Schilling, Wells, Brown and Smoltz, Oh My!

Those of you not interest in baseball can skip this one.

Rob Neyer has a good post responding to the claims that Curt Schilling is not a Hall of Famer. To summarize his argument, Schilling stands above a crowd of seemingly similar players because his ERA relative to league was superior (measured through ERA+, a ratio of pitcher to league ERA) and he adds sparking credentials from post-season performances.

I thought I’d look at it more in depth.

My favorite tool for a quick look at the Hall of Fame candidacy of a player is the Keltner List, a series of questions designed not to make a statistical argument but to sharpen one’s thinking about players. I thought I’d just apply it quickly to the four pitchers Neyer discusses — Curt Schilling, David Wells, Kevin Brown and John Smoltz.

Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?

I don’t think any of these men were ever touted as the best player in baseball. This is obviously a difficult standard for anyone, least of all a pitcher, to meet.

Was he the best player on his team?

Brown was probably the best player on a number of his Texas and Florida teams. Schilling was the best player on a number of Phillies teams but was probably not the best on his championship Diamondback and Red Sox teams, which were very good. Smoltz was overshadowed in his early career by future HOFers Maddux and Glavine but was clearly the best pitcher after they left. Wells was never considered the best player on his teams.

Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?

Kevin Brown never won a Cy Young award but had five top ten finishes and probably should have won the 1996 Cy that Smoltz won. Curt Schilling never won a Cy Young award but finished in second place three times to future HOFer Randy Johnson and star Johan Santana. John Smoltz won a Cy Young award and finished in the top ten five times. Wells finished in the top ten twice. Brown, Schilling and Smoltz were, for many years, considered among the best pitchers in the game. Wells … wasn’t. He had some good years, but you would never have picked him first in a draft.

Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?

All four of these men had big impacts on pennant races. Brown, Wells and Schilling were traded or signed as key components of pennant-chasing teams. Smoltz was a key cog in the Braves’ dynasty. And all had big impacts in the post-season.

Specifically:

Kevin Brown played a key role for the 1997 Marlins and 1998 Padres. He didn’t pitch well in the World Series but dominated in the early playoffs. The Marlins wouldn’t have made the post-season without him, least of all won a title.

Schilling, of course, is defined by his pennant-chasing theatrics. He was a key part of five playoff teams and won two series MVPs. Without him, the ’93 Phils don’t make the playoffs, the ’02 Diamondbacks are a wild card team and the Yankees win World Series titles in ’01 and ’04. That’s not even counting any bloody socks.

Smoltz was part of a dynasty, of course. But without him, the Braves don’t win the division in 1991, which may have ended the dynasty before it started. Without him, they also don’t win in 1993, 2001 and 2005. Smoltz pitched an entire season’s worth of post-season games and pitched exceptionally, winning one series MVP award.

David Wells played for eleven playoff teams. But his best years never lined up with a tight pennant race. He did pitch very well in the post-season, winning one series MVP.

Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?

Brown was kept around past his prime but mostly because of the expensive contract to which he was signed. Smoltz and Schilling were both sought after when they were in their 40′s and recovering from serious injury. Wells pitched into his 40′s but his first bad season was his last.

Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?

Clearly not. Taking eligible guys only, I would say Tim Raines or Ron Santo or Mark McGwire would be the best players outside the HOF. It’s worth nothing Brown, Smoltz and Schilling match or exceed those men in stat tests like the HOF monitor, HOF standards, gray ink and black ink tests, however. So you could make an argument. But I usually bias in favor of the position player.

(I’m assuming that guys like Bagwell, Biggio and Bonds are all inducted before these guys make the ballot.)

Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?

Baseball-reference.com lists the ten most similar pitchers to each man. Hofers are in bold.

Kevin Brown:

Bob Welch, Orel Hershiser, Don Drysdale, Catfish Hunter, Milt Pappas, Dazzy Vance, Curt Schilling, Vida Blue, Luis Tiant, Freddie Fitzsimmons.

Curt Schilling:

Kevin Brown, Bob Welch, Orel Hershiser, Freddie Fitzsimmons, John Smoltz, Milt Pappas, Don Drysdale, Dazzy Vance, Jim Perry, Catfish Hunter

John Smoltz:

Kevin Brown, Curt Schilling, Bob Welch, Orel Hershiser, Jim Bunning, Luis Tiant, Don Drysdale, Catfish Hunter, Billy Pierce, Vida Blue

David Wells:

Jamie Moyer, Kenny Rogers, Herb Pennock, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, Carl Hubbell, Andy Pettitte, Juan Marichal, Kevin Brown, Dennis Martinez.

This method is somewhat unfair to modern pitchers because (a) few pitchers threw in an equally run-happy environment and (b) few pitchers had the extended post-season these men have labored through.

Despite this, there’s lot of information in those lists. Smoltz, Schilling and Brown really form their own group, far different from Wells. Notably, their comparisons include a lot of pitchers from eras that were much more friendly to pitchers. That indicates a great career.

The only modern pitchers who are similar to Brown, Schilling and Smoltz are Orel Hershiser, Bob Welch and maybe Tommy John, none of whom are in the HOF. Only John received serious support. However, Smoltz, Schilling and Brown have significantly better ERA+ figures than those three and I would argue were significantly better pitchers.

By contrast, David Wells is comparable to a lot of contemporary pitchers who are not HOFers (Moyer, Rogers, Pettite, Martinez) or one who are better than he (Mussina or Schilling). Two of his HOF comparisons (Hubbell and Pennock) come from an even more hitter friendly era. No one in their right mind would argue that David Wells was as good as Carl Hubbell.

I would say the pitcher most like Wells in baseball history is Jamie Moyer — another contemporary lefty who has pitched forever. Moyer has been a fine pitcher, but he’s no HOFer.

Do the player’s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?

Smoltz and Schilling meet 46% of the HOF standards, Brown 41 and Wells 40. Smoltz and Schilling do significantly better on the HOF monitor and black ink test than Brown or Wells.

Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?

Not really. Smoltz has 154 saves to go with his W-L record. Moreover, his post-season record reads like a Cy Young season all by itself — 207 IP, 15-4, 2.65.

Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?

Not with Clemens, Johnson, Maddux and Glavine yet to be admitted. But they’re not eligible yet. The best pitcher who is eligible but not in the Hall of Fame is Bert Blyleven. I would say that Schilling and Smoltz were better, Brown about equal and Wells a bit worse. However, Blyleven pitched about 200 more games than they did and with less support from his teams.

How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?

A hard question for a pitcher. Both Smoltz and Schilling collected small amounts of MVP support. Brown and Wells collected only token support. None of them ever had a serious shot an MVP award, except perhaps Smoltz in 1996. I mentioned the Cy’s earlier.

How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go to the Hall of Fame?

Kevin Brown was a six-time All-Star and had seven seasons in which he threw 170+ innings and had an ERA+ of 130 or better, including an astonishing 216 in 1996.

Curt Schilling was a six-time All-Star and had eight quality seasons, as well as two that just missed the cutoff.

John Smoltz was an eight-time All-Star, had nine quality seasons (one near miss), plus three outstanding seasons as a closer.

David Wells was a three-time All-Star and had two quality seasons (and two near-misses).

If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?

Brown may have been the best player on Florida’s 1997 championship team. Schilling was the best player on a pennant-winning 1993 Phillies team. Smoltz was one of the top players on the Braves dynasty. All three bore the moniker of “ace” at some point. If either of those three were my best player, I’d think I had a pretty good team.

As for Wells … the best year of his career was 1995, when he was traded to Cincinnati. He was not the best player on that team. He was not the best player on that Detroit team that went nowhere. Of the eleven playoff teams he was on, I wouldn’t describe him as the best player on any of them.

You wouldn’t build a playoff team around Wells, but you would pick him up — as many teams did — to fill out the middle of your rotation.

What impact did the player have on baseball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?

A hard standard to meet. Smoltz was part of the greatest pitching rotation in history and Schilling has the bloody sock. David Wells tossed a perfect game. Kevin Brown’s Dodger contract was pilloried at the time as an excess (specifically the inclusion of private flights to visit his family). It doesn’t look so excessive now.

Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?

Brown was implicated in the Mitchell Report, although I’m disinclined to be selective in my bashing of players for steroid use. Curt Schilling has been very outspoken and is active in fighting ALS. Smoltz is very active in charity as well. I’m not aware of any points for or against Wells. All four men carried themselves well between the baselines.

So what have I learned after nearly 2000 words? Actually, I found this very illuminating. Smoltz really stands out as a HOFer. He was one of the best pitchers in the game for well over a decade — matching Schilling and Brown in the regard. And he had three years as one of the game’s best closers. If we were to count a save as worth 1/3 of a win, he would have over 260 wins. And it’s not like Smoltz piled up a bunch of mediocre seasons to get to 260. A long career consisting of great seasons is absolutely a HOFer in my book.

Schilling and Brown are borderline cases. Both were among the best pitchers in the game for a decade but lack the three extra seasons Smoltz put in as a closer. I would say that Schilling’s character and post-season performance pushes him over the line.

I think Kevin Brown was one of the most under-rated pitchers in the game during his time. But I think he just falls short, lacking that extra edge that puts Schilling over. He probably deserved a lot more consideration than he will get.

David Wells isn’t in the same class. He was a good pitcher, sometimes a very good one. But he wasn’t ever the best pitcher in baseball, as the other three sometimes were. He got a lot of wins putting in innings for good teams (Yankees, Red Sox, Padres, Blue Jays and White Sox). He won 160 games after age 33, but with an ERA near league-average (ERA+ 107). Wells was what he was — an above-average workhorse who was in demand from contenders who gave him lots of W’s. A good player; but not in the same class as Brown. And not nearly in the same class as Schilling and Smoltz.

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