Mike Mussina was durable and consistent starting pitcher, winning 270 career games in the rugged American League East. Of the nine starting pitchers with a career winning percentage better than Moose’s .638 mark, all but Roger Clemens and not-yet-eligible Roy Halladay are in Cooperstown. And, whatever you think about WAR (Wins Above Replacement), when yours is the 2nd best in history for a non-Hall of Fame pitcher, that might mean you belong there.
Cooperstown Cred: Mike Mussina
5th year on ballot (received 52% of the vote in 2017)
- 270 wins, 153 losses
- .638 career winning % (7th best for pitchers with at least 200 wins in the last 100 years)
- 3.68 ERA, 1.192 WHIP
- 123 career ERA+
- Won at least 15 games 11 times
- Nine times in Top 6 of AL Cy Young Award voting
- 5-time All-Star
- 7-time Gold Glove Award winner
- 82.7 career WAR, highest for any pitcher not in the Hall of Fame except for Roger Clemens
(Cover photo: Baseball Essential)
This in an update of an article originally published on October 5th.
Mike Mussina was born in Montoursville, Pennsylvania, a small town in central Pennsylvania, next door to Williamsport (the long-time home of the Little League World Series) and about three hours north of Baltimore, where the town’s favorite son took to the mound for ten superb seasons.
The Orioles actually drafted Mussina twice, first in 1987 (he didn’t sign, enrolling at Stanford University instead) and then again in 1990 with the 20th overall pick. He pitched in Baltimore for ten years (from 1991-2000) before signing a free agent contract with the New York Yankees, for whom he would toil for the final eight seasons of his 18-year career.
Mussina’s hometown is sadly best known for its unique pain in the tragedy of the 1996 crash of TWA flight 800 off the coast of Long Island. In a town with a population of about 5,000 people, 21 of its residents (16 members of the High School French club and 5 chaperones) were killed in that doomed flight, which was heading to France.
“(Mussina) has never failed the town, even at its most desperate moment… The tragedy still renders this small town different from any other, sadder and more cautious when interacting with reporters and the outside world. Mussina was in Boston with the Orioles at the time. Days later, he would fly back for the memorial service, would help raise money for the memorial that stands next to the high school… Mussina wrote the names of the 21 victims inside his Orioles’ cap. The town holds on to that time, almost visibly. It holds on to Mussina, too. He is theirs. They are his.”
— Filip Bondy, New York Daily News (Dec 3, 2000)
The Hall of Fame voters sometimes miss players who fly under the radar, players who plied their trade for mediocre teams, players for whom there was never any buzz as a young player. None of that describes Mike Mussina. The talented right-handed hurler known as Moose was famous before he ever signed with the Baltimore Orioles. As a freshman at Stanford, he led the Cardinal to its second consecutive College World Series championship. He was in the major leagues less than 14 months after being drafted and, in 1992, his sophomore campaign, emerged as one of the best young pitchers in the major leagues. He went 18-5 with a 2.54 ERA in ’92 and wound up finishing 4th in the A.L. Cy Young Award voting.
At the time of the crash of TWA flight 800, the 27-year old Mussina was already a 3-time All-Star who had finished in the top 5 of the Cy Young Award three times. It is natural and human that, when a national tragedy occurs, links to professional sports and its players are revealed. Mussina’s pain, shared by all of the past and present residents in Montoursville, became a national story.
After 10 superb seasons in Baltimore, Mussina pitched for his final 8 seasons with the most storied franchise in the sport and yet he still managed to fly under the radar. From 1998-2000 (while he was still with Baltimore) I was the Coordinating Producer of ESPN’s Up Close. We never were able to book Mussina to our show and we were probably better off for it. Moose was the quiet type, considered by many in the industry to be a dry interview. Even though he was a star player during my ESPN years, I had to go to YouTube while writing this piece to remind myself what his voice sounded like.
Mussina retired on the top of his game after the 2008 season, at the age of 39. He won 20 games for the first and only time in his 18-year career in his final campaign. In typical under the radar fashion, Moose actually made the decision to hang up his spikes before the season began but kept it to himself, not wanting any “last season” hoopla.
Of course, that decision came with a consequence: he stopped pitching just 30 wins shy of the 300-win mark, a milestone which almost certainly would have punched his ticket to Cooperstown (more on this later). This is how he explained that decision:
“I have young children and they’re getting involved with things. I’ve been away a long time and I want to be involved more. I’m certainly not getting younger, they’re not getting younger and you can’t get that time back. It’s just the right time for me… I didn’t want to be one of those guys that bounces all over the place. That’s not how I feel about the game. If I can’t contribute at the level I want to contribute at, then someone else should be doing it.”
— Mike Mussina (November 20, 2008)
Simply put, Mike Mussina was ready to go home to Montoursville.
Why Mike Mussina has been overlooked by the Hall of Fame Voters
How in the world did a pitcher who won 270 games, who was famous before he ever appeared in the major leagues, pitched in the big media market in New York and went out in style in his swan song campaign earn so little respect from the BBWAA voters? When he first appeared on the ballot in 2015, Mussina received just under 25% of the vote.
Besides falling shy of 300 wins, I can think of three reasons that Mussina has gotten lukewarm support in the Hall of Fame balloting in his first four tries. The first is simply that there was an overwhelming amount of competition among starting pitchers on the first two ballots in which he was eligible. After a 14-year run in which the BBWAA inducted only one starting pitcher, the last four cycles have seen five worthy starters gain plaques in Cooperstown (Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine).
Sabermetric pioneer and Hall of Fame expert Bill James pointed out decades ago that most writers like to balance their ballots with a mix of pitchers and hitters in the same ratio that you might fashion the building of a roster. So Mussina (and Curt Schilling) have languished in the shadow of their more luminous contemporaries (which includes the PED linked Clemens as well).
The second reason I think Mussina has been overlooked is that, while 270 wins and a .638 winning percentage are very impressive numbers, it is also true that he had the luxury of pitching for excellent teams for most of his career. The Baltimore Orioles won an average of 85 games per season (adjusted for the strike of 1994-1995) in Mussina’s nine years there. In his eight seasons in New York, the Yankees averaged 97 wins per year.
So, for Mussina’s career, his teams won an average of over 90 games, which certainly boosted his win totals. In his 537 career games (all but one of which was a starting assignment), his teams scored an average of 5.3 runs per nine innings, which is a half a run per game better than the league average during that time.
The third reason is that there are some writers (most likely older writers) who don’t like the fact that he only won 20 games once in his career and that he had a career ERA of 3.68, which would be the 3rd highest for any pitcher in the Hall of Fame. It is a truthful generalization that, on balance, older writers put more stock in wins and losses and younger writers look more closely at advanced metrics such as ERA+, WAR or FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching).
What many people likely overlook regarding Moose’s high ERA is that he pitched his entire career in the American League East, with DH’s and many PED-using players. His ERA+ (which adjusts for ballpark effects and is relative to the overall league ERA for each year in question) is 123 and that figure is better than the mark posted by 36 pitchers already in possession of Hall of Fame plaques. This list of pitchers with an ERA+ worse than Mussina’s career mark include luminaries such as Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton, Robin Roberts, Nolan Ryan and recent inductee Glavine.
Regarding Mussina’s personal decision to stop his career 30 wins short of the 300-win finish line, it should be noted that, in the history of baseball, only thirteen pitchers achieved their 300th career victory by their age 39 season. Only two of them (Maddux and Carlton) managed to accomplish this in the last 80 years. Six of the thirteen pitched in the 19th century.
Moose’s 270 wins through this age 39 season are 16th best all time among pitchers who debuted in 1901 or later and better than the mark posted by 35 Hall of Fame starting pitchers.
Mussina vs. Glavine
Finally, to make the case for Mike Mussina, let’s take a look at Moose and a contemporary from the opposing league, Tom Glavine. Here are their career numbers side by side:
Gulp: Glavine started 146 more games, tossed about 850 more innings, pitched most of his career for a perennial division champion (the Atlanta Braves), and won just 35 more games than Mussina. In addition, Moose struck out more batters despite dramatically fewer innings pitched. If you look at these two side by side, the only rational argument that Glavine is a Hall of Famer and Mussina isn’t rests on Glavine’s two Cy Young Awards and one World Series Championship. With respect to their regular season numbers, Mussina’s are clearly superior.
Through his age 39 season, Glavine had 275 wins, only 5 more than Mussina’s final total. Glavine got to 300 wins because he decided to pitch for three more years. In those seasons he won 30 games and posted a league-average 4.33 ERA. Does it make any sense that one pitcher is a Hall of Famer and the other is not based solely on three mediocre seasons in his 40’s? No, it doesn’t make sense. Both pitchers should be in the Hall of Fame.
How Many Hall of Fame pitchers should we have from the 1990’s/2000’s?
With Mussina and Curt Schilling, there are two clear cut Hall of Fame pitchers waiting to be inducted but they’ve both been a little slow to catch on. Maybe they weren’t as great as the five recent inductees but they were still easily in the top 10 among all pitchers from the 1990’s and the 2000’s.
So the question is, what’s the right number of Hall of Fame starting pitchers from a two-decade era?
Well, a good way to answer that question is to look at previous 20-year periods in history. Obviously, many players had careers that started in one of these 20 year periods and ended in a different one but I’ve put those pitchers in the “era” that represents the best part of their career.
Well, it sure seems like there should be room for at least 4 to 5 more starting pitchers from the 90’s and 00’s. I say “at least” because there are now 30 teams in Major League Baseball. Until the 1960’s there were only 16.
One of the most important things that a Hall of Fame voter can do when evaluating the candidacy of a player is to look at each individual season or a collection of seasons and determine where that player ranked among all others or specifically for his particular position. In the case we’re looking at now, it’s a question of how Mussina ranked among starting pitchers for each of his eighteen seasons. What makes his case difficult is that Mussina never did those typical Hall of Fame starting pitcher things like win a Cy Young Award or win 20 games (until his final season).
Adding to the difficulty is that he competed in the same era as four pitchers in the all-time great category (Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez). Since we’ve established that there is, from a historical perspective, plenty of “room” for more starting pitchers from the 1990-2000 decades, then we can confer a Cooperstown plaque on Mussina if we can demonstrate he was one of the two or three best from those years who is not already in the Hall (excluding the PED-tainted Clemens).
How Mike Mussina Compares to his Peers
Let’s take a look at Mussina year-by-year (skipping his sub-par campaigns) and compare him to his peers in the American League. I’m going to make a couple of subjective comments here about where I feel he ranks each year based on a blended average of pitcher ranks in a dozen different statistical categories (WAR, ERA+, opposing batter OPS+, WHIP, SO/BB, Wins, W-L%, Strikeouts, Complete Games, Quality Starts, Innings Pitched and WPA). See the Glossary for explanations of some of these categories:
Let’s unpack this for a moment. Needless to say, these are my rankings and you may not agree with them. That of course is the whole point of the Hall of Fame debate. I looked at 12 categories that I deem relevant (yes, including Wins to the “kill the win” crowd) and came up with a a objective ranking based on the subjective methodology that I created.
It’s my opinion that Mussina deserved the 2001 A.L. Cy Young Award and deserved to finish 2nd on three other occasions (to Clemens, Johnson and Martinez). Thus, in a parallel universe without the Rocket, the Big Unit or Pedro, Mussina would have deserved 4 Cy Young Awards. In addition, there were three other seasons in which, by my methodology, Moose was the second best A.L. Pitcher not named Clemens, Johnson or Martinez. That’s my opinion.
If you’re one of the two best pitchers in your league not named Clemens, Johnson or Martinez in seven different seasons, that sounds like the makings of a Hall of Famer to me.
In my opinion (based on the methodology) Mussina was one of the top 6 pitchers in the league 11 different times in his 18-year career. Not coincidentally, and easier to check for yourself, Moose was in the top 10 in both WAR and ERA+ in the American League in 11 different seasons. By the way, this is not dramatically different from the actual Cy Young Award votes, which placed him among the top 6 in the A.L. 9 different times. Considering that fact, it’s surprising we’re still debating about Mussina’s worthiness for a Cooperstown plaque.
Let me address two seasons where one might quibble with my rankings. In 2000, I have Mussina as the 2nd best A.L. pitcher despite a 11-15 record. First of all, this was not a good Orioles squad and secondly, they only provided run support of 3.4 runs per start. In that season, Moose was 1st in the league in innings pitched, 2nd in WHIP, 3rd in WAR, 3rd in strikeouts, 3rd in SO/BB ratio, 3rd in Quality Starts, 3rd in WPA and 5th in ERA+.
In 2001, where he deserved (in my opinion) to win the A.L. Cy Young Award, he actually finished behind the winner (teammate Roger Clemens), Mark Mulder, Freddy Garcia and Jamie Moyer, despite being tops in multiple categories. With respect to Clemens (who went 20-3), the Rocket received 5.7 runs per start from his Yankees teammates while Moose only got 4.2 runs per start, leading to a less thrilling 17-11 record. Mulder and Moyer each also won 20 games (which is why they finished ahead of Mussina) while Garcia went 18-6 with a league-leading 3.05 ERA. Garcia’s ERA was better than Mussina’s 3.15 mark, but Mussina pitched in Yankee Stadium while Garcia toiled in pitcher-friendly Safeco Field.
Anyway, here is a look at the 12 pitchers who pitched primarily in the 20 years encompassing 1990-2009 who had a WAR of 60 or above. As I’ve said many times, WAR is not the be-all-end-all of statistics, but it’s a good starting point to sort through the names.
The numbers speak for themselves. With the exception Clemens, Mussina and Schilling tower above the list of those who aren’t in the Hall. The only case I could make to be in the same league as Moose and Schill is Halladay, who died tragically last fall and who will be eligible for the Hall in 2019.
Anyway, even if you put Clemens, Mussina, Schilling, and Halladay into the Hall, that would bring us to a total of 9 pitchers from the 1990-2009 era, which is about the right number compared to the past, even forgetting that there are more teams now than there were in the earlier history of the game. Honestly, 9 pitchers from this era should be the bare minimum.
Mussina’s Cooperstown Prognosis
Counting this year, Mike Mussina has six more years of eligibility for the Hall of Fame ballot. Other than Halladay (eligible in 2019), there are no other newly retired starting pitchers on the docket for the ballot who are remotely in the same class as Mussina or Schilling.
Mussina’s voting percentage has gone from 20% to 25% to 43% and 52% in his four years on the ballot. As of late Monday, January 22nd, based on the early reported vote by Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame Tracker, Mussina has skyrocketed to 70.5% of the vote. It’s highly unlikely that he’ll hold that vote percentage when the final tallies are revealed but the fact that nearly half of the BBWAA electorate is supporting him at that rate bodes very well for his induction in 2019 or 2020. Either way, he’ll have the pleasure of being inducted with a longtime teammate (Mariano Rivera in 2019 or Derek Jeter in 2020).
Even as he goes into the Hall of Fame, Mussina will be, just so slightly, getting into Cooperstown a little bit under the radar.
Thanks for reading.