Mike Mussina: Is he a Hall of Famer?

Always one of the more heavily debated Hall of Fame candidates, former Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees right-hander Mike Mussina seems to be working his way more and more into the conscience of voters even as the pool of talent around him deepens.

Much like Edgar Martinez among the eligible hitters, Mussina presents a fascinating case that can draw ten varied opinions from ten different voters. Of course, the end game is all about yes and no, but how voters get to yes and no seems to change from year to year. In fact, if you attempt to adsorb too much in one sitting, your head might explode.

Regardless of whether he ever gets in, Mussina seems destined to represent the standard cutoff line for pitchers who should or shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame. If they were better than Mussina, many will say that player belongs. If they were below Mussina, many will say that player falls short. As for Mussina himself, we still have six ballots to go round and round about that and perhaps turn him into the pitching version of Tim Raines.

What can’t be debated is Mussina’s tenacity, reliability and durability. There’s probably no greater feeling for a manager than knowing his ace will be ready to go every fifth day. That‘s a comfort Mussina brought to go along with his excellent production. The man nicknamed “Moose” also appeared in nine postseasons. He was an important part of several very good teams, which is why he‘ll always be remembered regardless of his Hall of Fame status.

Mussina was never knee-deep in controversy either. He was as straightforward and businesslike as they come, which should count for a lot.

Mike Mussina competed a high level for nearly two decades in MLB. (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
Mike Mussina competed a high level for nearly two decades in MLB. (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

Mussina’s upward trend is clear when looking back at his previous three years on the ballot.

In his first year on the ballot in 2014, he received an underwhelming 22.8 percent of the vote. That’s barely more than one in five voters, which didn’t exactly spell out optimism. In 2015, that number only grew to 24.6, which again suggested his candidacy would stagnate quickly and ultimately leave him on the outside looking in.

Then, last winter, things started to change. Mussina’s percentage skyrocketed, at least in relative terms, to 43 percent. What sparked the change is unclear, but the rise pushed his name to the forefront of the discussion and has now seemingly positioned him to make a strong push before his 10 years are up.

According to Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame ballot tracker, Mussina is poised to gain significant ground again this year. He’s held steady just above the 60 percent plateau with roughly 40 percent of the ballots made public. He’s gained a net of 12 votes, which is notable, but it won’t be enough this year to reach the 75 percent threshold. Another spike next year or just consistent growth and a consistent presence in the conversation will give him a decent shot.

You can spin Mussina’s case many different ways. Right here, we’ll bullet point the good-to-great stats and accomplishments from his marvelous career.

• If you like advanced stats, Mussina’s 82.7 pitching wins above replacement (WAR) rank 19th since 1901.
• Mussina’s 48.6 wins above average (WAA) rates 13th all-time, ahead of Hall of Famers like Bob Gibson, Fergie Jenkins and Warren Spahn.
• If you prefer the simple things, like consistency and longevity, then Mussina’s case strengthens significantly. Over a career spanning 18 seasons, he made at least 25 starts in 17 straight seasons while posting 200-plus innings in 11. That included his final season at age 39, which was also his only 20-win season.
• His 270 career wins are tied for 33rd all-time.
• He finished top six in the Cy Young voting nine times during his career.
• His 2,813 career strikeouts rank 19th.
• Beyond his brilliant pitching, Mussina was also a five-time Gold Glove winner. For some voters that teeter on the fence, that could be enough to push them over.

Mike Mussina remains among the most heavily debated players on the Hall of Fame ballot. (Getty Images)
Mike Mussina remains among the most heavily debated players on the Hall of Fame ballot. (Getty Images)

Some things about Mussina are skewed, such as his 3.68 ERA produced mainly against AL East opponents and during a time when steroids were believed to prevalent. Others are just fact. He was never the best pitcher in baseball at a given time. He was never voted the best pitcher in his league in a given season. He has no signature moments or accolades to point to: no Cy Young Awards, no ERA titles, no strikeout crowns and no no-hitters.

Mussina did win 20 games once, but that‘s a light achievement compared to what others bring to the table. He was one pitch short of a perfect game in 2001, but couldn’t cross the finish line.

Others would simply say Mussina doesn’t feel like a Hall of Famer. That he always straddled the line between great and truly elite, but never definitively crossed it. It’s a truly wide range of opinions and emotions that will gain more passion in the years ahead.

Would Mike Mussina get a check on your Hall of Fame ballot? (Getty Images)
Would Mike Mussina get a check on your Hall of Fame ballot? (Getty Images)

Yes — Well, I didn’t expect this. Looking over Mussina’s stats revealed a few things to me that I found impressive about his career. First off, we have to look past his 3.68 career ERA. Seems high, right? But consider the years he pitched. In 1999, Mussina’s 3.50 ERA was 33 percent better than the league-average. In 2000, his 3.79 ERA was 25 percent better than the league-average. He pitched in an era that was brutal for pitchers and still put up strong numbers. Not only that, but I think there’s something to be said for his longevity. Over 18 seasons, Mussina averaged 226 innings per year. He gave teams solid ERAs, with above-average strikeout numbers and exceptional walk rates. He doesn’t have a Cy Young award or a huge standout season. He was just really, really good over a long period of time. He’s borderline for me, but I lean yes.

Yes — I don’t subscribe to the idea that if you don’t hit a certain benchmark for a stat like pitcher wins, you’re not a Hall of Famer. Especially pitcher wins. Mussina value-based numbers say he’s just as good as other pitchers in Cooperstown, so what if he didn’t win a Cy Young? Mussina was great but not as no-doubt, first-ballot great as some of his contemporaries. But not being as good as Randy Johnson isn’t a reason to keep him out of the Hall of Fame.

Yes — Well, I guess I’m for a big Hall of Fame. I didn’t quite realize that until I really started looking at Mussina. For him to maintain such strong numbers through the steroid era makes him Hall-worthy. He pitched better than league average, his peripherals are fantastic, and he was a workhorse. That he doesn’t have a Cy Young doesn’t matter to me. His long career of excellent pitching is enough.

Yes — Just while writing this and sifting through Mussina’s career achievements I wavered several times. Personally, I put a lot of weight into consistency and longevity, which are definitely in Mussina’s favor. I also couldn’t help but feel that there’s just something lacking about his overall body of work. It’s not the lack of 300 wins, a Cy Young or a World Series championship, It’s just something you can’t put your finger on. Maybe someday it will become more clear. Until it does, I’m giving Mussina the benefit of the doubt.

Jeff Bagwell
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Mark Townsend is a writer for Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at bigleaguestew@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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