The Phillies will pay tribute to the past later this summer, with Brad Lidge retiring in red pinstripes a day before Curt Schilling is inducted into the Wall of Fame. Schilling, the Phillies ace from 1992 until midway through the 2000 season, won three World Series rings after leaving Philadelphia but produced two of his best seasons here and provided long-lasting memories with his 1993 heroics.
Schilling was also the topic of an interesting discussion on 97.5 The Fanatic last week that juxtaposed him against a recent Phillies ace. The discussion centered on whether fans would have rather had peak-Schilling or peak-Halladay heading their staff. The results were split. Even though the availability bias — how more recent information can color our opinions — could have moved the needle towards the truly dominant Roy Halladay, there are still plenty of people who remember how brilliantly Schilling pitched.
There are both tangible and intangible factors to incorporate into this discussion but it really looks like a dead heat.
Regardless of his tough-to-watch 2013 campaign, Halladay very much remains an inner circle Hall of Fame pitcher. Schilling, who pitched in an era flush with HOF-worthy talent, will probably get in even if not on the first ballot. There is no wrong answer when choosing between two of the best pitchers in the long history of a sport, but the statistical comparisons were much closer than you may have thought.
First, let’s start with their career numbers.
Schilling made 569 appearances and 436 starts from 1988-2007. He threw 3,261 innings with the following numbers: 83.5 WAR, 216-146 W-L record, 8.6 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 4.4 K/BB ratio, .239 BA against, 1.14 WHIP, 80 ERA- and 74 FIP-. The latter two stats measure ERA and FIP against the entire league to better compare performances across different contexts. With an 80 ERA-, Schilling prevented runs 20 percent better than the league throughout his career. His FIP was 26 percent better than the league over those 20 seasons.
Halladay’s career is still in progress, but to date he has made 410 appearances and 384 starts from 1998-2013. He has thrown 2,721.2 innings with the following numbers: 67.9 WAR, 201-104 W-L record, 7.0 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 3.7 K/BB ratio, .250 BA against, 1.17 WHIP, 76 ERA- and 77 FIP-. Looking past the counting stats for a moment, as Halladay could make them up if he recovers from his surgery and has another few solid seasons under his belt, their rate numbers are really very similar.
Schilling seems to have Halladay beat in everything other than ERA- but many of the areas are too close to call. Doc’s strikeout rate is lower but he has an equally sizable advantage in groundball rate — 54% to 39%.
Next, let’s look at their best 10-year stretches, with Schilling get an 11th year as his stretch includes a 2005 season during which he was hurt and returned as the Red Sox closer. Even their peaks are very similar.
Schilling 1996-2006: 66.5 WAR, 2,305 IP, 9.4 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 5.4 K/BB, 75 ERA-, 68 FIP-
Halladay 2002-2011: 60.9 WAR, 2,194 IP, 7.0 K/9, 1.5 BB/9, 4.6 K/BB, 67 ERA-, 71 FIP-
Schilling’s WAR total ranked 3rd in that span. He threw the 5th-highest amount of innings with the very best K/BB ratio. His ERA- and FIP- ranked 11th and 3rd, respectively. In fact, he was tied for 11th in ERA- with Halladay.
Doc’s WAR total led the league in that span. He ranked 2nd in innings pitched to Mark Buehrle, who threw just 10 more frames. His K/BB ratio ranked third, with Schilling posting the best rate during that stretch. Both his ERA- and FIP- were the best in baseball.
The statistical comparison and the associated rankings segues into a discussion of context. Context is integral when comparing players in any scenario but even moreso when making cross-era comparisons. The usage patterns for starting pitchers shifted between the beginning of Schilling’s peak and when Halladay really took off and stats normalizing for the league average are infinitely more useful than the raw figures. This is why I’ve quoted the ERA- and FIP- instead of the actual numbers, as true productivity isn’t measured in an isolated vacuum, but rather against the league as a whole.
Schilling ranked towards the top of the league in several categories during his strongest stretch and throughout his career. Halladay ranked first or second in several categories during his best 10-year stretch. Even so, their numbers just aren’t that different.
Aside from tangible statistics, Schilling is probably considered the best post-season pitcher in baseball history. Over 19 starts and 133.1 playoff innings, Schilling is 11-2 with a 50 ERA-, 8.1 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 0.97 WHIP and .209 BA against.
However, Halladay is no slouch either, tossing a no-hitter in his first-ever playoff game. His sample is much smaller, as he never made the playoffs until joining the Phillies, but in 5 GS and 38 IP he has an 8.3 K/9, 1.2 BB/9, 60 ERA-, .167 BA against and 0.74 WHIP.
It’s incredibly difficult to choose between these two pitchers, as Halladay arguably got better after joining the Phillies, while Schilling’s four-year stretch of insane performance coincided with his trade to the Diamondbacks.
If I have to choose, I’ll go with Halladay, only because watching him pitch gave me that feeling my father always described about watching Steve Carlton. Ask me 100 times and I’ll flip-flop an awful lot, however, as this comparison is really that close.