The headline coming out of the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s announcement Tuesday night was Mariano Rivera’s unanimous induction. Rivera stands without peers, and his unanimous inclusion in baseball’s Hall signifies his truly revered status in every corner of the baseball world.
It’s fitting, then, that Mike Mussina’s induction serves as almost an under-card to Rivera. In fact, Mussina might generate the fewest headlines of any in this year’s class. He joins the Hall not only alongside Mo, but with the late Roy Halladay on his first try, along with Edgar Martinez, who got in on his last year on the ballot.
That’s a bit typical for Mussina, whose career was defined at times by just missing out, or falling just short. In some ways, though, Mussina’s induction might be the best news coming out of the Hall of Fame this week. Mussina stands as a perennially underrated player who is entirely worthy of induction, and who has been hard-done just by having had to wait even this long.
Right off the top, it’s interesting to note that the player who accumulated the most WAR in this class is Mussina. Martinez and Halladay both fell short of 70 career WAR, while Rivera didn’t quite get to 60, mostly due to his role as a reliever. Mussina posted 83 WAR for his 18-year career per Baseball Reference, more than several pitchers already in the Hall, such as Nolan Ryan, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine.
By any measure, the breadth of Mussina’s career was enough to put him in the Hall on the first ballot. Jay Jaffe’s handy JAWS score, which uses a player’s career WAR as well as the height of his peak to compare him to the average Hall of Famer at his position, measures Mussina as above the average for a starting pitcher. Given that the Hall has been stingy about electing pitchers, only inducting 63 starters in the entire history of the game, that average is unduly high, and Mussina still cleared it.
Even so, Mussina faced a difficult climb to make it to the Hall, and often was overlooked for whatever reason during his time as a Yankee. Perhaps it was his eight-figure contract, signed after the 2000 season after a decade with the Orioles, that put a sour taste in many fans’ mouths. Mussina’s occasional struggles were catnip to those who liked to complain about overpaid athletes, and fit snugly into the worldview of someone who thought the Yankees failed to win a World Series during Mussina’s tenure because of bloated contracts like his, and Jason Giambi’s, among others.
That perception was unfair then, and it was unfair insofar as it helped keep Mussina from induction for six years. Even though he declined in this 30’s with the Yankees, Mussina still performed at a high level. Across his eight years in the Bronx, Mussina averaged nearly 200 innings per season, to go along with a 114 ERA+ and four times as many strikeouts as walks.
Some point to a couple of the inflated ERA’s Mussina posted as a Yankee, and indeed Mussina’s ERA did run past 4 three times in New York. Such a narrow view would miss the context that Mussina pitched in, during an incredibly high-offense era in a difficult park for pitchers. Baseball Reference estimates that an average player that pitched in the situations Mussina did with the Yankees would allow 5.4 runs per nine innings. Mussina actually allowed just 4.2 runs per nine innings with the Yankees, well over a run better than average.
Maybe that’s not quite ace-caliber performance, but it’s something just below it. This stretch of excellent play came after Mussina’s outstanding first ten years in Baltimore, in which he posted a stellar 130 ERA+ over more than 2000 innings with the Yankees’ division rivals.
In all, FanGraphs rates him fifth among all qualified starters from 1991 to 2010, just behind Pedro Martinez. Mussina was clearly among the finest pitchers of his generation, better than pretty much anyone not named Clemens, Johnson, or Maddux (who just might be the three best pitchers ever).
Mussina never had the fortune of winning a World Series. He joined the Yankees one year after they defeated the Mets for their third championship in a row, and he retired after winning 20 games for the first time in 2008, one year before the 2009 team dominated the American League and took home the title. Mussina was star-crossed in that way, but that should not take away from what was a great career of high-level pitching.
It never should have taken this long, but at last, Mussina is where he belongs; enshrined among the greats. He was one of the best pitchers in the game for nearly two decades, both with the Orioles and the Yankees. While he never got to experience the mountaintop of team success, he has finally achieved the greatest individual honor baseball can bestow. It is richly deserved.