‘Cooperstown Chances’ examines the Baseball Hall of Fame case of one candidate each week. This spans the large number of players currently on the ballot for the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, as well as active stars and long-retired players eligible for consideration through the Veterans Committee. This week: Mike Mussina.
Who he is: After Curt Schilling ignited his latest round of Twitter controversy last week, thoughts drifted to another pitcher from his era who has yet to sign up for the service. Statistically, Schilling and Mike Mussina rate similarly, two of the best pitchers not in the Hall of Fame, though the two diverge sharply in personality. It’s difficult, for one, to imagine someone as low-key and intelligent as Mussina having a knockdown fight over evolution with Keith Law.
It’s funny, though: Where Schilling might be the first ballplayer whose induction gets delayed due to social media, Mussina could use a little more self-promotion if he wants a plaque anytime soon. After two years on the the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s ballot for Cooperstown, the former Orioles and Yankees ace sits at 24.6 percent of the vote, well short of the necessary 75 percent. In the past 50 years, just one pitcher who’s debuted with a lower percentage of the vote than Mussina, Bert Blyleven, has won enshrinement through the writers.
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In the years before his 2011 induction, Blyleven became prominent on television, campaigning somewhat shamelessly for a plaque. Much as it may pain him to do it, Mussina may need to tap a little into his inner Blyleven or Schilling.
Cooperstown chances: 40 percent
Why: If every Hall of Fame voter relied on sabermetrics, Mussina wouldn’t have anything to worry about. Adam Darowski of hallofstats.com rates Mussina 20th best all-time among pitchers with a 162 Hall Rating while Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated ranks Mussina 28th among all hurlers with 63.8 JAWS. Meanwhile, Mussina’s 82.7 lifetime Wins Above Replacement is 24th-best ever and ranks second among pitchers who aren’t enshrined, trailing only Roger Clemens.
Even by traditional stats, Mussina has a solid case, going 270-153 with a .638 winning percentage and 2,813 strikeouts. His 3.68 ERA is a little high, but it can be explained somewhat by the robust offensive era and ballparks he pitched in. (Red Ruffing got in Cooperstown in 1967 with a 3.80 ERA, though it’s uncertain if voters knew this stat. As Alan Schwarz noted in his 2004 book The Numbers Game, before the 1969 publication of The Baseball Encyclopedia, stats for older players were spotty at best.)
As much as anything, perhaps, Mussina was consistent. He never won a Cy Young Award, though he finished among the top six in voting in his league nine times. By comparison, Tom Seaver did this eight times, Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton six times each, and Jack Morris five times. Mussina also won at least 18 games six times and closed out his career with a sublime 20-win season in 2008 at age 39.
So where does Mussina’s Hall of Fame case suffer? It’s that it takes paragraphs like the three preceding and more to spell out. There’s a school of thought that if one needs to think about whether a player is a Hall of Famer, they probably are not one. By this kind of simple gut analysis that many voters seem to still favor, Mussina is no easy selection. That he pitched in an era that boasted several elite pitchers — Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez coming quickly to mind — hasn’t helped his cause either.
Reached via email to hear his thought process on Mussina, one BBWAA member replied: “Don’t think I voted for Mike, although he was quite good and of course admirable in his off-the diamond contributions. The Hall of Fame is for the very best; the sort of player (in any sport) who, when mentioned, you or someone immediately says ‘Hall of Famer.’ I do not know whether under the rules change I even have a vote any longer, but I do know some of the veteran writers/voters think the Hall needs to be more restrictive, that there are too many people in the Hall. I don’t go that way, but I am very careful in my judgement.”
The rule change the BBWAA member alluded to in his email could help Mussina. In July, the Hall of Fame announced that any BBWAA voter would need to have actively covered baseball within the past 10 years. It will be interesting to see how voting results change after maybe 100-200 inactive, presumably older writers lose their voting privileges. One assumes that most of those voters were not trumpeting Mussina.
SPECTOR: Mussina’s number-heavy Hall of Fame argument does not add up
Then again, Mussina could be hurt by the other recent big change in voting rules, that players are eligible as Hall candidates for 10 years with the BBWAA instead of 15. Since 1968, 18 pitchers have drawn between 10 and 50 percent of the vote their first year on the BBWAA ballot. Of this number, six pitchers — Blyleven, Don Drysdale, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Hoyt Wilhelm and Early Wynn — have been inducted by the BBWAA, needing an average of 9.67 years on the ballot. Six of the others went the full 15 years on the ballot with the Veterans Committee having honored one of these players, Jim Bunning.
There simply isn’t time for Mussina to mount the campaign of someone like Ruffing, an early example of a player enshrined after an extended PR push. Ruffing debuted on the Hall of Fame ballot in 1948 with 3.3 percent of the vote and needed 15 tries with the BBWAA over 19 years for his plaque. Bob Feller endorsed Ruffing in a piece he wrote with Ed Linn for The Saturday Evening Post in 1962, “The Trouble With the Hall of Fame.” Ted Williams pushed for Ruffing after learning of his own induction on January 20, 1966, saying, “I wish some of you writers could have hit against Ruffing.”
Ruffing even had a year, 1964, where he drew 91.5 percent of the BBWAA vote in a run-off but wasn’t inducted because Luke Appling got more votes. “Next time, next time, that’s what everybody says,” Ruffing said after that vote. “I’m running out of next times.”
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If Mussina exhausts his eligibilty with BBWAA and goes before the Veterans Committee, his chances for Cooperstown will likely diminish further. The committee tends to skew older and vote conservatively. As one member of the recent Golden Era Committee, former Yankees general manager Bob Watson said at the 2014 SABR conference, “The criteria for Hall of Fame in my opinion: lead the league two or three times in either home runs or RBIs, be an MVP three or four times.”
Mussina was never this type of candidate. But a lot could happen in his eight remaining years of BBWAA eligibility. Bill Deane, former senior research associate at the Hall of Fame and an expert on voting trends, told Sporting News, “Now that all the 300-game winners and perennial Cy Young Award-winners are out of the way, Mussina will stand as arguably the best pitcher (other than Clemens) on the ballot. I think we’ll see him make a nice jump in 2016.”
Some prominent baseball people have spoken out on Mussina’s behalf, including Derek Jeter. ““He was a true professional both on and off the field,” Jeter said in an article on the Hall of Fame’s website. “Moose’s accomplishments in the game over the last 18 years represent a Hall of Fame player.”
‘Cooperstown Chances’ examines the Baseball Hall of Fame case of one candidate each week. Series author and Sporting News contributor Graham Womack writes regularly about the Hall of Fame and other topics related to baseball history at his website, Baseball: Past and Present . Follow him on Twitter: @grahamdude.