As if Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris didn’t face enough challenges already to consideration for baseball’s Hall of Fame, now they’ve got Mike Mussina to muck things up.
Well, not now, precisely. Mussina, who announced his retirement last month after 18 years as an American League starting pitcher, will have to wait the mandatory five years before being eligible for the 2014 election. Blyleven, currently in Year 12 of his 15-year window of eligibility for Cooperstown enshrinement by the Baseball Writers Association of America, either will be in by then or he’ll be sitting in another green room, waiting another five years before gaining review by the Hall’s Veterans Committee. Morris, barring election (getting named on at least 75 percent of the ballots cast in a given year) or a drop off the ballot entirely (if chosen on fewer than 5 percent of the ballots), will overlap with Mussina just once, his 15th year of consideration coming in Mussina’s first.
Make no mistake, though, Mussina already is having an effect.
With Hall ballots for the 2009 class required to have a Dec. 31 postmark, the approximately 550 current and former baseball writers qualified to vote have Mussina and his resume fresh in their minds as they consider players, and especially pitchers, whose greatest achievements came one, two, three or even four decades ago.
Jimmy Kimmel vs. Jack Paar?
That’s like comparing Jimmy Kimmel’s post-ironic comedy monologues to Jack Paar’s topical witticisms, Justin Timberlake’s download numbers to Tom Jones’ LP sales or the current cast of “Saturday Night Live” to giants named Belushi, Aykroyd, Radner and Murray.
Sure, baseball, thanks to its vast and intricately maintained statistics, supposedly can cut — and compare — across eras better than most fields and many sports. But the use of performance-enhancing drugs is one of many factors — the designated-hitter rule’s arrival in 1973 in just one of the two major leagues, night baseball, air travel, developments in bat and glove technology, trends in managerial tactics are others — that can spoil any claims of apples-to-apples comparisons.
Mussina’s somewhat unexpected decision has introduced yet another talking point into the discourse about Blyleven’s, Morris’, Tommy John’s and David Cone’s Hall worthiness. Those four — the only four starting pitchers on the current ballot — already were contending with unofficial thresholds for enshrinement (300 victories, 3,000 strikeouts) established by their predecessors and upheld to one degree or another by some eventual candidates such as Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson and Tom Glavine. Mussina reached neither of those accomplishments, yet is seen by some as more deserving of an “X” next to his name than the men already on the ballot.
At 270-153 with 2,813 strikeouts and a 3.68 earned run average — the most common career stats used to evaluate pitchers — Mussina won 18 fewer games than John, 17 fewer than Blyleven and 16 more than Morris (we’re putting Cone aside now — with 194 victories, he seems perfectly suited to a Hall of the Very Good but not Cooperstown, and he will have trouble staying on the ballot after this first year of eligibility). Mussina struck out 335 more batters than Morris and 568 more than John but 888 fewer than Blyleven. His ERA was 0.22 runs per game better than Morris’ but worse by 0.34 than John’s and by 0.37 than Blyleven’s.
What Mussina has revived is the weight of winning percentage as a measure of a pitcher’s worth. He won 117 more games than he lost, and every other eligible pitcher who has done that already is enshrined at Cooperstown. Blyleven, by comparison, finished his career of 22 seasons with only 37 more victories than losses. John had 57 more and Morris wound up winning 68 more than he lost.
Does this mean that Mussina belongs in the Hall while the other three do not?
Not at all. But his particular attribute, getting noticed so recently, could work against the others. The numbers that favor them — Blyleven, Morris and John can muster some impressive and persuasive stats — aren’t as trendy or sabermetrically endorsed. And glomming onto that unassailable point – no pitcher who is 100 games or more above .500 in his career has been left out of the Hall – overlooks some of the criteria by which Mussina arguably falls short.
Stats cut both ways in ranking pitchers
When he won the 537th and final appearance of his career on Sept. 28, Mussina got his 2008 record to 20-9 for the only 20-victory season of his career. Blyleven had just one of those, too, while John and Morris had three each. Mussina lasted six innings in his final start, failing to add to his total of 57 complete games. Blyleven (242), Morris (175) and John (162) all finished, by far, more of what they started. They dominate in shutouts as well: Blyleven 60, John 46, Morris 28 and Mussina 23.
Speaking of domination, Mussina — as textbook as his delivery was, cutting a figure on the mound straight out of Central Casting — never was considered the best pitcher of his era or even a silver or bronze winner. He finished higher than fourth in Cy Young balloting only once and made four All-Star teams (none in his final nine seasons). He was 0-2 with a 3.00 ERA in two World Series, neither time helping his team to a championship. He never threw a no-hitter, never led the league in strikeouts or ERA and, in the one season in which he led AL pitchers in victories, Mussina finished fifth for the Cy Young (Seattle’s Randy Johnson won it in 1995, his 18-2, 2.48 and 294 strikeouts just a wee better than Mussina’s 19-9, 3.29 and 158 Ks).
Why so down on Mussina?
Actually, I’m not. I think he’ll make it into the Hall of Fame and, in time, I might even vote for him. But the zeal with which some national scribes and experts summed up his career, banging that 117 wins-over-.500 drum as if the five-year cooling period for Cooperstown needn’t apply, seemed as if it might have an inevitable and deleterious effect on the current candidates.
Yes, winning an average of 5.85 more games than you lost per season, over 20 years, is an admirable thing. So is having an ERA+ (a measure of an individual’s ERA relative to the league average) of 123 – that’s better than Blyleven (118), Morris (105) or John (110) and identical to legendary 1960s hurler Juan Marichal.
But there still is much to be said for pitching 26 seasons and being the guinea pig for a surgery that has saved so many pitchers’ careers that it bears your name (John). For being the staff workhorse on three different World Series teams, winning more often in a designated decade than any rival and pitching one of the most masterful games in Series history (Morris). Or for throwing 60 shutouts, for being a baseball throwback in terms of humor and practical jokes and for having a signature pitch — the curveball — so good that not only does it define you but you define it.
Mussina, an otherwise outstanding candidate, for enshrinement, lacks any highlights of that sort. Yet that place in Cooperstown, attached to the museum, remains the Hall of Fame, not merely the Laboratory of the Proficiently and Statistically Excellent.
A glimpse at my ballot
Here is a glimpse at my ballot, with its yeas and a few notable nays. Voters can select up to 10 candidates, something I never have done in 17 years of participation:
• Blyleven: Yea. See above.
• Morris: Yea. See above.
• Rickey Henderson: Yea. Henderson is the hanging curveball of this year’s class, a lock to make it in his first year of eligibility. He is simply the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history, spreading his magic across 25 seasons and nine franchises. He led off 81 games with home runs (hitting 297 of them overall) and holds major league records for runs (2,295) and stolen bases (1,406). All of which makes Rickey, as third-person-favoring Rickey would say, the greatest.
• Andre Dawson: Yea. Dawson was a five-tools player before knee problems caught up with him. His most marvelous years were spent in relative obscurity in Montreal, where he still placed in the top seven in MVP balloting three times before winning in Chicago — with a last-place team — in 1987. His totals are Hall worthy: 2,774 hits, 503 doubles, 438 homers, 1,591 RBI and 315 steals.
• Alan Trammell: Yea. Trammell has been on the ballot for eight years but never has looked better to me. Consider this: He played 20 seasons, all with Detroit. He batted .300 or better seven times, scored more than 100 runs in a season three times and finished his career with 1,231 runs, 2,365 hits, 412 doubles, 850 walks, 874 strikeouts, 236 stolen bases, an on-base percentage of .352, one World Series title and four Gold Gloves at the sport’s second-most demanding position (after catcher).
Now look at Jim Rice, considered by some a glaring injustice to still be shy of enshrinement. Rice played 16 seasons, all with Boston, his career tailing off rather abruptly. He batted .300 or better seven times, scored more than 100 runs three times and finished his career with 1,249 runs, 2,452 hits, 373 doubles, 670 walks, 1,423 strikeouts, 58 steals, an on-base percentage of .352, no Series rings and no Gold Gloves. In other words, only his power numbers – 382 homers, 1,451 RBI to Trammell’s 185 and 1,003 – were better than the Tigers shortstop’s and Rice, increasingly used as a DH, might not have owned a glove the last few seasons of his career.
• Rice: Nay. See above. Plus he was washed up at age 36. Plus he was one of the biggest jerks a baseball writer ever has had to deal with, which doesn’t eliminate him but does cost him any benefit of the doubt.
• John: Nay. Despite the positives cited in the main section above, John did hang on as a much-lesser pitcher late in his career. Over his final six seasons, he went 40-47 with a 4.46 ERA. Had he retired at age 40, a 248-184 record would have had him in Morris’ neighborhood, with a better ERA but more hits allowed per inning, several hundred fewer strikeouts and no Series rings or no-hitters.
• Tim Raines: Toughest omission in his second year on the ballot. He had the Dawson thing (overlooked in Montreal) going for him and some see him as the NL’s answer to Henderson. But Raines — despite the highest stolen-base percentage in history (successful on 84.7 percent of his attempts) – ranks fifth in steals with 808, barely 57 percent of Henderson’s total. And he is 48th all-time in runs (1,571), behind Gary Sheffield and about 50 ahead of Kenny Lofton.
• Dale Murphy and Don Mattingly: Nay and nay. Murphy’s .265 career average is a speed bump, and his peak was briefer than many. Mattingly also didn’t sustain his dominance and benefited from New York media.
• Lee Smith and Harold Baines: Nay and nay. Compilers who lasted long enough to amass impressive totals, without ever being the guys at their positions.
• Mark McGwire and Dave Parker: Nay and nay. Way too many suspicions and whispers about McGwire to invite him into the Hall with 12 years of eligibility left to sort out his merit. Parker scandalized the sport with recreational drug use rather than performance-enhancers. His stats are similar to Rice, who might make it this year, and Dick Allen, who got snubbed by the Veterans.