The baseball offseason is a sad time for me. Not only is there no baseball being played, but also the normally steady stream of bad baseball analysis slows to a trickle. With fewer articles and broadcasters to criticize, I have to resort to settling good, old-fashioned baseball debates. Fortunately, there is currently one debate about which I feel quite strongly, and which I will settle for you thusly.
Obviously, the pertinent debate is whether or not former Yankees’ and Orioles’ starting pitcher Mike Mussina belongs in the Hall of Fame. This discussion interests me for both intellectual and emotional reasons. In the case of the former, I look at Mussina’s potential induction as a referendum on the baseball media’s intellectual growth. As most intelligent baseball fans know, Hall of Fame and awards voters far too often use antiquated, ineffective, or tragically flawed statistics in determining their selections. Statistics like wins, batting average, and RBI historically have been used as barometers of a player’s performance, when a lucid and honest look at those measurements reveal overwhelming shortcomings. Wins are hugely dependent on a pitcher’s run support and the bullpen’s effectiveness. Batting average is an incomplete measure of a player’s ability to not make an out, which is the most important thing a baseball player can do. RBI are dependent on runners being in scoring position, a variable over which the batter has zero control. You know all this, because you are reading our blog, and our blog attracts only intelligent and savvy readers. Right? Right. Mussina’s candidacy will lean more on less-traditional statistics than past inductees’. As such, I’m curious to see how far the baseball media and voters have come in their understanding and utilization of more complete and descriptive statistics. It’ll be like this past election, except not nearly as important and without the global implications.
My emotional interest in this debate is two-fold. Firstly, I am a Yankees fan, so I am rooting hard for him. Secondly, and more antagonistically, I am extraordinarily tired of and perturbed by the prevailing counter-argument against Mussina’s induction. The knock on Mussina used to be his lack of a 20-win season. With that having been fulfilled, the new knock is invariably some permutation of “he just doesn’t look like a Hall of Famer” or “I just don’t see it.” Take a few moments to reel from the depth of that analysis. If Hall of Famers look like gigantic magenta cephalopods with a slight limp in their fifth tentacle, then no, Mike Mussina does not look like a Hall of Famer. If Hall of Famers are baseball players who have, relative to their peers, distinguished themselves as well above-average over a substantial period of time, then yes, Mike Mussina is a Hall of Famer.
I researched and, in some cases, calculated Mussina’s career numbers in virtually every important statistical category. Then I went to baseballreference.com, and took note of the Hall of Fame pitchers “most similar” to Mussina. These turned out to be Juan Marichal, Jim Palmer, Carl Hubbell, and Jim Bunning. Next, because I am a nerd, I added Hall of Famers Nolan Ryan, Early Wynn, Robin Roberts, Don Drysdale, Ferguson Jenkins, Gaylord Perry, Tom Seaver, Don Sutton and Carl Pavano (just making sure you’re still awake) to the list of pitchers to whom I’d be comparing Mussina. Finally, I researched and calculated those twelve pitchers’ career numbers in the same important statistical categories.
Before showing you the results, here’s a quick and barely-acceptable explanation of some of the more obscure measurements. If you’re interested in the math behind them, a quick search on Google or Baseball Prospectus should do the trick:
- lgERA: MLB’s overall ERA that year/span of years. Useful for determining raw ERA’s context.
- ERA+: Adjustment for league and ballpark. 100 is average. 120, for example, is 20% better than average.
- DERA: Defense-adjusted ERA. 4.50 is average.
- WARP3: Wins Above Replacement Player, third adjustment.
- RF: Range Factor (defense)
Let’s see how Mussina compared to this gaggle of Hall of Famers, bit-by-bit:
- Mussina: 3562.7 IP, 3.68 ERA, 4.51 lgERA, 123 ERA+, 3.70 DERA
- Marichal: 3507.3 IP, 2.89 ERA, 3.55 lgERA, 123 ERA+, 4.05 DERA
- Palmer: 3948.0 IP, 2.86 ERA, 3.59 lgERA, 126 ERA+, 4.14 DERA
- Hubbell: 3590.3 IP, 2.98 ERA, 3.86 lgERA, 130 ERA+, 3.88 DERA
- Bunning: 3760.3 IP, 3.27 ERA, 3.73 lgERA, 114 ERA+, 4.04 DERA
- Ryan: 5386.0 IP, 3.19 ERA, 3.56 lgERA, 111 ERA+, 4.21 DERA
- Wynn: 4564.0 IP, 3.54 ERA, 3.77 lgERA, 107 ERA+, 4.44 DERA
- Roberts: 4688.7 IP, 3.41 ERA, 3.86 lgERA, 113 ERA+, 3.96 DERA
- Drysdale: 3432.0 IP, 2.95 ERA, 3.55 lgERA, 121 ERA+, 3.92 DERA
- Jenkins: 4500.7 IP, 3.34 ERA, 3.84 lgERA, 115 ERA+, 3.89 DERA
- Perry: 5350.3 IP, 3.11 ERA, 3.64 lgERA, 117 ERA+, 4.08 DERA
- Seaver: 4782.7 IP, 2.86 ERA, 3.64 lgERA, 127 ERA+, 3.69 DERA
- Sutton: 5282.3 IP, 3.26 ERA, 3.52 lgERA, 108 ERA+, 4.35 DERA
The first thing that should stand out is Mussina’s relatively low IP totals compared to the rest. I tend to prefer rate statistics to cumulative ones, but I understand that beauty is in the eye of the beholder in this respect. The second statistic, and the one most pivotal to Mussina’s candidacy, his is ERA versus the league’s ERA. By itself, his ERA is good but not spectacular. When taken in its proper context, however, the ERA is much more impressive. Mussina pitched from 1991-2008, all in the difficult AL East, in an offense-heavy era, and in ballparks that generally favored hitters (Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, Camden Yards). The inclusion of these factors account for his impressive ERA+, despite his seemingly unspectacular raw ERA. Mussina put up an excellent ERA considering his era and the regularly poor defense behind him, particularly during his time with the Yankees. The near-identical nature of his ERA and DERA, in spite of this porous defense, makes it all the more impressive. This is the foundation of Mussina’s case – his excellent performance during a difficult time for pitchers, even with a shoddy defense throughout the second half of his career.
- Mussina: 8.7 H/9, 0.9 HR/9, 1.5 BB/9, 6.9 K/9, 3.58 K/BB, 1.192 WHIP
- Marichal: 8.5 H/9, 1.1 HR/9, 1.6 BB/9, 6.0 K/9, 3.25 K/BB, 1.101 WHIP
- Palmer: 8.4 H/9, 1.1 HR/9, 3.0 BB/9, 5.2 K/9, 1.68 K/BB, 1.180 WHIP
- Hubbell: 8.6 H/9, 1.2 HR/9, 1.7 BB/9, 7.0 K/9, 2.31 K/BB, 1.166 WHIP
- Bunning: 8.2 H/9, 1.1 HR/9, 2.2 BB/9, 7.4 K/9, 2.85 K/BB, 1.179 WHIP
- Ryan: 6.4 H/9, 0.8 HR/9, 5.0 BB/9, 9.7 K/9, 2.04 K/BB, 1.247 WHIP
- Wynn: 8.6 H/9, 1.1 HR/9, 3.1 BB/9, 5.8 K/9, 1.31 K/BB, 1.329 WHIP
- Roberts: 8.8 H/9, 1.1 HR/9, 1.4 BB/9, 5.5 K/9, 2.61 K/BB, 1.170 WHIP
- Drysdale: 8.5 H/9, 0.9 HR/9, 2.1 BB/9, 6.9 K/9, 2.90 K/BB, 1.148 WHIP
- Jenkins: 7.8 H/9, 1.2 HR/9, 1.6 BB/9, 7.3 K/9, 3.20 K/BB, 1.142 WHIP
- Perry: 8.7 H/9, 0.9 HR/9, 2.1 BB/9, 6.3 K/9, 2.56 K/BB, 1.181 WHIP
- Seaver: 7.6 H/9, 1.0 HR/9, 2.5 BB/9, 7.3 K/9, 2.62 K/BB, 1.121 WHIP
- Sutton: 8.4 H/9, 1.2 HR/9, 2.0 BB/9, 6.2 K/9, 2.66 K/BB, 1.142 WHIP
I figure now would be a good time to apologize for my inability to paste the spreadsheet with all this information onto the Interwebs. This hurts my eyes just as much as yours, believe me. Look at it this way, though: I typed out all these ridiculous numbers… for you. Non-redeemable Fan Interference Points if you get that reference.
The first thing you should get from looking at these numbers, other than a headache, is how easily Mussina’s blend in. Obviously, that is not the most statistically-inclined bit of analysis I’ve ever offered, but I think there’s some actual value to that thinking. His H/9 is right in line with everyone else’s. His HR/9 is on the low end, which is good, because allowing a homer is the single worst outcome of an at-bat for a pitcher. His BB/9 is sparkling, and I will not let you forget it. His K/9 fits right in. The most impressive number is his K/BB. If inducted into the Hall of Fame, Mussina’s 3.58 K/BB would be the best in Cooperstown. I choose to ignore John Ward’s 3.64 K/BB because he pitched from 1878-1894, and they tried to ban the curveball back then because it was an intentional attempt to deceive the hitter. No kidding. Also, he retired two years before The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station debuted (read “Contemporary Reaction” for high comedy). Anyway, a 3.58 K/BB in the modern era is exemplary, and should not be overlooked when evaluating Mussina’s worthiness.
The final set:
- Mussina: 132.4 WARP3, 2813 K, 270 W, 1.36 RF
- Marichal: 82.7 WARP3, 2303 K, 243 W, 1.84 RF
- Palmer: 99.6 WARP3, 2212 K, 268 W, 1.56 RF
- Hubbell: 93.8 WARP3, 1677 K, 253 W, 1.83 RF
- Bunning: 94.1 WARP3, 2855 K, 224 W, 0.98 RF
- Ryan: 135.5 WARP3, 5714 K, 324 W, 0.95 RF
- Wynn: 107.4 WARP3, 2334 K, 300 W, 1.25 RF
- Roberts: 126 WARP3, 2357 K, 286 W, 1.36 RF
- Drysdale: 97.1 WARP3, 2486 K, 209 W, 1.69 RF
- Jenkins: 128.5 WARP3, 3192 K, 284 W, 1.54 RF
- Perry: 130.9 WARP3, 3534 K, 314 W, 1.58 RF
- Seaver: 146.6 WARP3, 3640 K, 311 W, 1.55 RF
- Sutton: 106.9 WARP3, 3574 K, 324 W, 1.22 RF
Let it be known that WARP3 is a counting statistic, not a rate one. A player, assuming competence, accumulates a certain number of Wins Above Replacement Player per season. These are each player’s totals at the end of their career. Interestingly, Ryan barely beats out Mussina in WARP3 despite pitching from the Cambrian period to the Ordovician period (1966-1993). In any case, Mussina’s WARP3 compares quite favorably to the current Hall of Famers. I included strikeout and win totals to humor the demographics I’m trying to convert, but also to prove a point. Even by the misguided voters’ current standards, Mussina’s 2813 strikeouts and 270 wins are not marginal. They fit right in.
I urge you to look at the previous three blocks of vertigo-inducing, unsightly, cramped numbers in two ways. I have already mentioned the first way. In each and every one of the fifteen statistical categories used, not once do you look at Mussina’s contributions and wince. Of course, the standard for induction into the Hall of Fame is not “the player’s numbers do not make you wince.” It takes more than that. Mussina succeeds in this regard as well. His ERA relative to era is excellent, even with a bad defense behind him. His HR/9 is low, which is impressive considering the ballparks in which he pitched and his declining velocity as he aged. His command of the strike zone is – and there is no other word for it – historically great. These three components of his career statistics are merely the especially impressive ones. The other components fail to fall short in any regard.
Just for fun, I am going to average the statistics of the twelve Hall of Famers to whom I am comparing Mike Mussina. Here’s what I got:
- 4399.3 IP, 3.14 ERA, 3.67 lgERA, 117ish ERA+, 4.05 DERA, 8.2 H/9, 1.0 HR/9, 2.36 BB/9, 6.7 K/9, 2.5 K/BB, 1.176 WHIP, 112.4 WARP3, 2989 K, 278 W, 1.44 RF
Also, this pitcher’s name is Jimdontomcarlearlyrobinjuangayfergienoljimdon Perrybunpalmsutdryseavhubwynnrobjenmariryan. He goes by “Champ.”
Again, here are Mussina’s numbers:
- 3562.7 IP, 3.68 ERA, 4.51 lgERA, 123 ERA+, 3.70 DERA, 8.7 H/9, 0.9 HR/9, 1.5 BB/9, 6.9 K/9, 3.58 K/BB, 1.192 WHIP, 132.4 WARP3, 2813 K, 270 W, 1.36 RF
I’m not sure how Mike Mussina can compare this favorably to twelve current Hall of Famers, and still be considered marginal by some line of thinking. As much as I’d love to keep typing, you really need to look at the statistics posted above in some detail to fully appreciate my argument. The truth is in the numbers. Fortunately, I’ve made the charts neat, clean and concise for easy digestion.
We can argue separately about the worthiness of other Hall of Fame pitchers. But the fact remains that if pitchers like Don Sutton, Early Wynn, Nolan Ryan, Jim Bunning and Robin Roberts are in the Hall of Fame, Mussina cannot be left out.
Plus, “Michael Cole Mussina” is way easier to write on the Hall of Fame ballot than Champ’s full name.