The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2019 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2014 election at SI.com, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research, and was expanded for inclusion in The Cooperstown Casebook, published in 2017 by Thomas Dunne Books. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.
Unlike 2014 Hall of Fame honorees Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine or 2015 honoree Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina didn’t reach 300 wins in his career. Nor did he ever win a Cy Young award, in part because a teammate practically stole one out of his hands on the basis of superior run support. For as well as he pitched in October, his teams never won a World Series, because even the best relievers sometimes falter, to say nothing of what happens to the rest of them.
Though lacking in those marquee accomplishments, Mussina nonetheless strung together an exceptional 18 year career spent entirely in the crucible of the American League East, with its high-offense ballparks and high-pressure atmosphere. A cerebral pitcher with an expansive arsenal that featured a 93-mph fastball and a signature knuckle-curve — and at times as many as five other pitches — he not only missed bats with regularity but also had pinpoint control.
Mike Mussina, Wicked 85mph Knuckle Curve. ? pic.twitter.com/9aiYm9tVIE
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) November 15, 2018
In a prime that coincided with those of the aforementioned pitchers — as well as 2015 inductees Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz and ballotmates Roger Clemens, Roy Halladay, and Curt Schilling — “Moose” never led the AL in either strikeouts or ERA, but he ranked in the league’s top five six times in the former category and seven times in the latter. He earned All-Star honors five times and received Cy Young votes in eight separate seasons across a 10-year span, at one point finishing in the top five four times in five years. He even did a better job of preventing runs in the postseason than he did in the regular season, though it wasn’t enough to put his teams over the top.
Despite a late-career dip from which he recovered in memorable fashion, Mussina’s resumé as a whole is strong enough for Cooperstown. He delivered tremendous value across his career and holds up well in comparison to his contemporaries and to those already enshrined. On a ballot overstuffed with flashier candidates, he initially struggled to get attention, receiving 20.3% in his 2014 debut and 24.6% the next year, but three strong showings in a row lifted him to 63.5%. With five years of eligibility remaining, he’s already within striking distance; now, it’s a matter of when he gets to Cooperstown, not if.
Before delving further into Mussina’s career, a disclaimer: regular readers know that I generally avoid dwelling upon pitcher win totals, because in this increasingly specialized era, they owe as much to adequate offensive, defensive and bullpen support as they do to a pitcher’s own performance. While one needn’t know how many wins Mussina amassed in a season or a career to appreciate his true value, the 20- and 300-win marks are an inextricable part of his particular story.
|Pitcher||Career WAR||Peak WAR||JAWS|
|Avg. HOF SP||73.9||50.3||62.1|
Mussina was born on December 8, 1968 in Williamsport, Pennsylvania — the birthplace of Little League Baseball — and grew up in nearby Montoursvile, a tiny town of less than 5,000. A three-sport letterman at Montoursville High School, he supplemented his pitching by playing guard on the basketball team and wide receiver and kicker on the football team. As a senior, he won two games kicking last-second field goals, drawing the interest of Penn State University.
A strong student as well as an outstanding athlete, Mussina nearly earned valedictorian honors, but according to legend, he may have tanked a test in order to fall short and thus avoid speaking at graduation. Despite being considered one of the country’s top prospects out of high school, he chose to attend Stanford on a baseball scholarship. He helped the Cardinal win the College World Series as a freshman in 1988 and earned his economics degree in 3 1/2 years, capped by a provocatively-titled senior thesis: “The Economics of Signing out of High School as Opposed to College.”
The Orioles chose Mussina with the 20th pick of the 1990 draft — Hall of Famer Chipper Jones was first — and signed him for a $225,000 bonus. He began his pro career at Double-A Hagerstown, and after just seven starts there and two at Triple-A Rochester, placed 19th on Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list the following spring. After 19 more starts at Rochester, he debuted for the Orioles on Aug. 4, 1991. The 22-year-old righty threw 7.2 innings against the White Sox, allowing only a solo homer to Frank Thomas, but lost because ageless knuckleballer Charlie Hough spun a five-hit shutout. Though stuck on a club bound for 95 losses, he stood out in his 12-start trial; his 2.87 ERA was almost exactly half of the other Baltimore starters’ collective ERA (5.55).
That abysmal season marked the Orioles’ fifth sub-.500 finish out of six, but Mussina helped put the franchise back on the road back to respectability. Already remarkably polished, he assumed the mantle of staff ace, a role 1989 overall first pick Ben McDonald couldn’t fulfill. The O’s improved to 89 wins in 1992 as the 23-year-old Mussina tossed 241 innings of 2.54 ERA ball and went 18–5, earning All-Star honors and placing fourth in the Cy Young voting. His ERA ranked third in the league, and his walk rate (1.8 per nine) and WAR (8.2) were second, the latter trailing only Clemens’ 8.8. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his heavy workload carried a cost: shoulder soreness limited him to 167.2 innings with a 4.46 ERA the following year.
Mussina restored his claim as one of the league’s top starters in the strike-shortened seasons. In a 1994 Sports Illustrated profile, Tom Verducci described him inventing a cut fastball on the fly to escape a jam, quoting battery-mate Chris Hoiles: “Well, I guess if you’re going to use that pitch, we ought to have a sign for it.” Verducci continued:
What’s most impressive is that from 60 feet, six inches, Mussina can dot the i in his autograph with any one of six pitches. He has three fastballs (a cutter, a sinker and a riser), two curveballs (a slow curve and the knuckle curve) and an astonishingly deceptive changeup that is his best pitch. The rest of the pitching population is usually content to throw all changeups on the outer third of the plate. But Mussina is so adept at spotting his changeup that Hoiles often gives a location sign when calling for the pitch, a rare practice.
Mussina finished fourth in the AL in ERA in both 1994 and -95 (3.04 and 3.29, respectively), with fourth- and third-place finishes in WAR (5.4 and 6.1, respectively). He also led the AL in wins (19) and walk rate (2.0 per nine) in 1995 for the only times in his career but finished just fifth in the Cy Young balloting — not that he had any business winning over Randy Johnson (18–2, 2.48 ERA, 8.6 WAR). The Orioles were 63–49 in 1994, positioned to challenge for the new Wild Card spot, when the strike hit, but finished just 71–73 the following year.
In 1996, under new manager Davey Johnson, a star-studded cast featuring future Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar, Eddie Murray, and Cal Ripken, as well as Brady Anderson, Rafael Palmeiro and more, came together to win 88 games and the AL Wild Card. With a gaudy 6.7 runs per game of offensive support offsetting his 4.81 ERA (still good for a 103 ERA+), Mussina again notched 19 wins. He also struck out 204 hitters, fourth in the league and his first of four times reaching the 200-K plateau. In his first taste of playoff action, he wasn’t particularly effective, allowing a combined nine runs in 13.2 innings against the Indians in the Division Series and the Yankees in the ALCS.
In 1997, Mussina improved to a 3.20 ERA (sixth in the league) and 218 strikeouts (fourth) in 224.2 innings as the Orioles stormed to 98 wins and their first division title in 14 years. Stellar in the playoffs, he pitched to a 1.24 ERA in four starts, striking out 41 — the most by a pitcher in a single postseason without reaching the World Series — in 29 innings. Facing the Mariners in the Division Series, he out-dueled the Big Unit in both Games 1 and 4, administering the coup de grâce with a combined two-hitter in the latter. In his coverage for SI, Verducci harped on Mussina’s repeated failure to win 20 games but wrote approvingly of his pitching style: “What makes Mussina so difficult to hit is that he morphs the best qualities of a power pitcher and a finesse pitcher. At times he blew his fastball at 93 mph past Seattle. Other times he dropped in knuckle curves when he was behind on the count.”
Facing the Indians in Game 3 of the ALCS, Mussina was even more brilliant, whiffing an LCS record 15 batters over seven innings and allowing just three hits and one run.
Even so, the Orioles lost 2–1 in 12 innings when Marquis Grissom stole home with the winning run. Similarly agonizing was Mussina winding up on the short end in Game 6 despite eight innings of one-hit shutout ball. The two teams remained deadlocked until the top of the 11th, when Armando Benitez served up what proved to be a pennant-clinching solo homer by Cleveland’s Tony Fernandez.
Mussina had signed a below-market three-year, $21.5 million contract extension in May 1997, and despite the Orioles falling short that fall, their future looked bright. Alas, a feud with owner Peter Angelos led Johnson to resign the same day he won AL Manager of the Year honors. The O’s wouldn’t post a winning season again until 2012. Mussina played out the string as Baltimore collapsed into 70-something win ignominy, averaging 216 innings with a 3.60 ERA (129 ERA+), 5.0 WAR and his typically stellar 4.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio from 1998-2000. He finished second in the Cy Young voting in 1999, the best showing of his career, but Martinez (23-4, 2.07 ERA, 243 ERA+) deservedly won unanimously.
As the Orioles’ core dispersed, Mussina became frustrated at Angelos’ glacial approach to his pending free agency and the team’s protracted rebuilding process, opting for a six-year, $88.5 million deal with the Yankees, who were riding a streak of three straight world championships. “There have been only a couple years in my career when I knew we were going to win,” he said of his time in Baltimore upon signing. “That’s what I look forward to experiencing again.” The new deal made Mussina the game’s fifth-highest paid player.
Mussina and the Yankees did their share of winning in 2001. In his pinstriped debut on April 5, he tossed 7.2 innings, winning a 1–0 squeaker against the Royals. On May 1, he threw a three-hit, 10-strikeout shutout against the Twins. On September 2 at Fenway Park — opposite David Cone, whom he replaced in the Yankees’ rotation — he struck out 13 and came within one strike of a perfect game, allowing a two-out, two-strike single to Carl Everett before closing out a 1–0 win. Roger Angell’s New Yorker account found Mussina shocked and dour in victory, and Cone (who’d tossed a perfect game two years earlier) rejuvenated even in defeat.
Mussina’s 3.15 ERA (143 ERA+) in his inaugural season in pinstripes, his lowest mark since 1994, ranked second in the AL, as did his career highs in both strikeouts (214) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.1); his 7.1 WAR led the league for the only time in his career. Alas, he finished fifth in the Cy Young race, losing to teammate Clemens, who had an inferior season (20–3, 3.51 ERA, 5.6 WAR) masked by 5.7 runs per game of offensive support (fourth in the league), which boosted his win total. Mussina (17–11) received just 4.2 runs per game, the league’s fifth-lowest rate.
The Yankees won 95 games and their fourth straight pennant that season, with Mussina again coming up big in October. With the Yankees down 2–0 in the Division Series against Oakland, he delivered seven shutout innings in Game 3, aided by Derek Jeter’s legendary flip play. After a solid six-inning, two-run start in Game 2 of the ALCS against the Mariners, he was roughed up by the Diamondbacks in the World Series opener but rebounded to whiff 10 in eight strong innings in Game 5, which the Yankees won in the 12th. The Yankees ultimately came within one inning of their fourth straight title — and Mussina’s first — but Mariano Rivera unraveled in the ninth inning of Game 7. So it goes.
After a so-so 2002, Mussina helped the Yankees back to the World Series in 2003. He ranked eighth in ERA (3.40) and fifth in WAR (6.6) for the 101-win AL East champs, though his October had its ups and downs. He worked seven innings in a losing cause against the Twins in Game 1 of the Division Series, was knocked around by the Red Sox in the ALCS opener and wound up on the short end despite a 10-strikeout performance in 6.2 innings in Game 4. When Clemens fell behind 4–0 and failed to retire any of the three batters he faced in the fourth inning of Game 7, manager Joe Torre summoned Mussina for the first relief appearance of his professional career. He was nails: With runners on first and third, he whiffed Jason Varitek on three pitches, then got Johnny Damon to ground into a double play to escape the jam. He worked three scoreless innings, an unsung hero in a game the Yankees won in 11 on Aaron Boone’s walk-off homer.
Mussina started Game 3 of the World Series against the Marlins, battling Josh Beckett to a 1–1 draw through seven innings despite a 39-minute rain delay in the fifth. The Yankees took the lead in the eighth and broke the game open in the ninth, giving them a 2–1 series lead. Though lined up for Game 7, he never got the call, as New York lost the next three games.
Things started going downhill for Mussina in 2004, his age-35 season, as he lost six weeks to elbow tightness. From 2004-2007, he averaged just 173 inning, a 4.36 ERA (102 ERA+) and 3.0 WAR due to injuries, with one exceptional season (2006: 3.51 ERA, 129 ERA+, 5.1 WAR) offsetting three mediocre ones. The Yankees officially declined his $17 million option for 2007, reworking it into a two-year, $23 million deal. It began poorly, as Mussina battled back and leg woes en route to a career-worst 5.15 ERA and a late-season exile to the bullpen, though he salvaged some dignity with a 13.2-inning scoreless streak upon returning.
He salvaged even more dignity the following year, defying both his age (39) and a rocky first month. He made a league-high 34 starts, tossing 200.1 innings with a 3.37 ERA — and, finally, 20 wins. He allowed just one run over his final 17 innings across three starts. The last came in Fenway Park, the site of his crushing near-perfecto, as the opener of a doubleheader on the final day of the season. Mussina’s six shutout innings against the wild-card-winning Red Sox granted him the milestone win that had long eluded him, making him the oldest pitcher to reach that plateau for the first time.
That win was the 270th of his career. Realizing that a pursuit of 300 might mean a three-year slog and feeling the strong pull of Montoursville, he instead retired, becoming just the fourth pitcher to depart after a 20-win season, following Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams, who in 1920 were banned for life for their involvement in the Black Sox scandal, and Sandy Koufax, who retired after 1966 due to elbow woes. Despite millions of reasons to stay (in the form of dollars on his next contract), Mussina walked away, following the old showbiz adage, “Always leave ’em wanting more.”
Two hundred and seventy is not 300, but even so, Mussina ranks 33rd all-time in wins, tied with Hall of Famer Burleigh Grimes and above Jim Palmer (268), Bob Feller (266), Bob Gibson (251), and 31 other enshrined starting pitchers, including Martinez (219) and Smoltz (213). Those last two are double the total of sub-300 win starters elected by the BBWAA from 1992 to 2014; Blyleven — elected in 2011, his 14th year of eligibility, with 287 wins — is the exception.
Moving beyond that — seriously, I’m done with the wins talk now — Mussina’s 2,813 strikeouts rank 20th all-time. Among pitchers with at least 3,000 innings, he’s 10th in strikeouts per nine (7.1) and eighth in strikeout percentage (19.3%). That’s in part a product of pitching in an era where strikeout rates were almost continually on the rise, but it’s impressive nonetheless. Even more impressive is that his 3.58 strikeout-to-walk ratio is second only to Schilling among pitchers with at least 3,000 innings since 1893, when the distance from the rubber to home plate was lengthened to 60’6″.
As for the postseason, Mussina may not have won a ring, but his 3.42 ERA in 139.2 innings is no small feat given the high-scoring era; it’s 0.26 lower than his regular-season ERA, which itself was 23% better than the park-adjusted league average and is tied for 23rd all-time. Aided by the three-tiered playoff format, his 145 postseason strikeouts rank sixth, his 9.3 strikeouts per nine fourth among the 27 pitchers with at least 100 postseason innings, behind Justin Verlander, Randy Johnson, and Clayton Kershaw. Sadly, Mussina’s teams only won nine of his 23 postseason starts because they supported him with just 3.1 runs per game; only four times did they even give him more than four runs. He had a few dud starts (three of less than five innings), but it’s tough to pin his failure to win a championship on him.
As for the advanced metrics, Mussina stands tall thanks to his combination of run prevention and strikeouts (for which he doesn’t have to share credit — and thus value — with his fielders). He ranked among the league’s top five in WAR seven times, and 11 times was among the top 10. His 83.0 career WAR is 23rd all-time, ahead of 42 of the 63 enshrined starting pitchers; he’s 14th among post-World War II pitchers. All of the top 25 are enshrined save for him and Clemens. That total is 2.2 wins above 2014 honoree Glavine, who has an almost identical career/peak/JAWS line, and 9.6 above the average for enshrined starters. Mussina’s more modest peak WAR of 44.6 is 66th all time, topping only 22 enshrined starters, 5.5 wins below the standard, but his 63.8 JAWS is 2.0 points above the standard, good for 29th all-time, two spots below Schilling (64.1) and two above Glavine (62.5). His score beats those of 38 enshrined starters. He’s good enough for Cooperstown.
Voting-wise, Mussina has overcome a very slow start to his candidacy. Matched up against the five 2014 and -15 first-year candidates (Maddux, Glavine, Johnson, Martinez and Smoltz) who won at least one Cy Young award, and three of whom won at least 300 games, he failed to receive even 25%; his 24.6% in his second year is lower than all but two post-1966 candidates eventually elected by the writers, namely Tim Raines (22.6%) and Blyleven (14.1%). Fortunately, his 18.4-point gain was more than any other holdover on the 2016 ballot, and he backed that with gains of 8.8 and 11.7 points in 2017 and -18. Surpassing the 60% threshold is significant; current candidates aside, the only one to reach that mark and never get elected, either by the writers or a small committee, is Gil Hodges.
In my intro to this year’s ballot, I noted that Mussina appeared to be two years away from election based on two observations, both founded in a time when candidates had 15 years of eligibility, not 10. First, since 1966, just one of the three previous candidates with a percentage within five points of Mussina’s 63.5% in year five, Luis Aparicio (67.4% in 1983), was elected the following year; both Andre Dawson (61.0% in 2006) and Tony Perez (65.7% in 1996) needed four more years. Second, of the 19 times a candidate was within five points of Mussina at any point from year three to year seven, just four times was that candidate elected in the next year, and the average gain of those 19 was just 4.2 points.
That history may be obsolete. Anthony Calamis, who’s a member of the crack @NotMrTibbs ballot tracking brigade, observed that in the last three election cycles, seven out of the eight candidates who received between 55% and 72% in the previous cycle made gains large enough to push a candidate at 63.5% — smack-dab in the center of that range — over the top. Take it away, Tony:
|Player||Year||Vote %||Prev %||Gain|
I’ve ranked the above not by the size of the overall gain but by the previous year’s percentage, the starting point for the jump, to illustrate that even below 63.5%, players have made gains larger than what Mussina needs.
Still, with Edgar Martinez on the cusp of election in his final year of eligibility, Rivera a first-ballot lock and Halladay also expected to receive strong support, hopes for Mussina’s election in this cycle could hinge on the prospect of yet another four-player class of honorees, something we’ve seen twice in the past four cycles (2015 and 2018) after happening just twice prior. But while it’s a tossup whether we’ll see Mussina accept his bronze plaque in 2019, his time in the Cooperstown sun is surely coming.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.