No. 100: Curt Schilling
The shape of Curt Schilling’s career is an odd one. He was a pretty-well regarded prospect coming out of Yayapai College back in 1986. The Boston Red Sox drafted him in the second round of the January draft — people tend to forget that it was the Red Sox — and that was the year that Roger Clemens emerged as a superstar.
Clemens was 6-foot-4, 200 or so pounds with a huge fastball and a competitive ferocity.
Schilling was 6-foot-5, 200 or so pounds with a huge fastball, a lackadaisical approach and a wild haircut.
The Red Sox seemed to think they could build Schilling into another Roger, or anyway they thought so for a very short while. They only kept Schilling for two minor-league seasons before shipping him off the Baltimore in a spectacularly ill-conceived deal that brought back 30-year-old Mike Boddicker. Schilling was not even the main component of the deal — the Red Sox traded Brady Anderson, who would become a three-time All-Star for the Orioles.
I’m sure Red Sox fans have thought a lot about this: In 1988, they traded Curt Schilling and Brady Anderson for Boddicker. Two years later, they traded Jeff Bagwell for 37-year-old Larry Andersen. It’s really no wonder after those two mega-flops that the Red Sox were barely a .500 team from 1992-1997.
In any case, Schilling had a reputation for being a goofball, for not taking his talent seriously and for grating on people’s nerves. He generally earned that reputation by being a goofball, not taking his talent seriously and grating on other people’s nerves. There’s a great story Schilling often tells about the day Orioles manager Frank Robinson brought Schilling to his office, glared at him for a long while and finally said, “What’s wrong with you son?”
The Orioles never did figure out the answer to that question, and they traded him away to Houston for a 30-year-old Glenn Davis (though, it should be said, that was over Frank Robinson’s strong objections). Another interesting note: Again, Schilling was not the main part of the deal. The prize was Steve Finley who would go on to win five Gold Gloves and make two All-Star teams (though none of that for Houston).
Schilling barely had time to get from the airport to his hotel in Houston before he got traded again. Everybody wanted Curt Schilling, the talented young pitcher on someone else’s team. But nobody actually wanted Curt Schilling, the pitcher on your own team. He was traded to Philadelphia barely a year later. That’s three trades in four years — up to this point, Schilling’s career record was 4-11 with a 4.16 ERA, 113 strikeouts and 71 walks. He was turning 25.
The Phillies weren’t too thrilled with him either at first. They put him out in the bullpen where they asked him to mop up some games or pitch some middle innings. He was pretty good at it. In mid-May he had 29 strikeouts in 28 innings, a 2.86 ERA, and the league was hitting just .184 against him. The Phillies decided to give him a start. Hey, why not? The Phillies weren’t going anywhere anyway. Schilling went out and pitched six shutout innings against the Astros. After a rough start against the Reds, he gave up just one run in his next three starts. The Phillies wondered if the kid had put it together.
He had. Schilling was good. He started 26 games and completed 12 of them. He threw four shutouts. He had a 2.35 ERA and held batters to a .201 average and a .288 slugging percentage. Pretty impressive.
And that began the up-and-down portion of the Curt Schilling career. The next year, he was the No. 1 starter for a Phillies team that won 97 games and went to the World Series. In many ways he did not pitch as well as he did in 1992 — his ERA jumped almost two full runs — but the Phillies won 22 of the 34 times he started. And in the postseason, he was fantastic. He pitched eight strong innings against the Braves in Game of the NLCS (a game Philadelphia won in extra innings) then pitched eight more strong ones in Game 5 (Philadelphia won that in extras too when the bullpen blew the lead in the ninth). He was named the series MVP.
Then, in the World Series, he got banged around a little bit by the Blue Jays in Game 1 but was all-but unhittable in Game 5, with the Phillies facing elimination. Schilling pitched a five-hit shutout that would be a sign of postseason heroics to come.
Then, for the next three years, he did almost nothing. He had many injuries and, he would admit, various focus issues. This was when he had the streaks in his hair and the Rottweiler tattoo somewhere, and he was still reeling from the death of his father Cliff, who had died in 1988 of an aneurysm. Cliff was an army man, the hero in Curt Schilling’s life, and he never got to see his son pitch in the big leagues. That was hard to accept, hard to deal with. When Curt Schilling turned 30, his career record was 52-52 and only once in his career had he made 30 starts in a season.
Then, it all turned. Schilling had never struck out 200 in a season. In 1997, he struck out 319, the most ever for a National League right-hander. The next year he struck out 300 again. He was morphing into something rare, an overpowering pitcher with impeccable control and a deep love of the big moment. In 2000, he was traded to Arizona and for the next four years (the last of those with Boston) he was absolutely sensational. He went 74-28 with a 150 ERA+, but the thing that was so striking is that he struck out 1006 batters and walked just 139. No one in baseball history had ever combined that kind of dominance with that kind of control.*
*Schilling finished second in the Cy Young voting in 2001, 2002 and 2004. In 2001, he lost to his teammate Randy Johnson who went 21-6 with a 2.49 ERA and 372 strikeouts. In 2002, he lost to Johnson again — this time Unite went 24-5 with a 2.32 ERA and 334 strikeouts. In 2004, he lost to Johan Santana, who led the league in ERA (2.51), strikeouts (265) and WHIP (.921).
And, of course, there was the postseason magic. When the 2001 Diamondbacks won 92 games and made it to the postseason, nobody really took them seriously. First, they played a good Cardinals team with an old Mark McGwire and young Albert Pujols. Schilling in Game 1 overwhelmed them — nine innings, there hits, nine strikeouts, no Cardinals player reached third base. Then, in the decisive Game 5, Schilling threw nine more innings, struck out nine again and gave up nothing but a solo home run to J.D. Drew. The Diamondbacks were going to the NLCS to face the Atlanta Braves, who were coming to the end of their long run of domination.
Schilling only needed to pitch once in that Braves series. He threw another complete game, struck out 12, and gave up just one run. The Diamondbacks won the series in 5 and, you will remember, played the three-time defending World Series champion Yankees in the World Series.
And Schilling did it again. Game 1, he left a ticket for his father at Will Call like he always did, gave up three hits in seven innings, and the Diamondbacks breezed to victory. Schilling pitched almost precisely the same game on three days rest at Yankee Stadium — seven innings, three hits, nine strikeouts — and reliever Byung-Hyun Kim came in to pitch the eighth with a 3-1 lead. You might recall, that one did not end well for Kim or the Diamondbacks. The Yankees made the spectacular comeback and won it on Derek Jeter’s 10th inning Mr. November homer.
So Schilling came BACK on three-days rest for Game 7 and had a shutout going through six. He gave up a run in the seventh and was laboring. He gave up a home run in the eighth to Alfonso Soriano. Randy Johnson came into the game, Mariano Rivera committed an error, Luis Gonzalez hit a broken back bloop single … well, you know the Diamondbacks won the thing.
The point is that Schilling had, once again, been spectacular in the postseason. People will always argue about how a person’s ability to become better than themselves in the biggest moments. But this was two Octobers when Schilling was utterly masterful. And then, in 2004, it would happen again. Schilling was not as dominant in 2004, but, hey, he could barely walk. He had the famous ankle injury, the one that would open up and bleed through his sock as he pitched a ferocious Game 6 against the Yankees in that great ALCS. Schilling did not have his great stuff that day or even his good stuff, but he found a way to work through a lineup that had mashed a team record 242 home runs (more, even, than the 1961 Yankees of Mantle and Maris). He did it at Yankee Stadium. He did it with his ankle bleeding. It was what the pundits call “a courageous performance.”
Schilling pitched on that bad ankle in the World Series too — no earned runs in six innings.
He made seven World Series starts in his career. His team won five of them. His ERA was 2.06.
There are a few pitchers with higher WAR than Schilling who I left out of the Top 100. There are quite a few pitchers with more than Schilling’s 214 wins who I left out of the Top 100. The wild inconsistency of Schilling’s career is a mark against him. He also suffered many injuries which shortened his career somewhat
For me, his spot in the Top 100 came down to a couple of simple things. One, Curt Schilling has the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of any pitcher since 1900 (4.38-to-1). It is even better than Mariano Rivera’s, and Schilling threw three times as many innings. People will disagree about what a pitcher can control. and what is left to defense, luck and umpiring. But it’s pretty clear that two things a pitcher has a lot of control over are strikeouts and walks — and Schilling’s 3,116 strikeouts against only 711 walks is one of the great number pairings in baseball history.
The second thing is that extraordinary postseason record. It was a part of the bigger-than-life career of Curt Schilling. He has never lost his talent for getting on people’s nerves, he’s been outspoken about everything, (alienating many), he’s had his business troubles since he quit baseball, and even now he seems to get in some kind of Twitter war every few weeks. But there was a lot to like about the guy — he was a quote machine, he was deeply dedicated to ALS and other charities, he could be startlingly honest even about his own limitations and once he figured out what he was all about, the guy competed again and again.