Mike Mussina’s Hall of Fame credentials have been under debate the past few years. While he ranks high in most career measures, he never won a Cy Young award, won 20 games only once, and if elected, he would have the third-highest ERA of any pitcher in the Hall of Fame.
However, that ERA was inflated by playing in the American League East during the height of the PED era. When compared to league average, he looks much better than not only many pitchers in the hall, he’s equal or better than some of his contemporaries already in the Hall.
This article is inspired by a comment made by Keith Law after the Astros’ 2017 World Series victory.
Verlander: 2545 IP, 124 ERA+
Mussina: 3562 IP, 123 ERA+
If you think Verlander's a HoFer, fine. But then Mussina clearly is too.
— keithlaw (@keithlaw) November 2, 2017
So far, the BBWAA voter have been slow to answer the question, though they’re moving in the right direction. In the past four years, Mussina has improved from 20.3%, to 24.6%, to 43%, and finally to 51.8% in the most recent vote. At this point, it seems like he’ll make it eventually, but it honestly shouldn’t have taken this long – especially given how the vote has gone on some of his contemporaries.
The case against Mussina is pretty straightforward, but also pretty shallow (in our opinion). His ERA is too high, he never won a Cy Young Award, and he didn’t reach 300 wins. In reverse order, our responses are we’ve probably seen our last 300 game winner, so what – the Cy Young vote is so wrong, so often (especially the further back we go), and his ERA isn’t nearly as bad as it seems.
The Sandlot Test: Mike Mussina
Here are three pitchers who were active from the late 80s to the late 00s. Two are already in the Hall of Fame, the third is Mussina.
In addition to both WARWins Above Replacement. A stat that attempts to measure a player’s contributions in all facets of the game and quantify how many more wins that player contributed than a “replacement level” player would have (a replacement level player being a hypothetical “AAAA player” every team has in its farm system. calculations from both Baseball Reference (bWARWins Above Replacement as calculated by Baseball Reference. A stat that attempts to measure a player’s contributions in all facets of the game and quantify how many more wins that player contributed than a “replacement level” player would have (a replacement level player being a hypothetical “AAAA player” every team has in its farm system.) and FanGraphs (fWARWins Above Replacement as calculated by FanGraphs. A stat that attempts to measure a player’s contributions in all facets of the game and quantify how many more wins that player contributed than a “replacement level” player would have (a replacement level player being a hypothetical “AAAA player” every team has in its farm system.), we’ve included the harmonic mean of the two (hmWAR), since they weigh our Players B & C rather differently (Both put Player A first though).
Looking at these stats, all three seem relatively close. Player B was a bit more dominant, with the highest K% and K-BB%Strikeout Percentage – Walk Percentage. Probably the best measure of both a pitcher’s strikeout skill and their control (and ability to prevent walks). When comparing pitchers with significantly different walk rates, it better reveals a pitchers power/control combination than K:BB ratio does (since that can be skewed by particularly good control, even with middling strikeout numbers)., and while Player C clearly lags behind Players A & B in most rate stats, he delivered more than 25% more innings over his career.
All three seem relative similar to our eyes, which makes it that much more surprising that two of those players were elected on their first ballot while the third – Mussina – took four ballots just to break 50%.
Player B is Atlanta Braves great (and current inhabitant of the ‘make Joe Buck look better by comparison’ seat) John Smoltz. Player C is his long-time rotation mate, Tom Glavine. Player A is Mike Mussina. How is it then that Mussina – who was clearly better than Glavine in pretty much every measure of what pitchers’ can actually control – received less than a quarter of Glavine’s vote on their first ballots?
We seriously need to stop overvaluing the win *statistic*
The answer to that question is obviously pretty easy (which is why we asked it): Glavine has 300 wins, Mussina doesn’t. Add in Glavine’s five 20 win seasons and his two Cy Young awards (both won in 20 win seasons) and the voters’ reasoning is quite clear – even if it is poor.
So many other writers have hammered at the win statistic (the stat is overvalued, not the concepts of wins themselves) that we’re not going to rehash the general argument, but suffice it to say the central criticism that “wins are really dependent upon the team, not the pitcher” applies here.
At the very least, we need to stop looking at ‘300 wins’ as necessary in any way for Hall induction, because there’s a very good chance that baseball has seen its last 300-game-winner in Glavine.
Mussina played for a generally bad Baltimore Orioles’ team for the first decade of his career. Glavine played for the perennial powerhouse Atlanta Braves for most of his. Over their careers, their teams actually have identical winning percentages of .551, but Mussina’s winning percentage is 0.38 higher than Glavine’s. Why? He was a better pitcher.
That career winning percentage difference means that Mussina had a winning percentage 0.88 higher than his teams. Glavine’s was only 0.49 higher. In games he started, Mussina’s team had a winning percentage 0.70 higher than in games he didn’t start. For Glavine, that number is only 0.28.
In other words, Mussina’s teams were 13% more likely to win on a day he started vs. another day. Glavine’s teams were only 5.1% more likely to win when he started. In fact, in 9 of Glavine’s 22 seasons, his teams actually lost *more* often when he started than when he didn’t. That was true for only 4 of Mussina’s 18 seasons.
When we compare literally any stat other than wins and games/innings, (even winning %), Mussina is Glavine’s superior – often by a wide margin. Does this mean we don’t think Glavine should be in the Hall? Of course not. Glavine is clearly a Hall of Famer.
It’s just that Moose is as well.
A broader view
Mussina also compares well to several other early-ballot Hall of Famers. If we throw Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer (both first ballot) and Fergie Jenkins (third ballot) into the mix, Mussina compares well to all three. These three are excellent comparisons since they, like Mussina, all fell short of the ‘magic number’ of 300 wins, yet were treated as ‘no question’ Hall of Fame votes.
The difference in offensive era is really apparent when comparing Mussina to Gibson and Palmer. On the surface, Mussina’s ERA looks significantly worse, but Moose played his entire career in the PED Era (and in the AL) while Palmer and Gibson played a good chunk of their career in the pitcher-friendly 1960s.
Compared to league average, Mussina is only a bit behind Gibson and Palmer in ERA-Adjusted Earned Run Average Minus – the ratio of the players ERA to league average ERA, adjusted for park effects. 100 is league average and every 1 point deviation from 100 is a percentage point better or worse than league average. E.g., an ERA- of 90 means the pitcher’s ERA was 10% better than league average, and an ERA+ of 110 means it was 10% worse., and ahead of them both in FIP-Adjusted Fielding Independent Pitching. A measure of the events “under the pitcher’s control” (HR, BB, Ks, HBP) that attempts to remove the influence of team defense – whether good or bad – on the pitcher’s stats. It is then adjusted for park effects and related to league average FIP. 100 is league average and every 1 point deviation from 100 is a percentage point better or worse than league average. E.g., an FIP- of 90 means the pitcher’s FIP was 10% better than league average, and an FIP- of 110 means it was 10% worse. (significantly ahead of Palmer). Moose is well ahead of Jenkins in both.
When a pitcher can be described as “as good as Bob Gibson” in multiple aspects of the game, that’s a damn good pitcher.
Of course, Gibson and Palmer both had impressive postseason resumes, so much so that we declared Gibson the greatest postseason pitcher ever (Jenkins never saw the postseason). However, that doesn’t outweigh that Mussina is the equal or better to each pitcher on that list in essentially every aspect of the game.
Again, this isn’t to say that Gibson, Palmer, and Jenkins don’t deserve to be in the Hall – of course they do (as we said above “As good as Bob Gibson” is one hell of a compliment). We don’t even have a problem with them being such early ballot entries – Gibson in particular is fully deserving of that honor.
What that does mean, however is that if these other pitchers are “First Ballot Guys,” then it’s utterly ridiculous that there’s any question about Mussina at all.