The Curious Hall Of Fame Case Of Mike Mussina

7/25 from The Cauldron

When compared with the soon-to-be inducted Tom Glavine, Mussina’s numbers add up.

On Sunday, baseball will welcome six new Hall of Fame members to Cooperstown, including two pitchers: Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. Both easily made the cut in their first year of eligibility by garnering more than 90% of the vote. Such an honor has historically been reserved for only those who finished up truly elite careers — in the cases of the longtime Atlanta starters, no one can deny that each was special, and one of the best of their generation.

Much further down the ballot, collecting just over 20% of the votes tallied by the Baseball Writers Writers Association of America, resides one Michael Cole Mussina. 2014 was also Mussina’s first year of eligibility, and other than Maddux and Glavine, only Roger Clemens (tainted by steroid use) and Curt Schilling (29% in his second year of eligibility) received greater support for induction. (Without falling down a Schilling rabbit hole, baseball’s most talkative personality had a number of truly dominant years, but it is undeniable that he wasn’t nearly as consistently productive or excellent as either Maddux and Glavine. In fact, his stats pale in comparison to the pair’s — and Mussina’s.)

Mussina’s case is far more curious, especially when you consider that his career numbers compare very favorably with Glavine’s. Glavine, of course, surpassed that most magical threshold of career wins (305), whereas Mussina finished with just 270, but it took Glavine four more seasons and more than 800 innings to pick up those 35 more victories.

To have won 300 games, Mussina would only have had to average less than eight wins per season over four years, had he decided to pitch into his forties like Glavine did. Instead, “Moose” went out on his own terms, winning 20 games — for the first time in his career — during his final season in 2008 by pitching 200 innings to a 3.37 ERA. Mussina was extremely durable, too — he averaged 198.2 IP per season over 18 years — so it’s hard to imagine him not getting to 300 wins, even if the last of them came ugly. For what it’s worth, Mussina happens to best Glavine in career winning percentage (.636 vs .600).

At some point, the Baseball Hall of Fame is going to have to let go of “magic numbers,” whether it’s 300 wins or 500 home runs. Just as performance enhancing drugs completely destroyed any meaningful context for 500 homers, pitch counts and inning limits have virtually ensured that 300 wins are unlikely to be seen again in the modern era. Pitchers simply don’t last long enough to do it nowadays, which is what makes Glavine’s, Maddux’s, and Mussina’s durability something to celebrate. Starting 30+ games over 180 days — something fewer and fewer pitchers seem capable of — is a skill, one which Mussina displayed 12 times during his career.

Beyond wins — a stat that’s often more arbitrary than significant — Mussina actually beats Glavine by many other metrics. Glavine’s career ERA was 3.54, but he pitched the majority of his career in pitcher-friendly ballparks (Turner Field, Shea Stadium). Mussina, on the other hand, compiled a marginally worse 3.68 ERA, but he pitched the entirety of his career in the DH-laden, high-powered offense of the AL East — not to mention in two small ballparks (Camden Yards and Yankee Stadium) that have historically been unfriendly to right handed pitchers. Advanced statistics confirm things: Moose had a better career FIP, ERA+, WAR and RAR.

Also, despite 800 fewer innings pitched over his career, Mussina struck out 200 more batters than did Glavine. He walked seven hundred fewer hitters, allowed fewer hits-per-nine innings and had a .122 lower WHIP. By almost any measure outside of wins, Mussina was the better pitcherand for nearly as long a period of time. How, then, is it possible that Glavine was rewarded with 70% more of the Hall of Fame vote? Oh, and by the way, Mussina also won seven gold gloves. Only Jim Kaat, Maddux, Bob Gibson, and Bobby Hantz have more as pitchers.

Sometimes, however, numbers don’t tell the entire story. Dominance, in both the regular season and the playoffs are factors. Glavine had two CY Young Awards, a World Series, and made 10 All-Star Games. Mussina? He made five All-Star Games, won no World Series and never won the Cy Young. Glavine finished in the top three (and five) of Cy Young voting six times, while Mussina only finished in the top three once, and in the top five six times. Such would seem to suggest that Glavine had far more dominant years, right?

Not so fast.

Glavine’s Five Best Years

1991: Cy Young Winner, 20-11, 2.55 ERA, 1.095 WHIP, 7 K’s/9, 153 ERA+, 3.06 FIP, 8.5 WAR

1992: 2nd in Cy Young Voting, 20-8, 2.76 ERA, 1.187 WHIP, 5.2 K’s/9, 134 ERA+, 2.94 FIP, 3.8 WAR

1995: 3rd in Cy Young voting, 16-7, 3.08 ERA, 1.248 WHIP, 5.8 K’s/9, 137 ERA+, 3.49 FIP, 4.8 WAR

1998: Cy Young Winner, 20-6, 2.47 ERA, 1.203 WHIP, 6.2 K’s/9, 168 ERA+, 3.50 FIP, 6.1 WAR

2000: 2nd in Cy Young Voting, 21-9, 3.40 ERA, 1.191 WHIP, 5.7 K’s/9, 135 ERA+, 4.03 FIP, 4.9 WAR

Mussina’s Five Best Years

1992: 4th in AL Cy Young, 18-5, 2.54 ERA, 1.079 WHIP, 4.9 K’s/9, 157 ERA+, 3.19 FIP, 8.2 WAR

1994: 4th in AL Cy Young, 16-5, 3.06 ERA, 1.163 WHIP, 5.1 K’s/9, 164 ERA+, 4.14 WHIP. 6.1 WAR

1995: 5th in AL Cy Young, 19-9, 3.29 ERA, 1.069 WHIP, 6.4 K’s/9, 145 ERA+, 3.78 FIP, 6.1 WAR

2001: 5th in Cy Young, 17-11, 3.15 ERA, 1.067 WHIP, 8.4 K’s/9, 143 ERA+, 2.93 FIP, 7.1 WAR

2003: No Cy Young Votes, 17-8, 3.40 ERA, 1.081 ERA, 8.2 K’s/9, 130 ERA+, 3.09 FIP, 6.6 WAR

Admittedly, Glavine’s five best campaigns are better than Mussina’s, but only slightly. Despite more wins and more Cy Young votes, the former’s stats were actually quite eerily similar to the latter’s.

The pair’s postseason stats echo these sentiments. While Glavine is retroactively lauded as a postseason hero, Mussina has been oft been labeled as a shrinking violet in the playoffs. Nothing could be further from the truth. The pitchers share identical postseason winning percentages of .467 — Glavine tallied seven more wins over 14 additional starts. Glavine — pitching in the non-DL National League had a marginally better ERA (0.12). Both pitchers performed better the deeper they went in the playoffs and both pitched to better ERA’s in the playoffs than they did in the regular season. The peripherals and advanced statistics favor Mussina, with better strikeouts-per-nine, (9.3 vs. 5.9) and WHIP (1.103 vs 1.273). Again, almost frighteningly similar numbers.

Mussina, unfortunately, also has his reputation to battle. His ability to overcome adversity was often questioned — rain delays often resulted in meltdowns, which Mussina sometimes later blamed on the conditions — a tact that did not ingratiate him with the media or the fans. It was said that everything always had to be just right for Mussina to pitch well. An erudite guy, he was often aloof, too. Maybe it was the Stanford education, maybe it was just his personality, but Mussina never fully connected with the Yankee fan rank-and-file.

Many of those whispers were forever muted when Mussina — for the first and only time during his lengthy career — memorably came out of the bullpen in Game 7 of the 2003 ALDS and pitched three shutout innings on just two days rest. Though Aaron “Bleepin’” Boone would be forever immortalized for his extra innings, game-winning home run against the Boston Red Sox, it was Moose who made the impossible possible on that night.

Mussina also ran into the worst luck in what should have been career-defining moments. He never won 20 games until his final season, but he did finish with 19 wins twice and 18 three times. He played for the Yankees for the eight seasons between 2001 and 2008 when they didn’t win a World Series. They won three straight the year before he got there, and one the year after he retired. Twice he would carry perfect games into the ninth inning, and another time into the eighth, only to have them broken up. Carl Everett, of all people, shattered the dream with two outs and two strikes in the ninth inning. Bad cosmic karma? Sure. But we shouldn’t simply ignore these close-calls when considering Mussina’s Cooperstown bona fides.

Mussina was not a first ballot Hall of Famer; this much is true. The eye test tells us that he wasn’t. But if Glavine can net 90% of the Hall of Fame vote with nary a protest from the sport’s talking heads, while Mussina is left out in the cold, something is very, very wrong with the entire process. The only discernible difference between the two pitchers is some arbitrary 300-win benchmark and Cy Young ballots from 20 years ago when wins were still considered the best indicator of great pitching.

Statistical analysis has invaded baseball. It has made teams, General Managers and fans a lot smarter. Apparently, though, too many of the writers that man the Cooperstown walls haven’t gotten the memo. Mike Mussina has come up just short so many times in his career, it just doesn’t seem right to see the same thing happen when it comes to his case for the Baseball Hall of Fame, too.