Mike Mussina and the Hall of Fame

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When the Hall of Fame results are announced today, Mike Mussina’s name will not be included amongst the elected although it probably should be.  Hopefully it will eventually.

The former Oriole ace has numbers that – take entirely on their own – are worthy of Hall of Fame consideration.  In eighteen big league seasons, he pitched to a 3.58 ERA (123 ERA+) with a 1.192 WHIP and a very stellar 3.58 SO/BB ratio.  When you factor in that Mussina played his entire career during the most prolific offensive period in the game’s history while playing exclusively in the AL East, his numbers become even more impressive.  He was a very good and very effective pitcher in an environment that was extremely unfriendly to pitchers.

Only 22 pitchers who spent 80% or more of their major league career as a starting pitcher have a higher wins above replacement total (per Baseball Reference) than Moose.  Only eleven of those pitchers ended their career after 1930.  In other words, by WAR Mussina is approximately the 11th most valuable starting pitcher of the last 83 major league seasons.  If you put any stock into WAR as a historical metric at all, then I don’t see how one cannot at least seriously consider Mussina’s place in the Hall of Fame.

The arguments against Mussina joining the Hall tend to be anecdotal or tied to his failure to reach certain milestones or win certain subjective awards.

Harold Reynolds pointed out on MLB Network last night that he never feared facing Mussina like he did other pitchers and he considered him a #2 starter.  To his credit, Harold did hit Mussina well collecting eight singles against him in fourteen plate appearances.  Of course, the two players’ careers overlapped for approximately three full seasons (late 1991 through the strike-shortened 1994 season) and Mussina finished top four in AL Cy Young voting in two of those seasons (1992 and 1994).  He was clearly better than a #2 starter When Reynolds faced him.  Harold’s view of Mussina’s Hall of Fame worthiness – as framed through their days playing against one another – is a good example why it is often a mistake to rely strictly on personal memories when making these decisions.

Moose– somewhat infamously – also failed to reach several hallowed baseball milestones.  He threw four career one-hitters, twice losing a no-hitter in the 9th inning (May 30, 1997 vs. Cleveland and September 2, 2001 versus Boston).  He only once won 20 games and it came in his final major league season in 2008.  Mussina was never awarded the American League Cy Young honor.  His 270 career wins left him 30 shy of the hallowed 300 mark.

The lack of a no-hitter is completely irrelevant given that there are plenty of Hall of Fame pitchers without a no-hit game on their record.  The fact that he came so close on several occasions should be a plus, not a negative.  I am not quite at Brian Kenny “kill the win” levels but certainly holding a team stat against an individual player is a questionable practice.  For that reason, Mussina “only” having a single 20-win season and “only” having 270 wins doesn’t impact my perception of his career performance; By that same token, his “failure” to win a World Series is a team failure, not an individual one.  For what it is worth, Mussina’s post season numbers in both Baltimore and New York were very strong.

In each of these cases, Mussina is being docked for being better than all but the top 1% or so of starting pitchers in the history of the sport.  270 wins ranks him 33rd all time.  In 9 out of 18 seasons, he finished top 6 in the AL Cy Young voting.  His one 20-win season is likely one more than 95% of starting pitchers in the past 25 seasons.  He has come closer to throwing a no-hitter than the overwhelming majority of starting pitchers ever will.  If we are going to mention these rather worthless benchmarks as reasons against Mussina, it is only fair to mention that he performed better by these benchmarks that almost all non-Hall of Fame pitchers in history.

The underlying numbers and metrics show a starter that was one of the best in the game in his generation and possibly one of the better starters in the past 80 major league seasons.  If ancillary discussions must be dragged into the debate, it needs to be mentioned and taken into consideration that Mussina played his entire career during baseball’s most prolific offensive era, in the game’s best division, and in two (Baltimore and New York) hitter-friendly ballparks.  In my eyes, he is a pretty clear cut Hall of Famer.  Hopefully he will fare better in the years to come, but with the crowded ballot I am not entirely confident that he will.

On a side note, I was blissfully unaware there was such resentment for Mussina in Baltimore until he was elected into the Orioles Hall of Fame a couple of years back.  Mike was never the most personable or outgoing, but as someone who also carries those traits, I can’t hold that against him.  He never got in trouble, never bad mouthed the Orioles franchise, and always came off to me less as a jerk and more as a guy that preferred not to be bothered.  He took the best contract offered to him to play in New York and who can blame him for that?  I hope that when Mussina does eventually make it to the Hall, he goes in as an Oriole (his numbers in Baltimore outdo his performance in New York in virtually every category) and that Oriole fans allow themselves the opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of the franchise’s second greatest pitcher.

For the record, I think my theoretical ballot for this year’s HOF class would look something like this:

1.  Barry Bonds

2.  Roger Clemens

3.  Greg Maddux

4.  Mike Mussina

5.  Tom Glavine

6.  Frank Thomas

7.  Jeff Bagwell

8.  Edgar Martinez

9.  Tim Raines

10. Craig Biggio

I don’t care to exclude proven or suspected PED users.  They played in the era that they played in and should be judged against their peers.  Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were so far above their peers – many of who were also benefiting from PED use – that I don’t see a logical reason to exclude them.  I have no objections to the Hall educating current and future generations on Bonds’ misconduct and the “steroid era” in general – in fact, I encourage it.  However, history is history and we should not try to rewrite it.  Bonds put up historically great numbers and he belongs in the Hall for that reason.  Put him in the Hall where he belongs while calling attention to his PED use.  That way, nobody is trying to rewrite or ignore events and performances that actually happened.