Baltimore Orioles: Why isn’t Mike Mussina an easier choice for the Hall?
By the numbers alone, Mike Mussina is an easy choice for the Hall of Fame. So, what’s taking so long to elect him?
This coming Wednesday, the Baseball Writers Association of America will reveal the members of the 2017 Hall of Fame class. Mike Mussina, the long-time Baltimore Orioles great is not expected to be among the inductees. In the exit poll compiled by Ryan Thibodaux (@NotMrTibbs), Mussina has grabbed just under 61 percent of the vote with over 200 ballots revealed. He would need to be named on over 87 percent of remaining ballots to make the Hall.
While he is still likely to come up 15-20 percent short this year, Mussina has taken a step in the right direction. He has gained a net of 17 votes this year. The candidacy for the 270-game winner appears to be trending in the right direction — which is great — but why has it taken so long for Mussina to gain traction with the voters?
Over 18 years in the big leagues, pitching in the toughest division, Mussina won 270 games, made five All-Star teams, won seven Gold Gloves, and finished in the top-five in the Cy Young voting six times. He was remarkably consistent, pitching to an ERA+ under 100 in only three seasons. Mussina also went out on top with his only 20-win season in the final year of his career.
Mussina went about his business as a pitcher in a very quiet, reserved way. He was not a strikeout artist like Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson. The Stanford product wasn’t one to toot his own horn or ham it up in interviews. He never struck out more than a batter per inning or threw a no-hitter (despite several very near misses). For Mussina, it was always more about the art of pitching — his signature pitch was a knuckle-curve for crying out loud.
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Without ever being viewed as the best pitcher in baseball, his league, or perhaps even his division, Mussina did end his career with numbers that bested plenty of pitchers who were often considered the best in the league. He finished his career with two more wins than Jim Palmer, four more than Bob Feller (who did lose time to fighting in World War II), and 19 more than Bob Gibson. If winning percentage is more your thing, Mussina tops Greg Maddux by 28 points and Tom Glavine by 38 points.
Wins and winning percentage are clearly not the best statistics by which to judge a starting pitcher, but they do serve as a good starting point for a pitcher like Mike Mussina, whose best quality was his consistent ability to give his team a chance to win each time he took the hill. Let’s look at some of the more advanced metrics and see how they build into Mussina’s Hall case. He finished with 83.0 bWAR, which ranks 23rd all time, ahead of Nolan Ryan and Glavine, again. Mussina’s WAR is also better than John Smoltz, Don Sutton, Don Drysdale, Palmer, and a host of pitchers from the 1940s and 1950s. By all three of the metrics used by Jay Jaffe to evaluate a player’s Hall of Fame chances, Mussina is safely ahead of the average — not even barely scraping by at the bottom of the barrel.
Those who would like to make the argument that Mussina never accomplished anything in the postseason would also be wrong. He threw 139.2 additional innings with an ERA of 3.42, slightly better than his regular-season number. Mussina pitched in the ALCS five times and struck out 66 in 56.2 innings. In two appearances in the World Series, Mussina struck out 23 in 18.0 innings. Clearly he could elevate his game and hunt strikeouts when the time called for it.
This brings us back to the crux of the argument — why is it taking so long to elect Mussina, and why are some voters going so far as to take their votes away from him in favor of other candidates. There are a few problems, some of them rooted in the flawed ballot and its “Rule of 10.” There are so many candidates left in the backlog by voters too stubborn to vote for anyone with a hint of PED use. Jeff Bagwell, Barry Bonds, and Roger Clemens should have been elected on the first ballot. Same goes for Mike Piazza and Craig Biggio.
Leaving all of those massive names on the ballot pulls votes away a little further down from legitimate second- or third-ballot Hall guys like Mussina. I suspect that when Bagwell, Raines, and hopefully two or three more clear off the ballot this year, votes will free up to pass Mussina through the pearly gates of Cooperstown. Next year’s class is also fairly light on slam-dunk candidates.
The bigger issue most seem to have with Mussina is that he never “dominated” his league like Pedro Martinez, Maddux, Clemens, or Johnson. That same line of thinking is what has kept Tim Raines out of Cooperstown for so long. Rock was never quite Rickey Henderson, but there have been very few Rickey Hendersons in baseball history. Baseball has gradually gone from having a very “big” Hall in the early days (when the museum literally needed any good players to give people reason to travel to rural New York state) to a very “small” Hall where only the elite of the elite can gain access.
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With Mussina, the value of an entire career is being shucked aside in favor of gaudy strikeout totals and slightly lower ERAs. The crafty right-hander could be counted on every single year, right up until his retirement at the age of 39 following a 20-win season. He did it clean for 18 years, and he did it with class. Mike Mussina’s time in the limelight will come eventually, but it will have taken far too long to arrive.