By NICK LECO
August 20, 2008
The debate over whether Mike Mussina is Hall of Fame material has really started to heat up of late. The “Moose” suffered through the worst season of his career in 2007, and many people had written him off entering 2008. However, Mussina has rebounded with a solid showing this season - he’s currently 16-7 with a 3.35 ERA - and re-emerged as the Yankees’ ace, quieting the critics and showing that he’s still got some gas left in the tank. Mussina’s renaissance and his climbing career win total have some making his case for Cooperstown, while his detractors insist that no starting pitcher without a Cy Young Award, 20-win season or World Series ring belongs in the Hall. This week, National Pastime joins the debate over Mussina’s candidacy.
MIKE MUSSINA -
Complete Games: 57
Innings: 3,515 2/3
Teams: Orioles (1991-2000), Yankees (2000-present)
Mussina has been one of the most consistent pitchers in the Major Leagues since he first reached the big leagues in 1991. He has won 10 games or more for 17 straight years - a mark only bested by Hall of Famers Cy Young, Don Sutton, Steve Carlton and Warren Spahn, and future first-ballot inductee Greg Maddux. He has won at least 15 games 11 times during that span, winning 19 games twice. For his career, Mussina is an incredible 115 games over .500. He has pitched more than 200 innings in 10 different seasons and struck out more than 190 batters nine times. Mussina has 11 times posted an ERA of 3.51 or lower, which is almost a run lower than the league average during that period.
During the 10-year stretch from 1992 to 2001, Mussina was arguably the most dominant pitcher in the majors. During that time he placed in the top six in the American League Cy Young voting eight times, including a runner-up finish in 1999. Mussina has been selected to five All-Star teams thus far and is one of the best ever at fielding his position, as evidenced by his six Gold Gloves. Mussina led the league in wins (19) in 1996, innings (237) in 2000, shutouts (four) in 1995 and winning percentage (.782) in 1992. Mussina’s career 3.57-to-1 K-to-walk ratio ranks 13th all-time. Mussina has also pitched several near-perfect games, falling one batter short on four separate occasions.
Mussina is currently tied for 35th all-time with 266 career wins - the same number as Hall of Famers Bob Feller and Eppa Rixey, just two fewer than Jim Palmer. If Mussina never wins another game, he will still be in the company of just 23 players in the game’s history who won at least 265 and posted a career ERA of 3.69 or lower. Of those 23, 20 are in the Hall of Fame. There are at least 20 Hall of Famers who have fewer career wins than Mussina. He is also 21st on the all-time strikeout list, ranking ahead of big-name Hall of Famers Feller, Don Drysdale and Christy Mathewson, and within stiking distance of Young and Jim Bunning.
The biggest knock against Mussina is that he always comes close to reaching the top of his profession but always falls short. Mussina has never topped the 20-win mark, falling one win shy in two different seasons (Typical of Mussina’s luck, he pitched eight innings of one-run ball when gunning for his 20th win of the 1996 season, only to have notorious heart-attack closer Armando Benitez blow the game). Mussina has never won a Cy Young award and has yet to pitch for a World Series winner, and has failed to finish up any of his four oh-so-close perfect game bids.
Throughout his career, Mussina has always been mentioned in the discussion of the best pitchers in baseball, but he’s been overshadowed by the likes of Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, among others, as all of those pitchers managed to get over the humps Mussina never could. Since joining the storied Yankees, Mussina has played second fiddle to Clemens, Andy Pettitte and most recently, Chien-Ming Wang.
Some of the other pitchers mentioned earlier, most notably Smoltz and Schilling, make similar cases for enshrinement in terms of regular-season success, but both of them excelled in October - something Mussina has never done. When he has appeared on baseball’s biggest stage, Mussina has been rather average, compiling a 7-9 in 21 postseason starts. While he did pitch well for the Yankees in the 2003 World Series, going 1-1 with a 1.29 ERA, his team has lost in each of his two trips to the World Series (2001 was the other).
Mussina’s 2008 renaissance has certainly helped his Hall of Fame chances, and he could even top the 270-win mark by the end of the year. However, if he were to never pitch again after this year, I do not think he would get into the Hall of Fame. Even though Mussina was one of the best pitchers in baseball for a 10-year span, voters are enamored with Cy Youngs, 20-win seasons and World Series rings - all things that Mussina does not have. They are also in love with 300-game winners and pitchers with more than 3,000 strikeouts, however, and Mussina is closing in on both of those marks. If Mussina can pitch relatively well for another year or two, his numbers will be too good to deny him induction to the Hall of Fame. It looks like Mussina still has something left and will pitch his way into Cooperstown, barring some unforeseen catastrophe or meltdown.
Nick Leco’s Cooperstown Bound? column runs every Wednesday here on National Pastime.
Photo by The Associated Press
Be sure to check out our previous Cooperstown Bound? columns: Roberto Alomar, Jack Morris, Omar Vizquel, Don Mattingly, Curt Schilling, Andre Dawson, Kenny Lofton, Fred McGriff, Alan Trammell, Mark McGwire, Bert Blyleven, Lee Smith.