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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Is Curt Schilling Hall of Fame Worthy?

The recent retirement of Curt Schilling offers the opportunity to rekindle the timeless debate of just what makes a player worthy of being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

It has been very interesting reading impassioned sports writers and fans debate the question. Those who believe Schilling is worthy of the Hall of Fame are quick to highlight his postseason prowess as well as his status as a clear staff ace for a portion of his career. His detractors quickly point to his relatively low career victory total and significant number of pedestrian seasons within a 20-year career.

Both arguments certainly have merit, but I believe the real issue goes beyond just Curt Schilling and instead is really about how modern era pitchers are viewed by those who decide induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Of the 72 pitchers in the Hall of Fame, only 23 have pitched a game in the last 50 years. While three modern era relief pitchers (Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter and Rich Gossage) have been inducted into the Hall of Fame in the last decade, a modern era starting pitcher has not received such recognition since Nolan Ryan entered the Hall in 1999.

Hall of Fame voters of the last two decades have tended to give excessive merit for lifetime statistical achievement while virtually ignoring short-term dominance. That is among the reasons it took Jim Rice 15 years to earn a spot in the Hall and why starting pitchers from the modern era have been completely overlooked.

The Hall of Fame includes 16 starting pitchers with fewer wins than Schilling’s career total of 216, but only two of those pitchers, Don Drysdale, who retired in 1969 with 209 wins, and Sandy Koufax, who amassed 165 victories before retiring in 1966 are from the modern era. The last starting pitcher with fewer than 300 wins to be elected into the Hall of Fame through the regular voting process was Fergie Jenkins in 1991.

The debate has been waging for years over whether modern era pitchers Tommy John (288 career wins), Bert Blyleven (287) and Jim Kaat (283) deserve induction into the Hall of Fame. While their contemporaries Phil Niekro, Don Sutton and Gaylord Perry reached the 300-victory plateau and cruised into the Hall of Fame within their first five years of eligibility, John, Blyleven and Kaat have had their entire careers picked apart to find the flaws that justify their exclusion.

Another modern pitcher who has received little support from voters is Jack Morris. Despite amassing more wins than any other pitcher in the 1980s and finishing his career with 254 career victories, Morris has never received more than 44% of the vote in his 10 years on the ballot. What could prove to be telling is that like Schilling, Morris was known for his postseason heroics and clear status as a staff ace.

The increased reliance on five man rotations and relief pitchers over the last two decades has made it significantly more difficult to rely on victories as an accurate measurement for pitching greatness. Assuming that Randy Johnson (currently sitting at 295 career victories) joins Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens and Tom Glavine as pitchers who have reached the 300-victory total this decade and becomes the 24th pitcher all-time to reach that mark, it is likely that the club will never see a 25th member.

Excluding Glavine and Johnson, the active pitcher with the most career wins is 46-year old Jamie Moyer with 245 career victories. While Moyer won 16 games last season for the World Series Champion Phillies, he would have to nearly match that total for the next four seasons to pass the 300-win plateau.

Among pitchers under 40, 36-year old Andy Pettitte is the leader with 215 victories, but there was some question as to whether he would be back this season and it is highly unlikely that he will pitch long enough to get anywhere near 300 wins. CC Sabathia, who will be 29 in July, has 117 victories through his first eight major league seasons for an average of 15 per year. He would have to maintain that average for the next 12 years to reach 300.

What this means in relation to the Hall of Fame is that in the coming years HOF voters will no longer be able to rely solely on wins and losses or other traditional statistics when evaluating career accomplishments. The other prominent stat generally used to assess greatness has been the earned run average (ERA). While ballparks have shrunk and players grown larger over the last two decades, ERAs have steadily increased. Statisticians have developed a concept called ERA+ to try and quantify pitching success compared to the overall rate of run production in the league. This concept has attempted to level the playing field when comparing the low ERAs of many old-timers with the higher averages of modern pitchers, but has yet to gain universal acceptance.

There is little doubt that Maddux, Glavine and Johnson will be easy decisions for the Hall of Fame voters in the coming years (with Clemens falling under his own category due to his alleged steroid use), but in addition to Schilling, there will be other tough choices regarding starting pitching candidates over the next decade.

Given his sharp decline in recent years and inability to find a club to offer him a contract this spring, it is doubtful that Pedro Martinez will add too many more wins to his career total of 214. With a .684 winning percentage and 2.91 career ERA, Martinez is expected to earn easy entry, but the reality is that for all his dominance he posted only two 20 win campaigns and he has fewer career wins than Charlie Hough or Kenny Rogers. If the HOF voters typical pension for gaudy career numbers remains, Martinez may meet some resistance.

Another interesting case will be how the voters view John Smoltz. He enters his first season with the Red Sox with 211 career victories despite spending nearly two decades playing on consistent winning teams for the Braves. While his 24 wins and Cy Young award in 1996 provide Smoltz with a signature season, it marked his only campaign with more than 17 victories. What might help his cause is the four years he spent during the middle of his career as a dominant closer. Much like the case for Dennis Eckersley, the combination of success both as a starter and reliever could help get Smoltz into the Hall.

So, is Curt Schilling worthy of a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame? I started writing this column convinced that he was not deserving, but now at least recognize that he merits serious consideration. The question is whether Hall of Fame voters will start recognizing that while career statistics are one way to evaluate greatness, in an era when statistics tell only a small portion of the story they cannot be the onl
y guide.

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