Mussina to Play, to Hall, or to the Memory Hole?

Thanks to regular reader Mike F. for sending along this Tyler Kepner article in The New York Times about Mike Mussina’s impending decision to play or retire, which he is expected to make by the end of this week.  While he is expected to retire, Mussina just might return.  Given the Yankees’ likely reluctance to award him a three-year deal, since he would want to play for three to strive for 300 wins, it begs the question of where, if anywhere, Mussina would get a fairly long commitment given his age–he turns 40 in less than a month.

Kepner’s piece quotes various people giving their perspective on Mussina’s chances for the Hall of Fame should he retire after 2008, which I believe he will (though I’m frequently wrong on predictions).  I’ve written before that I consider Mussina a Hall of Fame worthy pitcher–270-153, 3.68 career ERA, career WHIP of 1.192, 2,813 K’s.  While the majority of those writers asked by Kepner, and answering either yes or no, said they’d vote him in, there is a fair amount of indecision among writers about his being in the Hall, in no small amount based on comparisons with his contemporaries.  For example, Dave Sheinin of The Washington Post said that Mussina “falls short of this standard” because he counts several other pitchers of his era as more dominant–Randy Johnson, Pedro, Maddux, Clemens, and Glavine, while adding Smoltz and Schilling as two more possibilities.

That is hard to dispute based on 20-win seasons, strikeout totals, and World Series rings–no small considerations.  But I have a different take on this assessment for Mr. Sheinin.  Is there a certain quota of dominant pitchers an era must have? Mussina was pretty dominant in his prime and over time, striking out 7.9 per 9 innings over his career and being highly regarded as a pitcher throughout, including when the Yankees plucked Mussina the plum before the 2001 season.  Also, as Kepner points out, Mussina has a higher career winning percentage (.638) than all but five other pitchers–Grover Cleveland Alexander, Christy Mathewson, Clemens, Lefty Grove, and Johnson–with at least 270 wins.  I’d say that’s pretty dominant, and by the way better than Schilling (216-146 = .597), Smoltz (210-147 = .588, though Smoltz went 6-8 in four seasons as an excellent reliever, and relievers can earn losses over short outings and against precious few batters), Glavine (305-203 = .600 and Glavine had 5 20-win seasons), and Maddux (355-227 = .610).

Sean McAdam, while leaning toward a “yes” vote for Mussina should he retire now, compared him to Don Sutton, while Joe Posnanski of The Kansas City Star, quoted in Kepner’s fine piece, realized that Mussina’s numbers “were as similar to Juan Marichal’s as they are.”  Sutton pitched for 23 seasons, amassing a 324-256 record, only one 20-win season (winning 21 in 1976), a 3.26 ERA, 3,574 strikeouts but no 200+ strikeout season after 1973 after compiling five 200+ strikeout seasons from 1966-1973.  Sutton threw 178 complete games in his career and was very durable, but Mussina was consistently better in terms of having winning seasons with a better winning percentage.  Mussina also started out better than Sutton, who went 83-85 in his first six seasons from age 21-26, while Mussina–who pitched at Stanford and began with the Orioles at 22–went 90-41 in his first six seasons from age 22-27.  Mussina was better earlier while also like Sutton in that each was good well into their late 30s.

But the overall figures, as Posnanski said, also compare to Marichal’s.  Though Marichal won 20 games six times and was more dominant in his prime than Mussina, look at these:

243-142, 2.89 ERA, 2,303 K’s, 1.101 WHIP in 15 seasons.  While Marichal tapered off significantly in his last four seasons due to arm injuries, going only 22-33 from 1972-1975, he averaged a win per season more than Mussina.  But Mussina also maintained a higher strikeout per season mark (156.3 to 153.2 for Marichal).  Marichal, by the way, never won a World Series either.

Here is something else to consider.  Mussina’s numbers are actually relatively similar to Greg Maddux’s.  Though Maddux has more wins and strikeouts, a lower ERA, won a World Series and won the Cy Young in four straight seasons–most of those over and above the “magic numbers” pundits use to evaluate Hall of Fame worthiness–consider this: in only six of his 18 seasons has Mussina lost ten or more games.  In Maddux’s first 18 seasons, he had nine seasons with double-digit losses, spending 11 of those 18 with perennial playoff team Atlanta (4 double-digit loss seasons) and the rest with the Cubs (5 double-digit loss seasons).  What was Maddux’s record in his first 18 seasons?  289-163 (.639), 2,765 strikeouts. Mussina: 270-153 (.638), 2,813 strikeouts, in a much tougher hitting league, ahem.  Do people define dominance too much by accoutrements and reputation, and not enough by establishing head-to-head criteria?  Possibly, especially in this case.  Additionally, note the players to whom one is comparing Mussina–Maddux (a sure first-ballot Hall of Fame pitcher), Sutton and Marichal–in the Hall of Fame.  With all, one can draw some form of similarity to Mussina.  That alone should indicate his worthiness for enshrinement.

I think part of the problem is the ephemeral, subjective criteria that various gatekeepers to the Hall of Fame use in evaluating the greatness of players.  I also think that those entrusted with Hall of Fame votes, in addition to being at times petty and parochial, simply overvalue the flashy, especially with statistics for hitters and awards, and subsequently overlook the obvious.  Greatness can mean and encompass a lot, including tremendous and at times isolated feats on grand stages.  To me, greatness also fundamentally means consistent excellence.  That has been Mussina’s career–including a 3.42 postseason ERA (with a 7-9 record) that bests his career ERA of 3.68.  It would be a shame if Mussina’s Hall of Fame fate were allowed to flutter in the breeze while pundits acting as gatekeepers, with varying qualifications to make such judgments, navel-gazed and overlooked just how terrific, how consistently very good, Mussina has been over 18 seasons.

Mussina should be in the Hall of Fame.  Period.

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Published in: on November 18, 2008 at 10:24 am  Comments (16)  

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16 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. As you know, you don’t have to sell me on Moose. I agree that he’s definitely a HOFer. I have plans to start a blog/site sometime after he retires dedicated to making a case for his enshrinement.

    Great post. I’m still holding out hope that he comes back. Considering he hasn’t already, I have to think he still wants to pitch. He’s had 2 months to figure it out and considering he hasn’t, it makes me think he’s not ready to hang ‘em up.

  2. nice post–i was surprised by moose and his elite company in win %

    nice new digs here. a nod to victorian times?

  3. I am on board. Moose in the Hall.

    http://statisticianmagician.mlblogs.com/

  4. New digs is right. Very fancy blog you’ve got here now! As for Moose, what stands out for me is his comeback in ’08. He was written off for dead in ’07 (I was one of those writers, I admit it), but made adjustments and won 20 games. Just shows me he’s got a lot of smarts, works hard and has guts.

  5. A little early to talk this through, although you make phenomenal arguments. It will be interesting to see how long it takes to get him inducted. The snobby writers will probably want to wait until after Clemens, Maddux, Glavine and Johnson before they vote in Moose.

  6. Thanks, J-Boogie. If you create an additional Mussina tribute site, let me know. I’d be happy to visit.

    Accidentally Victorian, Mike. I wanted a new format last year but figured I’d change after the season as a fresh start of sorts. I like some little things about this format, such as the heading, the larger script for links, the time of posts included in the subtext and the like. I wanted a format that allowed for decent-sized text for the comment box, since some that I tried last year were microscopic.

    Clearly I agree with both of you, Joe and Jane. I was fortunate to see Mussina April 23 in Chicago, when he just baffled the White Sox. That was a good sign of a turnaround.

    Thanks for coming by, Trevor. For those who don’t know Trevor, he and his brother have the 3G blog listed on the right. I’m not totally sold that Mussina will retire, but my hunch is he will. You might be right about how Mussina is assessed when compared to the others. I would hope that people look at how well Mussina pitched, especially when he spent his entire career (thus far) in the American league, as favorably as he deserves. He shouldn’t have to wait more than the requisite five years. Come back anytime, Trevor.

  7. Good article, Jason.

  8. I was caught semi off guard when your page loaded. Niice new look. Looks uber professional lolz.
    Ahh, I hoooope Moose decides to keep pitching. He’s one of the few pitchers in the game that I loooove to see pitching, no matter if he sucks or not that day. I love his style, and the fact that he still kickz azz despite his age and fastball in the 80’s.

  9. I’d like to see Mussina retire because he’d go out on a high note. Who ever hangs it up after a 20-win season? The guy’s got nothing left to prove other than winning a championship. I wish other players would take the hint and quit while the fans are still cheering. There’s nothing worse than seeing the former shell of a great player hanging on for one last shot at glory, but failing because time has caught up to them.

  10. One thing I did read, from someone, can’t remember who, is that Mussina has zero of the top 150 seasons of ERA+. So while I think he is deserving, I also think he is a “just in” type candidate, rather than a “no brainer.” Any top ten starter over a 15 year period should be in the hall though. And I haven’t come up with a list, but I would assume Mussina falls in near the bottom of that top ten, which seems to me, pretty great.

    http://statisticianmagician.mlblogs.com/

  11. That championship is pretty important though, and if Mussina can stick around a year, maybe two, Cashman may put the right team on the field to do it. I was very impressed the way that Mussina adjusted after losing a lot of his “stuff.” I would like to see Pedro do it, and give him a full 2009 I think he can, but he has so many setbacks, it just seems a little unlikely.

    http://statisticianmagician.mlblogs.com/

  12. Well, there is our answer. Sorry, Yankee fans.

    http://statisticianmagician.mlblogs.com/

  13. Steve, I’ll have to look it up. The only one I know of besides Moose to hang it up after a 20-win season was Koufax after he went 27-9, 1.73 in 1966. Cy Young award (natch) and #2 in MVP voting (behind Clemente).

  14. [...] career stats right now (I probably have already) but will refer you to an excellent piece by Jason over at Heartland Pinstripes on Mussina’s [...]

  15. Wow, thanks for all the comments, people. I can’t remember the last time when I had 14 comments outside of an HDLR. I would have posted last night, but Frank the Sage and I were chewing the fat for a good couple hours and, afterward, I hit the sack before midnight for the first time in weeks. Thanks for the kind words and the shout out on your blog, Mike. I posted a link to your most recent post here at The Heartland, which I’d highly recommend people read.

    Thanks, V. I just wanted something different and, while I might tinker with the color, I wanted something distinct in its appearance while doing some little things, such as having the time under the post, some script in the heading and titles, and to be easily legible.

    Steve, you called it before he retired, and I get the impression from beat scribes like Pete Abraham and Tyler Kepner that he has always been grounded enough to walk away on his own terms. Winning 20 in his last season, and walking away healthy just before turning 40, is something else.

    I think you’re right in your assessment of his ERA and Hall chances, Joe. I wouldn’t call him a shoo-in, though I’d certainly vote him in on the first ballot had I the chance. To me, the comparison with Maddux’s first 18 seasons revealed much, including remarkable similarity despite Mussina pitching his entire career in the much tougher league.

    I think there were a few others out of the game after 20 wins, but Eddie Ciccote and Lefty Williams were banned after 1920–not the same thing. Mike S. is exactly right about Koufax, and it’s amazing that Koufax had that kind of 1966 considering the incredible pain and suffering he endured in his last few years. I’d highly recommend Jane Leavy’s outstanding biography about Koufax for details on that and much more.

  16. [...] the sports commentators can really get into whether he is a Hall of Famer or not.  Jason over at Heartland Pinstripes, has a great post debating whether Moose belongs in the HOF.  In my opinion, it would be a huge [...]


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