Friday, August 19, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #13: Curt Schilling

Curt Schilling started 19 postseason games in his career, with a 2.33 ERA in 133.1 innings. He went 7+ innings while allowing no more than two runs in 13 of those starts, including two shutouts. In the 2001 postseason he pitched a complete game in Game 1 and Game 5 of the NLDS, and then pitched another in the NLCS, striking out 12. He started three games in the World Series, going 7+ innings in each of them, and allowing a total of only four runs. In his six starts that postseason, Schilling had a record 56 strikeouts in 48.1 innings, with a 1.12 ERA. During the 2004 ALDS, a tendon in Schilling's ankle tore. He underwent a procedure to stabilize the ankle before Game 6 of the ALCS, then went out and won. The suture began to give way during the game, leading Schilling's sock to famously soak through with blood. He underwent the procedure again a few days later, so that he could help the Red Sox win their first World Series in 86 years.

If Schilling had done nothing else in his life, he'd still be rightly remembered as one of the greatest postseason players in baseball history.

This countdown is a way for me to look back at the three decades I've spent as a baseball fan. My introduction to the project, with an explanation of sorts, and links to every entry can be found here.


Of course, Schilling has done other things in his life, both for the better and for the worse.

First, the for better...

Schilling began his career with the Orioles, and spent one year with the Astros, but I remember those things only because I've seen the baseball cards with Schilling wearing those hats. Houston threw him away in a minor deal, and it was with the Phillies that Schilling made a name for himself. It took time though. Schilling was great in 1992, his first season in Philadelphia, posting a 2.35 ERA and a league-leading 0.99 WHIP, but it went unnoticed at the time. It wasn't until 1997, when Schilling was already 30 years old, that he was named to his first All-Star team, and that he first received mention on anyone's Cy Young ballot. The following season he pitched 15 complete games, the most by any pitcher during the last quarter-century. He pitched 268.2 innings that season, second-most by any pitcher during the same timeframe.

Schilling was traded to Arizona in the middle of the 2000 season, and it was with the Diamondbacks that went from very good to fantastic. In 2001 Schilling led the NL with 22 wins and 256.2 innings pitched. He had a 2.98 ERA and struck out 293 while walking only 39. In 2002 he won 23 games, with 259.1 innings pitched, a 3.23 ERA, 316 strikeouts, and only 33 walks, the lowest walk total in baseball history for a 300-strikeout season. Per Baseball-Reference, Schilling was worth 8.8 wins above replacement (WAR) in 2001, and 8.7 in 2002. Most seasons in recent memory, those figures would lead all pitchers. In 2001 and 2002, they were good for second, and the one guy even better was not only in the same league, he was on the same team. Randy Johnson was one of the ten best pitchers ever, and his two best seasons coincided with Schilling's, leading Schilling to finish a distant second for the Cy Young both times. Schilling was also runner-up for the 2004 award, making him the only player ever to finish second three times without ever winning a Cy Young.

That third bridesmaid finish came with the Red Sox, whom Schilling played his final four seasons with, and where he won his second and third World Series rings. His role in knocking off the Yankees dynasty is as strong as anyone's, between his work in the 2001 World Series and 2004 ALCS. His final Major League appearance came in Game 2 of the 2004 World Series, when he gave up one run in 5.1 innings. He hoped to play at least one more year, but shoulder trouble kept him out for all of 2008, and he formally announced his retirement the following March.

Schilling began his career with high walk rate, but when he arrived in Philadelphia he improved upon it a great deal. When he arrived in Arizona, his command was even better. From 2001 through 2007, Schilling had the second-lowest walk rate of any starting pitcher in baseball (behind only Minnesota's Brad Radke). Meanwhile, Schilling was always an excellent strikeout pitcher; his 8.60 strikeouts per nine innings rank 8th among all pitchers with 2000+ career innings, and he's one of just four players ever with five or more seasons with a strikeout rate better than 10 per nine innings. His combination of high strikeouts and low walks is unparalleled in modern baseball history. Dating to 1901, Schilling's K:BB ratio of 4.38 is tops among all pitchers with 2000+ innings.

Schilling was one of the greatest postseason performers in baseball history, and had some of the greatest seasons by any pitcher ever. His career ERA+ (which accounts for the high-scoring era Schilling played in) is 127, which is better than the figure for 40 of the 63 starting pitchers in the Baseball Hall of Fame. It's the same figure as Bob Gibson, who didn't pitch all that many more innings than Schilling, and who cruised into Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility, while Schilling is now 0 for 4 in his years on the ballot, and only got above 50% of the vote for the first time this year. The obvious explanation is that his 3261 career innings and 216 career wins are both light by HOF standards, but the heft of his peak seasons and postseason resume should be more than enough to outweigh his career totals, just as they wee for pitchers like Sandy Koufax and Whitey Ford.

Finally, the for worse...

Curt Schilling is some combination of asshole, idiot, and bigot. He started a video game company shortly after his retirement, applied for and was given a $75 million loan by the Rhode Island Board of Economic Development, defaulted on the loan two years later, and laid off his workers with an email. He blamed the government for his company's failure, and often rails against government handouts, even though he took a massive one. He has spoken out strongly against evolution and gay marriage. He has posted despicable things on his blog and Facebook page about Muslims and transgender people, leading to his long overdue firing by ESPN from the broadcaster and studio commentator job he held for a few years. In recent weeks Schilling has spoken of running against Elizabeth Warren for her Senate seat, or even making a run for the White House in another few years.

His work as a baseball player was tremendous, but just about everything he's done since he quit playing has been deplorable, and serves as a reminder that sometimes it's easier not knowing what someone is really like, because sometimes people are awful.