Mike Mussina Should Be in the Hall of Fame

Mike Mussina never won the Cy Young Award. He made the All-Star team only five times over his 18 years in the big leagues. He won 20 games just once, in the final season of his career. His career ERA mark is closer to 4 than it is to 3. In other words, it’s not difficult to see why Mussina hasn’t been inducted into the Hall of Fame yet, given the traditionalism of the electorate. There have been many worthy candidates who’ve accompanied Mussina on the ballot since he first appeared there, of course. Nine players have been elected since Mussina first became eligible, all of them slam-dunk candidates.

Whatever the arguments against him, though, Mike Mussina is almost surely a Hall of Famer. Hall of Fame voting has already technically concluded, so this column serves less as an appeal to voters and more of a general appraisal of the situation, if nothing else. Also, have you seen baseball news lately? I haven’t either, so here we go.

We’ll start with a few fun facts about Mussina, and expand on from there. FIP-based WAR considers him to have been just a hair below Bob Gibson in career value. WAR calculated with runs allowed (which is probably the superior metric by which to judge a career) places him among roughly the same echelon of pitcher. DRA-based WARP thinks he was worth 106 wins over the course of his career. Pitcher WAR is a bit of a sticky wicket, but those are impressive figures. But there’s more to baseball, and certainly a lot more to pitching, than WAR.

Let’s talk about spending 18 years in the AL East in the middle of the steroid era. Mussina spent almost his entire career pitching in Camden Yards and Yankee Stadium, two of the tiniest bandboxes in the game. He spent his time pitching to BALCO beneficiaries, and he did it in parks the relative size of a thimble. Even the best of pitchers will get knocked around in that sort of scenario. Mussina was never a flamethrower or a high-strikeout kind of guy, and he made a more contact-oriented style work in less-than-ideal settings. He could also do this.

How about some comparisons to current members of the Hall? Jay Jaffe’s wonderful JAWS system allows us to do this. JAWS, for those of you unfamiliar with it, accounts both for a player’s seven-year peak and career WAR. Through that methodology, it attempts to correspond a player’s most dominant time period with his longevity and accumulation of value. JAWS utilizes Baseball-Reference’s measurement of WAR, for those of you keeping score at home. Again, I’ll mention the appropriate caveats regarding pitcher WAR and its pitfalls. With that being said, consider this excerpt from the all-time JAWS leaderboard for starting pitchers:

JAWS Pitching Leaders, No. 20-31
20 Gaylord Perry Y 91.0 52.8 71.9
21 Pedro Martinez Y 84.0 58.2 71.1
22 Robin Roberts Y 86.0 54.8 70.4
23 Eddie Plank Y 89.9 50.5 70.2
24 Fergie Jenkins Y 84.9 51.8 68.3
25 Amos Rusie Y 69.3 66.8 68.0
26 Pud Galvin Y 73.7 62.1 67.9
27 Curt Schilling N 79.9 49.0 64.5
28 Mike Mussina N 83.0 44.5 63.8
29 Ed Walsh Y 65.5 61.9 63.7
30 Tom Glavine Y 81.4 44.3 62.9
31 Nolan Ryan Y 81.8 43.3 62.6
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
WAR7 denotes WAR over seven best years.
Avg of 62 starting-pitcher HOFers: 73.9 WAR, 50.3 WAR7, 62.1 JAWS

Mussina is 28th all-time in starting pitcher JAWS, and ahead of the average of those in the Hall of Fame. He has a higher rating than such luminaries as Jim Palmer, Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal, Nolan Ryan, Bob Feller, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine. Those last two are important, because they played at roughly the same time as Mussina, and dealt with similarly PED-infused hitters. JAWS views Mussina as their superior.

Glavine and Smoltz both earned their way into the Hall very quickly, and justifiably so. But it’s pretty easy to make a case, too, that they benefited from the notoriety they received for belonging to a ridiculous Braves rotation. How much should we value glamour and aesthetics when voting for the Hall of Fame? It’s hard to totally discount it. Mussina was never really the best pitcher in the league during his time in baseball. He pitched in the era of Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson, of Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux. To look at it from a more traditional perspective, he only led the league in wins once. And that was the year he finished fifth in Cy Young voting. And the year Johnson won it by nearly striking out 300 men and going 18-2.

To put it bluntly, Mussina isn’t a sexy pick. He probably isn’t someone over whom those who believe in a Small Hall should trip themselves to vote for. The names above are the inner-circle pitchers of the era. But he is one of the best pitchers of that time, and arguably of all time. Mussina was not overwhelmingly, mind-bogglingly dominant at any point in his career. He did not posses the pizzaz and fireworks of Johnson and Martinez. However, hindsight affords us the opportunity to look back and appreciate just how damn good he was, he should be enshrined in Cooperstown.

Ryan Thibodaux’s invaluable ballot tracker says that Mussina currently appears on 61.5% of the 155 publicly revealed ballots. That percentage is much higher than last year’s 43% and bodes well for Mussina’s eventual chances of being elected. It likely won’t happen this year. As the ballot thins out, though, his time will come.

Mike Mussina might be, perhaps, the most underrated starting pitcher of the last 40 or so years, if not more. But make no mistake. He was special.

If nothing else, this should get him in:

Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.

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5 years ago

One of the few things you’ll see O’s and Yanks fans agree on.

Monsignor Martinez
5 years ago
Reply to  Kvn

That and David Ortiz’s retirement.

baltic wolfmember
5 years ago
Reply to  Kvn

Damn straight!