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With John Smoltz elected to Hall of Fame, no excuse for keeping Curt Schilling out

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John Smoltz is officially a Hall of Famer, which makes it that much harder to excuse Curt Schilling's absence after three years on the ballot.

Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

To the surprise of no one, John Smoltz has been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of candidacy, earning 83% of the vote.

Also to the surprise of no one--particularly after coming in shy of 30% in 2014--Curt Schilling has missed out in his third year of eligibility. He's on the right track, having received 39% this year, but is still a ways off from the 75% needed to make it in.

It would be a lie to say this makes no sense, because it's all too easy to understand what it is that has boosted Smoltz so far beyond Schilling in the minds of those voting for the former and not the latter. But it's easy to say that the perceived gap between the two is simply incorrect and that, if Smoltz is indeed worthy of being a first-ballot Hall of Famer, the idea that Curt Schilling could miss out entirely is simply ludicrous.

The most superficial of numbers do favor Smoltz, who pitched a couple hundred more innings (3473 vs. 3261)  and had a slightly lower ERA (3.33 vs. 3.46), but it's pretty easy to argue that Schilling was at least as good, if not better. Smoltz, after all, spent his entire career in the NL, while Schilling eventually ventured into the land of designated hitters in years where that meant far more than it even does today. John Smoltz pitched almost his entire career in neutral-to-better parks for a pitcher, Schilling in neutral-to-awful. From 1988 to 2008, the 20 years Smoltz spent with Atlanta, the Braves were second to only the Cardinals in terms of defense, while Schillings Phillies and Diamondbacks teams were simply above-average defensively, and his Red Sox teams near the bottom.

When we start to divorce Schillings and Smoltz' performances from, for lack of a better term, circumstance, Schilling simply seems like the better pitcher. Schilling holds a career ERA+ of 127 to Smoltz' 125. He struck out 8.6 batters per nine innings to Smoltz' 8.0, and walked 2.0 to Smoltz' 2.6. Both men raised their game to new levels in the playoffs, and both had their share of troubles at the beginning and ends of their career to drag their overall numbers down. Their careers tell very similar stories in very different environments, and Schilling seems to have received the short end of that particular stick.

So why is it that Smoltz is such a clear-cut candidate while Schilling is not? Some of it likely has to do with his inclusion in the Maddux - Glavine - Smoltz trio that defined Braves baseball for nearly a decade. It's not fair to accuse Smoltz of riding the coattails of the other two--or Smoltz and Glavine of riding Maddux', for that matter. Smoltz and Glavine both earned their candidacies and, in my mind, their places in the Hall of Fame. But when your name is mentioned so often in connection with one of the best pitchers of all time, a certain association is made. If Maddux is one of those guys who, like Pedro Martinez, deserves 100% of the vote on the first ballot but for some silly tradition established decades ago, then how can the other two members of that particular trio not be first ballot Hall of Famers themselves?

The other bit--and this is particularly silly to me--is that Smoltz spent a few years as a closer. The mystique of the closer has faded quite a bit in recent years, but it certainly still holds some sway with voters to this day. But at the end of the day, those are just years where Smoltz pitched...less. Sure, some pitchers will struggle making the transition from starter to reliever just because of the different preparation involved (and while Smoltz' early relief efforts were solid, it was only after a couple years that he proved exceptional in the way he did as a starter). But on the whole, it would be more surprising to see a top starting pitcher struggle in relief than to excel. The reason the transition isn't made to fill closer spots with any regularity is because great starting pitchers are far more valuable and difficult to come by than a starter. For some reason, Smoltz candidacy is bolstered by those years as a closer almost as if he'd taken four years off from starting to go play an All-Star quality center field rather than just taking on a different pitching role where results tend to be easier to come by in the first place.

None of this is intended to tear down what John Smoltz actually accomplished. Over 21 years in the game, Smoltz combined quality, longevity, and postseason performance in a way that few pitchers can claim to have. He belongs in the Hall of Fame. But as one of those few pitchers who can match Smoltz in those categories, so too does Curt Schilling, particularly if Smoltz' candidacy is no close thing. From his remarkable performance in the 2001 World Series, to the Bloody Sock of 2004, to every run-of-the-mill start during his two decades of excellence, Schilling has the heights, the highlights, and the historical relevance to match Smoltz. With such an easy analog being swept into the Hall in his first year of eligibility, it's simply wrong to see Schilling missing out by such a wide margin once more.