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Curt Schilling put his team on his back. Talented and cerebral, ornery and articulate, the big righty snatched the spotlight from his team's other ace starter. He mowed through all three rounds of the playoffs, blowing away the opposition. Saving his best for last, he dominated his adversary in the World Series, carving through a deep, talented lineup. With the championship secure and the champagne flowing, Schilling was in the middle of it all, toasting his team's improbable run to glory.
And that was just in Arizona.
Outside the Valley of the Sun, Schilling is better known for his heroics in the 2004 playoffs -- the infamous bloody sock, the team full of Idiots, the end of 86 years of heartache. Put those two virtuoso performances together, and it would seem loony to question Schilling's credentials for the Hall of Fame. Any pitcher who can overshadow two of the greatest pitchers of all time, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez, while leading two different teams to World Series titles would seem a lock for Cooperstown.
John Smoltz's résumé looks nearly as impressive; in fact, Schilling rates as the most similar pitcher to Smoltz, according to Baseball-Reference.com. The Braves' dynasty started in the early 1990s with the young trio of Smoltz, Steve Avery and Tom Glavine. The Braves added Greg Maddux to the mix before the 1993 season, in the process claiming one of the best pitchers of all time and making one of the canniest free agent signings ever. But it was Smoltz -- not Maddux, Glavine, Avery or anyone else -- who was a mainstay on every Braves team throughout Atlanta's incredible run, from the pitching-rich teams of the '90s to the more recent slugging Braves who've relied on Smoltz as an anchor.
Being a top starter on 11 straight division winners and 14 of the last 15 is amazing enough. But Smoltz also holds the distinction of being a kind of reverse Dennis Eckersley. Eck achieved some success as a starter, but ultimately made his bones as one of the best closers of all time. Smoltz mixed in four seasons as a shutdown closer with his long tenure as an elite starter. Smoltz wasn't as dominant a starter as Eckersley was coming out of the pen. But Smoltz the closer still beat Eckersley the starter.
Smoltz has only one World Series title to his credit, compared with Schilling's two. But being a mainstay on this many playoff teams, with the added bonus of being both a top starter and a nearly unhittable closer, would seem to cement Smoltz's case for the Hall, too.
Here at Page 2, though, you have to earn it. It's not enough to say a certain player has the look or feel of a Hall of Famer -- by those standards, Jack Morris, Andre Dawson and Jim Rice would be in. Page 2 takes the same philosophy as the motto of Schilling's home state of Alaska: "When's the sun going down already?!" Wait, no, that's not right. That should be the unofficial motto of Missouri: "Show me."
Many Hall of Fame voters likely have limited knowledge of some of the more advanced statistics available to baseball analysts. Getting them to acknowledge on-base percentage for hitters, or to look beyond wins and losses for pitchers, is a huge chore in itself.
In some ways, it's hard to blame them. Weighing a player's Hall of Fame candidacy requires evaluating a player on multiple levels. How did the player perform when he was at his peak? Do his career accomplishments pass muster? Did he bring anything extra to the table, such as playoff success or even Clemente-like humanitarianism? Leaving aside the thorny topic of whether a player's a mensch, it's still tough to find one statistic that captures all these factors. So much so that some voters can be put off by the research and analysis required to make a decision.
A Baseball Prospectus metric called JAWS tries to fill the breach. An acronym for Jaffe WARP score -- named by its creator, Jay Jaffe -- JAWS measures a player's combination of career and peak production against those of Hall of Famers at his position. By this method, peak is defined as a player's seven best seasons according to another BP stat, wins above replacement player (WARP). The player's JAWS number, then, is a simple average of those seven peak seasons and his career WARP total.
WARP is itself a measure of a player's offensive, defensive and/or pitching contribution above what a freely available minor leaguer or bench player could produce. With the Hall of Fame's ranks diluted by dubious Veterans Committee selections, the goal of JAWS is to identify players who would be above-average Hall of Famers. They help raise the bar for future generations. There are plenty of things JAWS doesn't consider: awards, postseason play, hitting or pitching milestones, league-leading totals, and character among them. However, JAWS does a good job of weighing the meat-and-potatoes contributions of each player in a Cooperstown context.
JAWS is expressed as the total number of wins a player contributes above your typical scrub. Strip out batting average, ERA, OPS and every other stat, and you're drilling down to the core of a player's value: how many ball games he wins for his team.
The average Hall of Fame pitcher accumulated 99.6 career WARP and 63.0 peak WARP (an average of 9.0 per year), for a JAWS score of 81.3, or 81.3 wins more than your typical Gerald Williams-type player. Before this year, both Schilling and Smoltz were closing in on that level. Schilling stood at 96.6 career/63.2 peak/79.9 JAWS, Smoltz at 103.9/55.1/79.5. Those aren't the top scores among active and recently retired pitchers (those who have yet to appear on a Hall of Fame ballot). Schilling and Smoltz rank eighth and ninth among active pitchers, 37th and 39th all-time.
But with good 2006 seasons to date under their belts, both Schilling and Smoltz have cleared the bar. If the season ended today, Schilling would wind up at 82.8 and Smoltz at 82.0, both clearing the 81.3 threshold for the average Hall of Fame pitcher. Both Smoltz and Schilling are also within a couple of wins of placing this season among their seven best of all time, which would further enhance their candidacies by elevating their peak scores.
Still getting used to the idea of JAWS as something different from a Peter Benchley creation that bites people's toes off? Check out the list of the top 10 pitchers active through the end of the 2005 season by JAWS score for some context (O-Rnk is the overall rank among all-time pitchers at the outset of the season):
|Ranking Today's Pitchers|
The top five names on the list are no-brainers: Clemens, Maddux, Johnson, Pedro and Glavine. But how about Mike Mussina? If his career ended today, he'd be well above the average credentials needed to make the Hall. That might surprise some people. Mussina has never won 20 games, for one. But winning 20 games has become a huge task for even the best of the best, with the five-man rotation making it a much tougher chore than it was for Spahn and Koufax, let alone Walter Johnson and Bob Feller. Mussina has been one of the most durable and effective pitchers of the last couple decades, an innings-eating machine with some sparkling ERAs, pitching in one of the most favorable offensive eras of all time. And although it's true that Mussina never won a Cy Young, Schilling never did, either. Mussina's bounceback '06 season seals the deal. He deserves to go in. Given his lack of flashy numbers, though, he might need two more big seasons to get there.
Brown has to be one of the most underrated pitchers ever. He had several huge years (two ERA titles, including a 1.89 ERA in 233 IP in '96 -- less than half the league average of 4.05), some playoff success with the Marlins and Padres, and a longer, more complete career than many people might realize (he was a star with the Texas Rangers when Bush Sr. was still in office). Brown also was widely regarded as one of the biggest jerks in the game. Should that prevent him from getting a plaque next to Gibson and Ryan? Probably not. Will it? I suspect it will.
Relief pitchers have just about no shot at matching the JAWS numbers of starting pitchers because they throw far fewer innings. That Rivera makes this illustrious list provides even more evidence that he's the greatest reliever in the modern closer era.
Will Schilling and Smoltz make it? Schilling's a mortal lock. Baseball history is littered with examples of players who ride postseason success into Cooperstown. Some of these players fall well short of the standards set by other Hall of Famers, making them dubious picks.
The Big Red Machine was one of the greatest dynasties of all time. Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench are inner-circle Hall of Famers -- Pete Rose earned his way in, too, at least based on what he did on the field. But no matter how many World Series a team wins, most players on those teams won't be deserving Hall of Famers. Tony Perez wasn't a great clutch hitter, no matter what his supporters say; he was an above-average hitter who played for 23 seasons, batting in the middle of the order every year, behind some of the deadliest on-base threats in major league history -- Rose and Morgan. (Dave Concepcion was a great defensive player whose offense also leaves him short of being Hall-worthy.)
Undeserving as he is, though, Perez looks like Mickey Mantle compared with some of the New York Giants of the 1920s and 1930s who made it into the Hall. The rampant presence of former teammates from that era on various selection committees paved the way for paper tigers such as Freddie Lindstrom to sneak their way in. Lindstrom had some great years during his peak. But his overall body of work should have forced him to buy a ticket to see the exhibits like the rest of us. Bill James' great book "The Politics of Glory" covers some of the head-scratching selections made over the years; Lindstrom being in and later-era third base star Ron Santo being out remains a mind-boggler.
Schilling's not nearly as questionable a candidate. His biggest critic might hold his lack of a Cy Young award against him. But James' Black Ink test, which adds up the number of times a player has led the league in key categories, has Schilling meeting the standards for an average Hall of Famer. The Gray Ink test, which expands to top-10 finishes in major statistical categories, gives Schilling the nod, too. Add in his career and peak numbers and his playoff accomplishments, and he's a deserving candidate. He'll make it, with ease.
Smoltz isn't as much of a slam dunk. Based on advanced metrics such as JAWS, he should be in. But Smoltz still has a bit of work to do to get to 200 career wins, never mind 300, a level that might not be reached for a long time once this generation's elder statesmen retire. Sure, he lost a bunch of wins to his four years as a closer. But other deserving players have been left out for lesser sins: Goose Gossage often would shut down the opposition for two, three or more innings at a time. Instead of being rewarded for being a true fireman, he apparently has been punished for not putting up the gaudy saves totals the ninth-inning-only closers after him totaled.
Smoltz deserves to make the Hall. But he might need one more strong season after this one -- and a nice, round 200th win voters can easily identify -- to get to Cooperstown.