Saturday, August 9, 2008

Moose in the Hall?

I’ve always had a soft spot for Mike Mussina. His first full year as a starter, 1992,was the first year I played Rotisserie Baseball. I selected him in the draft that year, proclaiming he would be “the Scott Erickson of 1992”. (That may sound like faint praise, but the year before Erickson exploded on the scene with a 20-8 record). Moose proved me right, going 18-5 with a 2.54 ERA. I continued to pick him for years and felt a sense of ownership with him.

It’s possible I was drawn to Mussina because he reminded me of my boyhood hero, Tom Seaver. Both pitchers combined power and craft, both came out of college ball in California, and both seemed to possess an intellect rarely found in baseball.

Seaver is one of the greatest pitchers of all time. He won three Cy Youngs (and arguably should have won two more, in 71 and 81). He finished in the Top 3 among ERA leaders thirteen times. He had five 20-win seasons. He led the league in strikeouts five times, and set a then-record 9 consecutive seasons with 200+ Ks. He appeared on 12 All Star teams and started seven times. And he finished his career with 311 wins. He not only made it to the Hall of Fame, but he did so with the highest percentage of votes ever given to any player.

Mike Mussina? His case for the Hall isn’t nearly that strong…but interesting nonetheless.

The Case Against
Mussina was no Seaver. He made only 5 All-Star teams (though he did start thrice). No Cy Young trophies adorn his case. He has no ERA titles, no strikeout titles, no Wins titles. He never won 20 games. He did lead the league once in Wins – and is surprisingly doing so again this year.

And he was nowhere near the best pitcher of his era. During his prime, baseball fans were arguably treated to the greatest quartet of starting pitchers that ever played at the same time. (Proving that is something I’ll do at another time, but in an era when offense ruled, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez strung together a run of seasons that rivals or surpasses anything ever seen before.)

And he doesn’t rank particularly high on any of the all-time lists. He’s 37th in Wins and 39th in Win %.

At the time of Goose Gossage’s election, I wrote the following:

In order to win election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown NY, the highest honor conferred on an American athlete, a player must do at least one of the following:

- Be an elite, dominant, Top 5 guy for a period of about 10 years
- Be a consistently very good player for a very long time, placing high on all-time career lists

Based on my own criteria, Mike Mussina will have to settle for the Stanford University Hall of Fame, because he ain’t going to Cooperstown.

The Case For
And yet…

In any conversation with any reasonable baseball fan, it is agreed that the game has changed and we need to begin revising in our own minds what an all-time great number looks like. 500 homers used to punch your ticket, but now – maybe not.

And Wins? It used to be agreed that 300 Wins got you into the Hall of Fame; even compilers like Don Sutton eventually got in. But the modern game, with 5-man rotations and active bullpens, has significantly cut down on the numbers of decisions – and Wins – that a pitcher can earn.

Mike Mussina, with 265 Wins (and counting) is the perfect test case for this theory. What is the new 300? 250? 275?

He ranks 21st all-time in strikeouts, which is impressive. When thinking about that, along with his 37th in Wins and 39th in Win %, you should know that there are 71 pitchers in the Hall of Fame. Those rankings suddenly look a little better, don't they?

And here’s your stat of the day: According to the New York Times today Mike Mussina just moved into 5th all-time in one of those obscure statistics that Joe Morgan hates but that, when you think about it, is incredibly compelling:

"According to the statistician Lee Sinins, Mike Mussina has moved into fifth on the American League’s career list for the statistic R.S.A.A., or runs saved above average. Mussina trails Lefty Grove, Walter Johnson, Roger Clemens and Pedro Martínez. Sinins said the figure 'measures how many runs a pitcher saves or costs his team compared to the average pitcher who pitched the same number of innings in the same offensive context (same league average E.R.A., park adjusted to his home park).'"

In other words Mike Mussina is one of the all-time greatest pitchers at the single-most important thing a pitcher can do - prevent runs - when you compare him to the time and place he worked.

Finally, according to Baseball-Reference, Mussina's career stats are most similar to Juan Marichal and his statistics through age 38 are most similar to Clark Griffith. Marichal (who pitched in a very pitcher-friendly era and park) and Griffith both have plaques in Cooperstown.

One last thing on Mussina's resume: he won 6 Gold Gloves. Gold Glove voting is an absurdity, but it's still worth mentioning.

The Decision
So does he deserve it? I think he's still on the bubble, but getting closer. As much as my rational side opposes arbitrary things like milestone numbers and 20 wins, I can't quite shake my attraction to them.

At the end of last year I would have said he hasn't earned it. But his surprising renaissance in 2008 changes that. He has a shot at 20 wins, he has a shot at a Cy Young, and more importantly he has a shot at extending a career that looked over, which will only push his career numbers higher.

Right now, I don't believe he's earned his plaque. But check back at the end of this season or maybe next, and he may have pushed himself over the top.

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