Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
December 7, 2004
BASEBALL: Perspective on Schilling
I was looking over Curt Schilling's career, and two thoughts come to mind:
1. One of the great underrated terrible trades in recent baseball history is the Astros' decision, on April 2, 1992, to trade Schilling straight up for Jason Grimsley. Schilling and Grimsley were both young pitchers trying to establish themselves at this point - Grimsley was 24, Schilling 25 - and both had followed some success as rookies in 1990 (a 3.30 ERA in 57.1 IP as a starter for Grimsley, a 2.54 ERA in 46 IP as a reliever for Schilling) with struggles in 1991 (1-7 with a 4.87 ERA in 61 IP as a starter for Grimsley, a 3.81 ERA in 75.2 IP as a reliever for Schilling). But it should have been obvious at the time not only that Schilling threw harder but that he was closer to breaking through: 103 K and 58 walks for Schilling in 121.2 IP over the previous two years - including 71 K in 75.2 IP in 1991 - compared to an abysmal record of 83 K to 84 walks for Grimsley (and 16 wild pitches) in 118.1 IP. And the results were immediate and dramatic: Schilling posted a 2.35 ERA in 226.1 IP in 1992 for the Phillies - 4th best in the NL - and would pitch a shutout in the World Series by the end of 1993, while Grimsley never pitched a game in an Astros uniform and was released a year later.
It's not clear to me, years later, what Houston was thinking; with Pete Harnisch, Darryl Kile, and Butch Henry, Houston had no shortage of young starters, and Schilling had started in the minors. Perhaps Grimsley had options left and Schilling didn't (after all, the deal was April 2)? Either way, the Astros don't get nearly enough grief for this one in the annals of catastrophically bad trades.
2. If there's one guy whose career path Schilling's resembles, strangely enough, it's Tommy John, and not only because both of them were pioneers in bionic baseball. Through age 33, due to a variety of injuries and misfortunes (including lousy support from their teams) over the years, both Schilling and John had a lot of good baseball behind them and not much to show in the win column: Schilling had 110 lifetime wins at the end of 2000 (when he went 11-12), following his mid-season arrival in Arizona, despite a league-average-or-better ERA 9 times in 11 years; John had 134 wins after his first post-surgery season, in 1976, when he went 10-10, despite a league-average-or-better ERA 11 years in a row. Each had seemingly given his arm in the service of a dismal franchise - Schilling throwing 254.1 and 268.2 IP in 1997-98 with the Phillies, John 269.1 IP in 1970 with the White Sox.
Then, each suddenly reeled off three 20-win seasons in four years, and went to the postseason with two different teams, Schilling the D-Backs and Red Sox and John the Dodgers and Yankees.
Of course, the parallels aren't perfect. Schilling is most unlikely to match John's durability (pitching to age 46) or win total of 288 (John through age 37 was up to 214 wins, while Schilling now stands at 184). On the other hand, Schilling's teams haven't failed in the postseason as John's did in 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981 and 1982 - despite solid efforts from John (a 2.65 career postseason ERA), and Schilling had been the difference for both Arizona and Boston. And John couldn't quite match Schilling's level of dominance - from age 34 to 37, John went 80-35, Schilling 74-28, and John's career winning percentage through age 37 stood at .586 compared to .599 for Schilling (this before John went 23-20 over the next two years pitching mostly for division-winning teams). To say nothing of the fact that Schilling is an overpowering strikeout pitcher who alreadly has 500 more strikeouts than John did in nearly 2000 more career innings.
As you can see, though, the parallels are actually fairly strong, a factor to consider down the road in evaluating both pitchers' Hall of Fame cases.