Pitcher List Hall of Fame Voting: Mike Mussina
The Pitcher List staff did Hall of Fame voting this offseason, which you can see here. However, as is natural, staff members disagreed about certain players and we felt a line of articles was necessary to defend our positions. This article features two arguments: Dave Cherman’s argument for Mike Mussina in the Hall and Dan McNamara’s argument against. Who are you persuaded by?
The Case for Mussina
Evaluating Hall of Famers is a truly difficult task. You get up to 10 choices for whom you deem to be among the greatest to ever play the game of baseball. How do you properly do that? Ken Rosenthal urges us to look for a 10-year peak: did the player dominate for 10 years? Mussina doesn’t really shine in this way. To see Mussina’s Hall of Fame case, we have to look at his career as a whole.
When I look at Mike Mussina, I see a model of both consistency and longevity. Some will look at his career 3.68 ERA and scoff. How could someone with the career ERA of 2016 Ian Kennedy be a Hall of Famer? It’s important to remember the era in which Mussina played: The steroid era was rife with run scoring and home run hitting. In 2018, the league-wide ERA was 4.15, which sits lower than the league-wide ERA for 16 of Mussina’s 18 seasons and notably lower than the league-wide 4.39 ERA from 1991-2008 (Mussina’s career). Therefore, I’m going to use ERA-, which puts all ERAs on a scale with 100 being league average, below 100 being better than league average, and above 100 being worse.
From 1992-2007, Mussina posted 197 IP with an ERA- of 80 or below 10 separate times. For reference, 2013 first-ballot Hall of Famer Tom Glavine achieved that mark just seven times in his career. Yes, I probably should have set the bar at 200 IP, but Mussina had one season with 197.1 IP and that’s close enough for inclusion for me. Some may also look to strikeouts- Moose was not a strikeout pitcher by any means, but what he did do was limit walks with the best of them. That allowed him to post one of the best K/BB ratios in the history of baseball (24th all-time) despite being a relatively low strikeout pitcher.
One of the typical barometers for a starting pitcher is, unfortunately, wins. We look for 300 wins as a sign of Hall of Fame worthiness from a starting pitcher — a quick search will tell you Mussina doesn’t have it. However, he’s very close at 270 wins and he honestly could’ve achieved the mark, had he continued playing. He chose to retire after his first 20-win season in 2008 (after two 19-win and three 18-win seasons) when he also posted a 3.37 ERA (3.32 FIP) with the best walk rate of his career. Had he continued, there’s little doubt he would’ve made it. In addition, we’ve seen that the mark of 300 wins is far from a necessity: If 300 wins are required, tell that to Pedro Martinez (219 wins), Whitey Ford (236), Juan Marichal (243), Bob Gibson (251), and Bob Feller (266).
Let’s look at some of the analytical stats as well. Mussina ranks 18th all-time in fWAR, between Gibson and Fergie Jenkins. In fact, everyone above Mussina in fWAR is already in the Hall of Fame. He currently ranks 29th among SPs in JAWS: sitting above 40 current Hall of Famers including Nolan Ryan, Glavine, and Marichal. His place amongst Hall of Famers stat-wise is clear.
It’s not just about the stats: Being a Hall of Famer is also about the narrative. To this end, Mussina struggles a bit on first look. He came to the Yankees the year after their title in 2000 and left the year before their 2009 title, so he won no World Series championships. He won no Cy Youngs. On top of that, Mussina was just a five-time All-Star. Mussina had the misfortune of playing at the same time as some of the best pitchers in the history of baseball: Martinez, Glavine, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, and Greg Maddux, just to name a few. His name often gets lost in the weeds of those stars, but Mussina was a model of consistency: he finished in the top six of the Cy Young voting NINE different times. In addition, Mussina was one of the best defenders at his position ever: finishing third all time with seven gold gloves at pitcher (behind Gibson, 9 and Maddux, 18).
Mussina may have not had the star power of other pitchers in his era, but the stats speak for themselves, as does his narrative of being one of the most consistent performers in the game throughout his career. Now, he needs to get what he deserves — a spot in Cooperstown.
The Case Against Mussina
You don’t realize how difficult voting for the Hall of Fame is until you can only pick 10 players. You also start to realize the different things that you put stock in as a spectator. When it comes to hitters, consistency always rang loudly for me — could I rely on a player to deliver a certain amount of offensive production over the course of an entire season? It didn’t have to be flashy; it just had to be very good, very often. For pitching, however, I noticed that I sought dominance — could I rely on a player to go out and be unhittable every fifth day? When this guy took the mound on opening day, did I think a no-hitter or double-digit strikeouts was a likely outcome? Perhaps it’s the microscope of pitching that induces this element of the eye test — and perhaps it’s a bit unfair — but nonetheless, it’s an undeniable piece of the voting puzzle for me.
My final vote came down to three players: Andruw Jones, Todd Helton, and Mike Mussina. Despite being a walking trivia answer, I was able to eliminate Helton pretty quickly. Although he played at a superstar level for about five years, his career seemed too compact. It was storied, but it didn’t have the longevity that forced the tears and goodbyes that you expect for a guy who once flirted with a .400 avg. So, I was down to two…
The choice between Jones and Mussina was one that I teetered on for a long time, but in the end, I went back to the eye test that I described above. Jones was a player who defined consistency and reliability at the dish, hitting fewer than 31 home runs only twice between 1998 and 2007 (26 in 1999 and 29 in 2004) and clearing 90 RBI all but once in that same period. In addition to that high floor of productivity, Jones also showcased his ceiling in the 2005 and 2006 seasons, where he combined for 92 home runs, 257 RBI, and 202 runs.
Now, a lot of people may give me grief for how Jones compared to other hitters of this generation. They’ll say he didn’t have an elite batting average; they’ll say he was hitting 30 to 40 home runs when many others were hitting 40+ (and they’d have a valid point if you examine his wRC+ rankings during his career). But Jones was there amongst the best every year for an entire decade and he had another elite tool in his belt: his defense. Growing up, I played center field and (despite being a native Philadelphian) I looked up to Jones as the quintessential center fielder. He won 10 (TEN!) consecutive gold gloves and was on the field for his team at least 154 times every year during that time frame. If you provide your team with high offensive productivity and elite run-saving ability, at a premium position, for that many games per season, for that length of time, you deserve to be in the Hall of Fame.
The sad part about that last statement, however, is that Mussina does NOT get one of my votes. He almost beat my eye test and won me over with his insane dependability: solid ERAs with reflective FIPs, nine straight seasons of at least 200 innings, and WHIPs that lived almost exclusively in the 1.00s and 1.10s. However, I never considered Mussina to be one of the best pitchers in baseball at any point during his career. I never saw him on the docket and thought that I had to see him throw. My eyes were glued to the likes of Johnson, Martinez, Maddux, Clemens, and Schilling in the first half of Mussina’s career and then Roy Halladay, Brandon Webb, Justin Verlander, and Johan Santana in Mussina’s later years. There never seemed to be room for Mussina amongst the elite. He was always a tier down from the very best and he never even got the fallback of being a Cy Young or World Series champion. As dependable as Mussina was, he was never going to pitch 250 innings and he was never going to approach 300 strikeouts in a season. When Mussina was your ace, you felt like you needed just a little bit more, and for that reason, I could not check his box on this particular ballot.
(Graphics by Justin Paradis, @freshmeatcomm on Twitter)