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.