Mussina finally moves out of shadows and into Cooperstown

January 22, 2019 | Luke Jones

Mike Mussina pitched in the shadows throughout his brilliant career.

As great as he was in Baltimore for a decade, he wasn’t Jim Palmer and naturally played second fiddle to legendary teammate Cal Ripken. Mussina thrived in the Bronx while Roger Clemens and the homegrown Andy Pettitte received more praise and adoration. Arguably three of the 10 best pitchers of all time — Clemens, Randy Johnson, and Greg Maddux — along with a top 20-caliber hurler in Pedro Martinez dominated the era in which Mussina pitched.

He was never the best pitcher in the game and lacked the pinnacle achievements typically associated with Cooperstown, but perseverance and statistical enlightenment have helped the former Orioles great finally take his rightful place in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

It was an outcome that appeared unlikely even a few years ago when Mussina received just 20.3 percent of the required 75 percent of Hall of Fame votes in 2014, his first year of eligibility. His 270 career wins appeared to satisfy a traditional standard — only three post-1900 pitchers with more victories have failed to be elected — and his 2,813 strikeouts rank 20th all time, but the lack of a Cy Young Award or a World Series championship as well as only one 20-win season left Mussina lacking in the minds of many traditional voters. A deeper look at the context of his career and the growing acceptance of sabermetrics, however, have brought greater appreciation for the five-time All-Star selection and seven-time Gold Glove winner.

It was a fitting progression for a pitching intellect rarely appreciated as much as he should have been over the course of his career.

His 82.9 career wins above replacement rank 23rd on the all-time list for pitchers with Clemens being the only one with a greater total not to be elected. Mussina ranked among the league’s top five pitchers in WAR seven times — leading that category in 2001 — and was in the top 10 an additional four times in his career, illustrating the longevity of his excellence despite not having an overwhelming career peak.

Mussina’s 3.68 career earned run average doesn’t scream “Cooperstown” at first glance — though Hall of Famers Jack Morris and Red Ruffing have higher marks — but what about accounting for the lucrative run-scoring environment of the steroid era as well as pitching his entire career in the American League East with its hitter-friendly ballparks? Mussina’s adjusted ERA (ERA+) of 123 meant his ERA was 23 percent better than the major league average during his career when adjusting for ballpark and opponent. In comparison, Palmer’s career 125 ERA+ meant his 2.86 career ERA was 25 percent better than the league average as he pitched in a much stingier run-scoring environment from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. Mussina’s adjusted ERA is tied for 30th among starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame.

We’ve always known — or should have, anyway — context matters when trying to compare players of different eras, and advanced statistics are giving us the means to do that more accurately, allowing us to see more clearly that Mussina belonged in the Hall of Fame.

Even after leaving the Orioles for the New York Yankees in 2001, Mussina never did win a World Series ring, but his 3.42 ERA in 139 2/3 playoff innings reflects a pitcher usually at his best when the games mattered most. Who could forget his 1997 postseason in which he registered a 1.24 ERA and a whopping 41 strikeouts in 29 innings? It wasn’t his fault the Orioles scored a total of one run in his two brilliants starts against Cleveland in that heartbreaking AL Championship Series. According to FanGraphs’ Jay Jaffe, Mussina received just 3.1 runs per game in his 23 career postseason appearances with Baltimore and New York.

So much of Mussina’s career will be remembered for how excruciatingly close he came to reaching historic feats. He never pitched a no-hitter, but he was two outs away from a perfect game against the Indians in 1997 before Sandy Alomar singled to left field, leaving Mussina with a one-hit shutout. Four years later pitching for the Yankees at Fenway Park, he experienced an even crueler fate being one strike away from perfection before pinch hitter Carl Everett’s single into left.

A 39-year-old Mussina finally won 20 games in his last season in 2008, but he’d won 16 and 19 games, respectively, in the strike-shortened seasons of 1994 and 1995. He missed out on his 20th victory in the penultimate game of the 1996 season when Armando Benitez gave up the game-tying home run in the bottom of the ninth inning in Toronto. Those near-misses should count for something when evaluating a pitcher who performed at such a high level for a long period of time against someone else with a shorter period of excellence.

As we move further away from the days when 300-win careers and complete games were benchmarks of greatness, Mussina’s body of work will look better and better. Though often criticized during his career for not finishing contests as observers reminisced about Palmer’s remarkable 211 complete games, Mussina still averaged four complete games over his 162-game average, twice as many as the major league leader in 2018. He finished second in Cy Young voting only once, but eight other top-six finishes speak to how long he was an elite pitcher in the AL while some of the best of the all-time best in Clemens, Johnson, and Martinez dominated the headlines.

Beyond the numbers, Mussina possessed the rare combination of power and intellect, using his low-90s fastball to overpower hitters and making them look silly with his trademark knuckle-curve and superb changeup. For the generation of Orioles fans who never got to see Palmer pitch, Mussina offered the chance to see something special every time he was taking the hill.

The deep regret was seeing him depart for New York, but that was a much greater byproduct of the deterioration of the Orioles under owner Peter Angelos than any disrespect on his part. That divorce left a complicated relationship between Mussina and Baltimore that’s thawed in recent years, but it should take nothing away from what he accomplished with the club that drafted him out of Stanford in 1990.

From the moment he made his major league debut at new Comiskey Park on Aug. 4, 1991 (a 1-0 loss on a Frank Thomas home run) to the final signature performance of his Orioles career (a 15-strikeout, one-hit shutout against Minnesota on Aug. 1, 2000), Mussina more than proved his worth as the second-best pitcher in club history. He’ll never be adored in the same way as Palmer or the Orioles’ five other core Hall of Famers after his eight years pitching in pinstripes, but that’s OK.

Even as Mussina now joins the most prestigious group baseball has to offer, he’s used to being in the shadows.