whom may be on the ballot at the same time Schilling comes on. If that happens, he’s far from a first ballot sure thing.
What an incredible co-incidence of pitching talent for all of these hurlers to be active at one time. (Without even bringing Pedro Martinez into the discussion.) And, even more incredibly, it is possible that 2007 and/or 2008 may be the last years for all five, meaning they will all come on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot at basically the same time. Even though Tom Glavine really isn’t as good as Schilling, if he’s a first ballot candidate with three, 300-game winners and Randy Johnson (even if The Big Unit doesn’t make it to 300 wins), well, he isn’t going to be elected until after the 300 game winners have been elected, and maybe after the electors forget he has 1500 fewer strikeouts than Johnson and 75-some fewer wins than Tommy John, Bert Blyleven and Jim Kaat. This will likely be the case even though none of the other four’s post season records are nearly as good as Schilling’s.
Schilling 8-2, 2.06
Clemens 12-8, 3.71
Maddux 11-14, 3.34
Glavine 13-15, 3.47
Johnson 7-9, 3.50
It’s also worth noting that a test case somewhat similar to Schilling came before the BBWAA in 2006, namely Orel Hershiser. Not only was his post-season record similar to, though not quite as dramatic as, Schilling’s, but his regular season line is at least superficially in line with Schilling’s;
While Schilling’s record is clearly better, the BBWAA may well see how close their wins and raw ERA figures are, and act accordingly (in their own minds.) In his first year in the ballot, Orel Hershiser received 11 percent of the vote.
Complicating matters just a little bit more is yet another contemporary pitcher with very similar credentials to Schilling, who also might be in his last year (if his arm finally gives out) in 2007 – the aforementioned John Smoltz. Not only are his career totals much more similar to Schiling’s than Clemens’, Maddux’, Glavine’s and Johnson’s, but, like Schilling, he’s done some closing as well, and, he’s a top performer in the post season.
In the regular season, Smoltz, having been a full-time closer for a little more than three seasons, has 154 saves, to Schilling’s (who has picked up saves in four different season) 22. Their post season records are also somewhat similar, although Smoltz has pitched basically twice as much as Schilling.
So, it’s not an easy call to make, for either Schilling or Smoltz. Schilling’s post season record, including the Bloody Sock, his generally high visibility, and his 200/3000 combination make a BBWWA election possible, but not in comparison to Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson and probably Tom Glavine. Curt Schilling’s candidacy may well cause quite a controversy some time fairly soon, but the guess is that he will eventually be elected to the Hall of Fame, either later in his BBWWAA 15-year period, or, more likely, by the Veterans Committee. Because the Hall of Fame is ultimately about the famous, and there’s no denying that Curt Schilling has staked a claim to that.