Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Mike Mussina, Hall of Famer

The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 8, No. 140
January 24, 2017

Now that Tim Raines is in the Hall of Fame, there’s some question as to who us nerds will turn our attention to next. There’s Edgar Martinez, who has a following nearly as devout as that of Raines among fans active online. There’s Larry Walker, whose vote totals make a little less sense with each passing year, with each lesser player who comes on the ballot and surpasses him.

Due respect to those amazing hitters. However, the answer is abundantly clear. There’s a player on the ballot who isn’t just qualified for the Hall of Fame, isn’t just overqualified, but is one who will rank among the top players at his position even within the Hall once inducted. This is a superstar who can reasonably be called one of the 50 best players in major-league history, who is one of the 20 best pitchers since integration.

It’s not that Mike Mussina should be a Hall of Famer. It’s that there never should have been a question, never should have been a discussion, of his credentials. He is an all-time great on par with Bob Gibson and Nolan Ryan, players who were first-ballot inductees. Mussina isn’t marginal, he isn’t debatable, he isn’t someone whose greatness requires time to appreciate. He’s one of the game’s greatest pitchers, and that he is still on the ballot is a scathing indictment of the voters.

Let’s back up a second. One of the ways in which we can use a ranking statistic such as WAR is to look at players throughout the broad sweep of baseball history. It’s not a definitive statistic -- a player with 66 WAR could well be better than, and certainly more Hall-worthy than, a player with 71 WAR -- but it’s useful for grouping players together. It’s a starting point. It’s a way of launching the discussion.

From 1876, when the National League as we know it was formed, through 2016, 9,259 pitchers have appeared in a major-league game. Of those, 1,208 have had substantial careers, defined as throwing at least 1,000 innings. Rank all of those pitchers by WAR (in all cases, we’re using the baseball-reference version here), and Mike Mussina ranks 24th all time. We start the conversation with that fact: by one reasonably comprehensive statistic, Mussina is among the top 0.2% of all pitchers ever, and among the top 2% of all pitchers with substantial careers.

Maybe you think that’s too high, and you look at the list and say, “Oh, Mussina was no Bob Gibson!” (25th) or that he couldn’t hold a candle to Tom Glavine (28th) or that his ranking ahead of Jim Palmer (35th) is just some stat-nerd quirk. All fair. How far down do you want to go? The top 23 pitchers on this list are either in the Hall or excluded for nonsense. Mussina is #24, Gibson is #25, Curt Schilling -- nearly identical to Mussina in value and other markers -- is #26. #27 is James McCormick, who started his career in 1878 playing what amounts to proto-baseball. Twenty-nine pitchers have at least 70 career bWAR; Mussina, Schilling and McCormack are the only ones not in the Hall or being blackballed because stupid. Let’s make a chart.

Top Pitching Careers, by bWAR, Not in Hall of Fame

3.  Roger Clemens  139.4
24. Mike Mussina    82.7
26. Curt Schilling  80.7
27. Jim McCormack   75.5
31. Kevin Brown     68.5

Mussina and Schilling are breaking the curve. Every pitcher to start his career since 1880 and produce that much value is in the Hall, save Clemens. Every pitcher to start his career since 1880 and produce at least 70 bWAR is in. (I’m going to stop mentioning Clemens. You get the point.)

Maybe WAR is off. Do you know how far WAR has to be off before you can argue against Mussina? Kevin Brown has his supporters, and he’s three good seasons behind Mussina. Rick Reuschel has his supporters, and he’s three good seasons behind Mussina. John Smoltz was a first-ballot honoree, and he’s three good seasons behind Mussina. While Smoltz was nursing his elbow and yet somehow adding to his Hall case by making five starts from ages 33 through 37, Mussina was averaging 31 starts a year. Mussina’s 972 innings and 21.8 WAR end up hurting his case relative to Smoltz’s 285 innings and 7.4 WAR.

Run at this from a different direction. How good should you have to be to be a Hall of Famer? Among the top 5% ever? That’s a super-stringent cutoff, but let’s say we apply it. That puts about 60 of those 1,208 pitchers in the Hall. Now you’re down to around 60 WAR, acknowledging that we’re into an area with a lot of similar pitchers and a lot of Hall cases. Juan Marichal had 61.9 WAR -- four to five good seasons behind Mussina -- and was a third-ballot honoree. Jim Bunning is down here, Hal Newhouser, who put up a third of his career value in two big years against a war-ravaged American League, is down here. To say that Mike Mussina isn’t better than these pitchers, a reasonable cross-section of the middle tier of the Hall, is not defensible.

You don’t even need WAR. Just look at the stats we’ve been keeping for more than 100 years. Mussina is 31st all-time in starts, 32nd in wins, 61st in innings, 19th in strikeouts. He is just 163rd in ERA, a figure we know is heavily influenced by era; by ERA+, which makes adjustments for run environment, he’s 49th. In fact, he looks a lot like Marichal, except better.

                IP    GS    SO   ERA   ERA+   bWAR
Mussina     3562.2   536  2813  3.57   123    82.7
Marichal    3507.0   457  2303  3.04   123    61.9

Slash Mussina’s WAR by 25%, and you get a pitcher who went in on the third ballot. One who, by the by, has a far less extensive and successful postseason career than Mussina has.

This is where I’m supposed to say that WAR isn’t everything. Maybe it isn’t, but when a pitcher has 25% more innings, we take that seriously. When a pitcher has 25% more strikeouts, 25% more wins, a 25% better ERA, we take that seriously. Take a 25% WAR edge seriously.

Mussina’s case, though, runs deeper than his WAR. He has a fantastic postseason record. Playing in a hitters’ era in which the postseason came to dominate how we evaluate and remember teams, Mussina threw 139 2/3 innings with a 3.42 ERA (3.00 ERA in 18 World Series innings). He had more opportunity to pitch well, and he pitched well. Mussina had a number of incredible postseason moments. Cribbing myself...
  • 10/5/97: Seven innings, allowing just two hits and one run to beat Randy Johnson and send the Orioles to the ALCS.
  • 10/11/97: Seven innings, one run, 15 strikeouts in Game Three of the ALCS.
  • 10/15/97: Eight shutout innings and ten strikeouts on three days' rest in Game Six of the ALCS, an elimination game.
  • 10/13/01: Seven shutout innings in Game Three of the ALDS, another elimination game.
  • 11/1/01: Eight innings, two runs, and ten strikeouts in Game Five of the World Series.
  • 10/16/03: Three shutout innings of relief, enabling Grady Little and Aaron Boone and Mystique and Aura. In another elimination game.
Mussina combines one of the best statistical careers in history with an excellent record of coming up big in championship spots.

So why hasn’t Mussina been elected to the Hall? There’s no one reason. Rather, a confluence of factors has served to leave him underrated by the voters. First, he did have some of the greatest pitchers in baseball history as his peers. Across his 17-year career, Mussina ranks sixth in WAR behind four inner-circle Hall of Famers and Schilling. There’s an idea that Hall of Famers should be the best of their era, but baseball talent doesn’t distribute itself quite so neatly over time. There were no Hall of Fame pitchers born from 1952 through 1961, which is how we ended up fighting over Jack Morris for 15 years. Then Clemens, Johnson, Brown, Maddux, Schilling, Glavine, Smoltz and Mussina were born from 1962 through 1968. It’s not at all unreasonable to suggest that the sixth- and seventh- and eighth-best pitchers of an era could be Hall of Famers. Forget the 1920s and 1930s, forever polluted by the Veterans Committee’s errors; there were 12 Hall of Fame starters active in 1968. There were 12 in 1975.

1968 and 1975 are also part of Mussina’s problem. The 1960s, with their high mounds and large strike zones, queered the idea of what a great pitcher’s statistics should look like. The 1970s, a historical aberration, queered the idea of what a great pitcher’s workloads should look like. The combination created standards for Hall of Fame starting pitchers that cried out for era-neutral comparisons...which have not moved the needle. Hall voters haven’t adjusted for the changes in starting-pitcher usage that have rendered career standards and seasonal standards largely obsolete.

Since 1991, covering 27 elections, the writers have elected 13 starting pitchers, including Smoltz, who probably doesn’t qualify without his four seasons as a closer. Nine of the other 12 had at least 300 wins. The other three had 287 (Bert Blyleven, after a war), 284 (Ferguson Jenkins, who had seven 20-win seasons) and 219 (Pedro Martinez, one of two or three guys on the short list for greatest pitcher who ever lived). The writers have put one starting pitcher with fewer than 280 wins in the Hall in 27 elections.

That’s not about the pitchers and their greatness; that’s a failure to change with the times. Hall voters have not adjusted their standards for the 35-start and 25-decision seasons that became common in the 1980s. This applies particularly to Mussina, but also to Schilling and Brown, and in the future to Roy Halladay behind them.

This is where WAR comes in. This is why you need to use a tool that can measure performance across eras independent of the wildly varying pitcher-usage patterns throughout baseball history. Christy Mathewson and Pedro Martinez were both pointed to a mound and asked to get guys out, but the similarities in their jobs ended there. Mathewson threw almost 4800 innings and completed 435 starts; Martinez threw 2800 innings and completed 46. WAR cuts through that to put them on a scale: Mathewson 95.3, Martinez 86.0, both comfortably among the top 20 pitchers ever.

Again, WAR is the starting point. No one’s advocating for the Hall of Fame to be reduced to WAR rankings. What I am advocating for is recognizing that Mussina’s WAR rank leads you to the rest of his case, which backs up the WAR ranking. Mussina is the best eligible player in baseball history left out of the Hall of Fame for baseball reasons.

Top Careers, by bWAR, Not in Hall of Fame

3.  Barry Bonds    162.4
8.  Roger Clemens  139.4
59. Mike Mussina    82.7
61. Curt Schilling  80.7
65. Pete Rose       79.1
71. Jim McCormack   75.5
73. Bill Dahlen     75.2

Seventy-four players in MLB history have produced at least 75 bWAR in their careers. The only ballot-eligible ones not in the Hall are two 19th-century stars, two players dinged by the steroid mess...and Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling.

Mind you, even this analysis pretends that Mussina and Tim Keefe were playing the same game. That’s not entirely unfair, but the Hall process has been stacking the deck against latter-day baseball players, while shoveling in the best of the 1890s and 1930s, for 50 years. If you put your thumb on the scale, even a little, to account for evolution and expansion and integration, Mussina’s absence from the Hall becomes that much more hard to justify.

The challenge in making Mussina’s case is not being shrill. Mussina, like Jeff Bagwell, like Tim Raines, is so far over the line it’s hard to make a “typical” Hall argument. He’s not directly comparable to many players, a sign in and of itself of his case (Hall of Famers are Hall of Famers in part because they’re not very comparable).

Mussina isn’t close to the line. He isn’t a borderline candidate. He’s one of the 25 best pitchers in baseball history, and one of the 15 best pitchers since integration. The failure of the voters to recognize his greatness has nothing to do with said greatness. It’s been about a blind spot in the evaluation process, a failure to let the standards evolve with the game.

That needs to end now. A Hall without Mussina fails in its mission of inducting the greatest players in baseball history. This has already gone on four years longer than it should have. Mike Mussina should be on the dais in upstate New York in the summer of 2018, not because he accumulated WAR, not because Jim Bunning is in and he isn’t, but because Mussina is one of the greatest pitchers the game has ever seen.