I have to admit, it is difficult to look back on the career of Yankees starting pitcher Mike Mussina without having an “oh-so-close” mentality, given his 18-year career that had its share of just-misses. Moose was signed by the Yanks in 2001, immediately following a Yankees’ era which saw four World Series titles in five years. For Mussina, 2001 would be the closest he would come to a title, one half inning away as a matter of fact. He would retire after the 2008 season on the heels of his first career 20-win season. The Yankees would hoist the World Series trophy one year later in 2009.
Furthermore, who could forget Mussina’s greatest pitching performance of his career at Fenway Park in 2001, when he carried a perfect game all the way to the ninth inning, when Carl Everett lifted a single to center field with two outs, and two strikes. Oh, the agony.
Behind all the close calls was a phenomenal pitching career worthy of Cooperstown recognition, yet when you look at his Hall of Fame support from the BBWAA, he is nowhere close. Mussina received 24.6% of votes last year when he needs 75%. A slim margin is understandable for a star pitcher, but how can he be so far off?
As our own Andrew Mearns shrewdly points out, perhaps Mussina was a victim of more than just close calls. Much of his greatness lies hidden behind the veil of some of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, who were dominating the league around the same time as Mussina. Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez all roamed the pitcher’s mound during Mussina’s 18-year career, seemingly allowing his Cooperstown credentials to slip through the cracks.
Let’s compare two sets of numbers and see how they stack up:
Pitcher A: 4413.1 IP, 2607 SO, .600 W-L%
Pitcher B: 3562.2 IP, 2813 SO, .638 W-L%
Fairly even right? Actually, Pitcher B posted a better winning percentage while accumulating over 200 more strikeouts while needing less innings pitched to do so. Pitcher B is Mussina. Pitcher A is Tom Glavine, who received over 90% of the votes en route to a first ballot Hall of Fame honor in 2014. Looking at those numbers, how can one be such an obvious candidate while the other struggles to receive more than a third of the required votes?
One glaring factor is the wins column. Glavine reached the coveted 300 mark while Mussina finished with 270. There have been plenty of attacks on the importance (or lack thereof) of measuring a pitcher’s performance based on wins, due to many obstacles affecting the outcome (bullpen performance, run support, etc). Judging by the Cy Young Award voting this year, wins for a pitcher are still weighed heavily when evaluating a player, so seeing 300 in the wins column allows votes to pile in, while someone with a respectable 270 wins but better stats in other categories receives the cold shoulder.
Glavine was a phenomenal pitcher who was part of one of the greatest starting rotations in baseball history, while Mussina spent many of his years as the lone bright spot in a shaky Yankees rotation that needed to rely heavily on an incredible offense. Speaking of offense, Mussina not only navigated his way through the dangerous AL East for his entire career (having spent his days as an Oriole before coming to New York), but also finding consistent success in the height of the steroid era.
Mussina was known for his expert control to go along with his filthy knuckle curve, which resulted in a higher career strikeout to walk percentage than Maddux, Glavine and John Smoltz, all of whom are enshrined in Cooperstown.
Mussina shouldn’t fall short of the Hall of Fame because of the company around him during his career. Sports Illustrated’s Jay Jaffe brilliantly states Mussina’s case by noting that Mussina finished in the top five in the league in strikeouts six times, and finished in the top five in ERA seven times in his career while battling against these other legends. Given his competition around the league at the time, I’d say that’s Hall worthy.
Against the best of the best in the postseason, Mussina posted a career 3.42 ERA, averaging over nine strikeouts per nine innings. That is a lower ERA and higher strikeout average than Pedro Martinez’s postseason totals. It’s a shame Mussina never got his elusive World Series ring, but it certainly wasn’t because he failed to show up.
Mussina’s eligibility period is running out, and he has a ways to go in terms of his percentage of votes on last year’s ballot. Hopefully a large number of voters open their eyes to the resume in front of them and give Mussina his rightful place in Cooperstown before it is too late.