Here's my plea to Hall of Fame voters: Don't forget about Mike Mussina.
This year's ballot entrusts the 500-something voters with the monumental task of examining at least 21 legitimate Hall of Fame candidates, from Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens to Fred McGriff, Jack Morris and Lee Smith.
Last year, no player was elected. This year, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas are among the new names on the ballot, creating a logjam for those who would like to vote for more than the 10 allowed in the rules.
That's why I fear Mussina won't even get the 5 percent of the vote needed to stay on the ballot. Others assure me that won't happen, but I'm concerned that a guy with Mussina's credentials will get overlooked for a variety of reasons -- the crowded ballot, he doesn't seem like a surefire candidate at first glance, the voters who don't vote for first-time guys out of principle. All that could conspire to knock off Mussina even though he should be an automatic selection.
Mussina's case is especially intriguing because it gets to the core of these Hall of Fame debates. The sabermetrically inclined crowd -- which does include a large bloc of Hall of Fame voters, although far from a majority -- essentially believes the Hall of Fame should reward the best players and uses statistical evidence to back up its case. Most voters from the BBWAA probably believe they're voting on merit and might look at numbers, but clearly factor in other things on an ad hoc basis. If you support Jack Morris, you give huge weight to his Game 7 World Series performance; if you supported Jim Rice, maybe you considered that he was feared in his time or fared well in MVP voting; if you supported Bruce Sutter, maybe you gave him extra credit for popularizing the split-fingered fastball.
All of that doesn't even consider the different opinions on how to handle those players associated with PEDs.
Anyway, Mussina's statistical case starts with Wins Above Replacement. A lot of readers hate WAR. A made-up stat for nerds!, they like to scream; or as one person tweeted to me the other day, "No true baseball fan gives a s--- about WAR, which no one heard about until the Mike Trout fanboys wanted him MVP."
But bear with me, WAR-haters. I'll get to some more conventional numbers as well.
Mussina's career WAR of 83.0 is fourth highest on this year's ballot, behind Bonds, Clemens and Maddux, just ahead of Glavine, Curt Schilling and Jeff Bagwell. In general terms, this is the area of guys who go in on the first ballot. Here is the list of all 1970s-and-beyond players with between 75 and 95 career WAR and how many ballots it took them to get elected to Cooperstown. (You might not like WAR, but it's pretty hard to suggest this isn't a list of great players.)
Albert Pujols -- Still active
Wade Boggs -- First
Gaylord Perry -- Third
Steve Carlton -- First
George Brett -- First
Chipper Jones -- Not eligible yet
Fergie Jenkins -- Third
Pedro Martinez -- Not eligible yet
Ken Griffey Jr. -- Not eligible yet
MIKE MUSSINA -- TBD
Nolan Ryan -- First
Tom Glavine -- TBD
Rod Carew -- First
Curt Schilling -- One appearance
Jeff Bagwell -- Two appearances
Pete Rose -- Not eligible
Robin Yount -- First
Ozzie Smith -- First
Paul Molitor -- First
Johnny Bench -- First
You can see the uphill battle Mussina faces; the two guys not elected on the first ballot were both pitchers (Perry and Jenkins). Two other pitchers with more than 95 career WAR also didn't get in right away: Phil Niekro (fifth ballot) and Bert Blyleven (14th ballot). For some reason, Hall of Famers have been very tough on starting pitchers.
Mark Simon summed up Mussina's WAR credentials here:
Stretch our pitcher WAR list back to 1961 (the start of the expansion era), and Mussina still ranks 10th, right on par with Hall of Famers Steve Carlton (ninth), Ferguson Jenkins (T-11th), Nolan Ryan (T-11th) and Bob Gibson (14th).
Stretch it back to 1920 (the start of the live-ball era), and Mussina is in the No. 12 spot.
OK, WAR says Mussina, with his career record of 270-153 and a 3.68 ERA compiled in the heart of the high-scoring "steroid era", belongs in Cooperstown.
But maybe you think the voters will -- and should -- focus on these aspects of Mussina's career:
--Didn't win 300 games.
--That career ERA is pretty high.
--Only had one full season with an ERA under 3.00.
--Didn't win a Cy Young Award.
--Didn't win a World Series. In fact, the Yankees won in 2000, the year before Mussina joined them, and then won in 2009, the year after he retired.
--Wasn't great in the postseason. After all, he couldn't lead the Yankees to a championship!
* * * *
There are, I believe, six major components when judging a player's Hall of Fame credentials:
1. Old-school statistics.
2. New-school metrics.
3. Best player at his position arguments.
6. Signature moments.
Well, there's a seventh: character, applied primarily to PED users, but I'm going to skip that one right now.
Personally, I like to focus primarily on the first three, while also weighing the other three. (The third one is really a subset of the first two.) The sabermetric crowd, as mentioned, tends to focus almost entire on the second point, perhaps to a fault.
For those who ignore the new-school metrics -- WAR, ERA+ and so on -- then we present Mussina's old-school stats. Yes, he never won a Cy Young Award, but in various years he finished second, fourth, fourth, fifth, fifth, fifth, sixth, sixth and sixth in the voting. Nolan Ryan never won a Cy Young Award, either. And many pitchers who did win Cy Young Awards never came close to Mussina's career. Maybe he wasn't the best pitcher in any one season, but he was one of the best in the American League for many seasons.
Another way to look at that, using conventional statistics, are his ERA rankings: third, fourth, fourth, sixth, sixth, third, third, second, eighth, fourth, sixth. If you're not impressed by that, I don't know what to say. That's why his career WAR is so high when his career ERA may not impress; you have to factor in the era in which he pitched. His 3.50 ERA in 1999 was third in the AL, as was his 3.79 ERA in 2000 -- only five AL starters had an ERA under 4.00 that year. (Even more amazing, Mussina had a 3.79 ERA with an outfield of 36-year-old Brady Anderson, 35-year-old B.J. Surhoff and 33-year-old Albert Belle. His third baseman was 39, his shortstop 34 and his first baseman 36. Shockingly, the Orioles finished 12th in the league in runs allowed.)
As far as fame, legacy and signature moments, those are more subjective. I would certainly argue that Mussina was one of the more famous pitchers of his era -- maybe not quite on the level of Clemens or Maddux or Pedro Martinez, but that's a high level of fame to achieve. He pitched in nine different postseasons and played for the most famous franchise in the sport. It's hard to use the "wasn't famous" argument against him even if he didn't give us "Who's your daddy?" sound bites and eye black in playoff games.
Maybe he does fall short in the legacy department. Of course, he could have hung around to win 300 games -- he retired after going 20-9 with a 3.37 ERA -- even if hanging around wouldn't have really added any value to his career (although it certainly seemed like he had plenty left in the tank). Maybe people have difficulty assigning a label to him: He wasn't the control artist that Maddux was (although he was close: 2.0 walks per nine innings compared to Maddux's 1.8) or didn't possess the overpowering fastball of Randy Johnson. But he was more dominant than you realize (19th all time in strikeouts and eight times ranked in the top six in the AL in strikeouts per nine innings). His knuckle-curve was certainly one of the signature pitches of the past 20 years.
As for signature moments, I believe people are underrating his postseason career. Here is Mussina compared to two pitchers whose postseason results might be the reason they get into the Hall of Fame:
Mussina: 7-8, 3.42 ERA (21 starts)
Morris: 7-4, 3.80 ERA (13 starts)
Andy Pettitte: 19-11, 3.81 ERA (44 starts)
Among Mussina's postseason moments:
In the ALCS against Cleveland that year, he was dominating. In Game 3, he allowed one run, three hits and struck out 15 in seven innings. But the Orioles couldn't score and the Indians won in 12 innings. In Game 6, he allowed one hit and no runs in eight innings while striking out 10 but the Orioles couldn't score again and Tony Fernandez hit a home run off Armando Benitez in the 11th inning to win the series. Oh, that Cleveland lineup included Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, David Justice, Matt Williams, Brian Giles and Marquis Grissom. Again, facing two of the most powerful lineups of that generation, Mussina pitched four consecutive gems, allowing four runs and 11 hits in 29 innings. It deserves accolades as one of the best postseasons a pitcher has ever had.
In Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS -- aka the Jeter Flip Game -- it was Mussina who pitched seven scoreless innings to help keep the Yankees alive in the series. But people only remember the flip.
In Game 5 of the World Series -- aka the Scott Brosius Game -- Mussina allowed two runs in eight innings. Ignored.
In Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS against the Red Sox, Mussina entered in relief of Roger Clemens on two days' rest and pitched three scoreless innings. The Yankees, of course, would later rally against Pedro and win on Aaron Boone's home run. Forgotten.
That relief outing meant Mussina only got one start in the World Series, which he won, allowing one run. If the Yankees had defeated Josh Beckett in Game 6, maybe Mussina gets his signature moment in Game 7.
But that didn't happen and Mussina never did get his World Series ring.
Those are the breaks of the game, of course. Timing can be everything. Mussina pitched his career in a high-scoring era, in parks that worked against him, with a lot of bad defenses behind him. He was still one of the very best of his generation. And, yes, a should-be slam-dunk Hall of Famer. So voters, give the man a break and put him on your ballot.