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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Fighting Tomorrow's Ignorance Now

This past Hall of Fame debate season, I noticed something sort of depressing. So many people dismissed highly qualified (or even over-qualified) players for Cooperstown based on things as small as “He didn’t feel like a Hall of Famer” or “I can’t remember thinking he was a Hall of Famer”.

This is really disappointing. First of all, people (especially the writers and voters) need to realize that the Hall is not nearly as exclusive as they seem to think. If you are an official voter, every player is worth at least a moment of reflection and a look at their Baseball-Reference page. You might be missing out on a player who would raise the Hall’s standards simply because they have a low “Gut Factor”. That’s just not the way to go about it. At least take the time to see if there’s a convincing case to be made. There are, what, thirty-some players per year? If you put a minimum two minutes into looking at each player, that’s an hour. I’d say a Hall ballot is worth at least an hour of your time, right? And it gives you an excuse to revisit memories, or at least get lost in Baseball-Reference. And if you still aren’t convinced, you can spread that time out. It’s not like we don’t already know who will be ballot next year, or the year after (or the year after that, or the year after that, or...).

However, I realize not everyone will follow this rule of thumb. So, I figured I’d do what I can to start combating misconceptions that will pop up when a player eventually reaches the ballot. Maybe if I start early enough, these ideas will work their way into the collective subconscious by then. Hey, if nothing else, it’s worth a shot.

So, I’ll start by trying to get ahead on next year’s ballot. Curt Schilling is coming up next year, and I’ve already seen people saying that he just doesn’t feel like a Hall of Famer. These people are wrong.

What arguments will I, the prospective Schilling-supporter, see?
That’s a good question, prospective Hall crusader! Well, I can’t predict every half baked argument, but these are the ones that I expect will come up a lot (I’ve already seen some of them):

“He only won 216 games!”
“He was never the best pitcher on his own team!”
“He was never the best pitcher in the league!”
“He didn’t feel like a Hall of Famer!”


First of all, if your argument for anything hinges on pitcher wins, you are doing something fundamentally wrong. Besides, it’s not like a pitcher with 216 would be the low mark for the Hall. Several pitchers have fewer totals, including Stan Coveleski (215), Don Drysdale (209), Hal Newhouser (207), and Lefty Gomez (189). Nevertheless, many voters will be hung up by that low win total. In that case, know that his record is deceiving; while he did only total 216 pitcher wins, he carried a .597 winning percentage. That would be far from the worst in the Hall, and is in fact closer to Hall of Famers’ Walter Johnson (.599), Warren Spahn (.597), and Bob Gibson (.591) winning percentages. There are other factors on top of these to consider. Obviously, pitchers today make fewer starts than in past years. Schilling’s particular stats are even more misleading, though; while his stats pages will say that he pitched in twenty seasons, he was little more than a call-up in 1988 and 1989, and didn’t get a chance to start until 1992. So, in fact, those wins come from only 16 seasons worth of starting, working out to an average of 14 wins per year. That’s at least respectable.

Now that we’ve dealt with the inanity that is pitcher wins, lets move on to the next two arguments, which are related.to each other. First of all, I have actually seen people play the “Never an ace” card. He did play with Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez, unquestionably two of the greatest pitchers in history, so that isn’t really his fault. This argument really falls apart then when you recall that Schilling did, in fact, pitch before he arrived in Arizona in 2000. I realize the mid-to-late-1990s Phillies were pretty bad, but they do actually count as a team. Schilling was unquestionably their number one starter.

Sure, but was he ever the best pitcher in his league, skeptics will retort. Maybe not. However, he did finish second in Cy Young voting three times. For all the flaws in the Cy Young voting, four top-four finishes show that he was highly thought-of. And when you look at who beat him those years (Randy Johnson in his prime and Johan Santana in his best imitation of Randy Johnson’s prime), it seems perfectly acceptable.

That really only leaves “he didn’t feel like a Hall of Famer”, and really, this is a weak argument. It’s totally subjective, and can really be applied to any player. All it does, at best, is ensure that overlooked players remain overlooked. At worst, it totally ignores reality in favor of incorrect ideas or flawed memories created after the fact. You can catch any player on their worst days, and they probably won’t “feel” like a Hall of Famer. That one game may go on to color your perception of that player for the rest of their career, even if they have over 2000 other games demonstrating their Hall worthiness.

Schilling was incredible no matter how you look at it. He had four seasons with an ERA+ over 150, nine with an ERA+ over 130, and he finished with an ERA+ of 128. That matches up well with players like Tom Seaver (128) and Jim Palmer (126), both clear, inner-circle Hall members. He had three seasons with more than 300 strikeouts (and another near miss, with 293 in 2001). There have only been 64 of those in history, and 31 of those came in the 1800s (and 4 more of those seasons came before World War II). So, Schilling has thrown nearly an eighth of the 300 K seasons since the dawn of the twentieth century. The only pitchers in this era with more 300 strikeout seasons are Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson (6 each). He was arguably the greatest control pitcher ever, keeping a 4.38 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his career. That puts him second all-time, behind only Tommy Bond; Bond’s last game came 104 years before Schilling’s first, so there is something of an era difference to account for.

Schilling has 67.7 WAR, as per Baseball-Reference, which puts him solidly in Cooperstown territory. Just above him are Brooks Robinson, Barry Larkin, and Tony Gwynn; just below him, Duke Snider, Carlton Fisk, and Eddie Murray. Every one of them is a solid Hall of Fame choice, with half of them making it in on their first ballot, so Curt is worth at least a look if you haven’t thought of him this way. If you like to give credit to strong peaks, Adam Darowski’s Hall of wWAR gives Schilling 104.4 weighted WAR, which double- and triple-counts the best seasons to give a better representation of the player’s peak. That puts him above likely first ballot pitcher Tom Glavine (101.4) and Hall members like Jim Palmer (100.4) and Jim Bunning (96.0). And all of this is without getting into his brilliant postseason numbers, which should definitely be worth some extra credit (2.23 ERA, 0.968 WHIP, 4.80 strikeout to walk ratio in 19 starts).

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