Making Sense of the John Smoltz, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling HOF Debates

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJanuary 5, 2015

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John Smoltz, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling...or all of the above? It's a question Hall of Fame voters wrestled with this year (we'll find out what they concluded on Tuesday), and it's a damn tough one.

Or maybe not, if you believe the tally of public HOF votes at Baseball Think Factory. As of Jan. 4, Smoltz sat at 88.3 percent, trailing only Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez among eligible players.

Meanwhile, Schilling (53.8 percent) and Mussina (37.9 percent) fell well below the 75 percent threshold needed for induction.

Schilling's dominant performance in the 2001 postseason for the World Series-winning Arizona Diamondbacks is just one chapter of his October legend.
Schilling's dominant performance in the 2001 postseason for the World Series-winning Arizona Diamondbacks is just one chapter of his October legend.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

What gives? Why does Smoltz look like a lock to follow his former Atlanta Braves teammates and 2014 inductees Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine into Cooperstown while Schilling and Mussina appear destined to miss out?

Let's put the three pitchers' key stats side-by-side and go from there:

How They Stack Up (Regular Season)
PlayerIPERASOWHIP
John Smoltz3,4733.333,0841.176
Mike Mussina3,562.23.682,8131.192
Curt Schilling3,2613.463,1161.137
Baseball-Reference

Those are remarkably similar lines. And if you use career wins above replacement (WAR), Schilling (79.9) and Mussina (83) have a sizable edge over Smoltz (69.5), per Baseball-Reference.

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Of course, we've yet to mention the three seasons Smoltz spent slamming the door as Atlanta's closer. Between 2002 and 2004, the right-hander racked up 144 saves, including an MLB-leading 55 in '02. 

When Smoltz hung 'em up in 2009, he had 154 saves to pair with 213 wins. Both stats might be overrated, scoffed at by the sabermetrically inclined, but they're eye-catching, which may at least partly explain the voting disparity.

Not everyone is impressed. As Grantland's Ben Lindberg notes:

The portrayal of Smoltz as a Swiss Army ace relies on shaky logic: Every elite starter has the ability to be a dominant closer, and Smoltz shouldn’t get extra credit for the fragility that temporarily forced his team to use him in a less valuable role. After all, Mussina wouldn’t be a better candidate if he’d taken a sabbatical from starting to pitch out of the bullpen for Baltimore.

It's a salient point. Theoretically, Mussina and Schilling would have been equal if they'd tried their hand at ninth-inning duties. Heck, they might have been better.

The fact is, though, we'll never know. Smoltz is the only one who pitched consistently out of the pen, and he put up some imposing numbers to stack next to the dominant stats he compiled as a starter.

OK, what about the postseason? Many a HOF candidacy has been made—or broken—on October performance.

This is where Smoltz and Schilling gain a little separation from Mussina. Here are the three pitchers' key stats, this time for the playoffs and World Series only:

How They Stack Up (Postseason)
PlayerIPERASOWHIP
John Smoltz2092.671991.144
Mike Mussina139.23.421451.103
Curt Schilling133.12.231200.968
Baseball-Reference

It's not that Mussina embarrassed himself under the bright autumn glare, but the numbers (ERA specifically) put him a step off the pace.

And, unlike Smoltz and Schilling, he never won a ring. Fair or not, that's something many voters consider.

Smoltz spent three dominant seasons as the Braves' closer and finished with 150 career saves.
Smoltz spent three dominant seasons as the Braves' closer and finished with 150 career saves.JOHN BAZEMORE/Associated Press

Speaking of factors worth weighing, let's swing the pendulum back in Mussina's favor and point out that he pitched his entire 18-year career with the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles in the hitter-friendly American League East.

Plus, he's the only member of the HOF-hopeful troika who never tossed an inning in the National League, where the pitchers hit and the DH is a dirty word.

So you see how this goesback and forth, point counterpoint. Why not simply let all three in?

Peter Gammons, no doubt an authority on the subject, says that's the ticket, writing on Daily Gammons that Smoltz is a "no-doubter," while Schilling and Mussina also belong on baseball's most hallowed post-career stage.

All three, Gammons points out, pitched in the heart of the steroid era, "a time period in which we do not choose to elect Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and some others because of their suspected PED usage."

Mussina pitched his entire career in the offense-heavy AL East.
Mussina pitched his entire career in the offense-heavy AL East.Seth Wenig/Associated Press/Associated Press

But with Martinez and Johnson first-ballot locks and plenty of worthy position players in the mix, the math gets tricky.

For what it's worth, I put Smoltz on my unofficial Bleacher Report ballot and left off Schilling and Mussina.

It was a difficult decision. In the end, I was swayed (I'll admit) by the 150 saves and the fact that Smoltz, even more than Maddux and Glavine, was the connecting thread throughout the Braves' magnificent run of 14 consecutive division titles between 1991 and 2005. 

Still, I think Schilling and Mussina belong in the Hall. I also happen to think players like Bonds and Roger Clemens should be there, steroid stench aside. I suspect other writers whose votes actually count faced a similar dilemma.

Schilling garnered just 29.2 percent in 2014 and Mussina a scant 20.3. This will be Schilling's third year of eligibility and Mussina's second; it's conceivable both could fall off entirely in the future, though almost certainly not this year. (Only five percent is needed to stay on the ballot.) 

Even if you view both pitchers as borderline HOF talents, those vote totals are surprisingly low. Particularly for Schilling, who combines impressive stats with big-game mythology. Have we forgotten the bloody sock already?

Here's what Schilling told MLB.com's Ian Browne in 2014 after he missed the cut:

Whether I believe [I belong] or what I think is irrelevant. I know what I did. At the end of the day, when I think about my career, the thing I always tell people that I wanted when I started was, I wanted to have a career where the 24 guys I suited up with, if their life depended on a win or a loss, who would they want to have the ball? I wanted to be that guy.

He was that guy; so were Smoltz and Mussina. The question now is whether they'll be guys with busts in a museum in Otsego County, New York. 

In a way, it doesn't matter; their individual achievements stand tall regardless. But in another way, it matters a lot.

That's what makes the Hall of Fame special and confounding all at once, and what makes these questions so damn tough.