As a baseball writer who covered Mussina with the Baltimore Orioles — during the era in which he was no more than the third-most dominant starting pitcher in his division (behind Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens) — and as a “small hall” advocate who often chafes at the steadily lowered standards for induction, I could never get fully behind Mussina’s Cooperstown candidacy during his playing days.
To me, in those days, he was a first-ballot electee to the Hall of Very Good, his career defined almost as much by what he lacked, or had narrowly missed — a Cy Young Award (six top-five finishes, one runner-up), an ERA title (runner up in 2001) or a no-hitter (twice losing perfect game bids in the ninth inning) — as what he actually accomplished: 270 wins, five all-star appearances, seven Gold Gloves. After 1992, his first full big league season, he never again posted a sub-3.00 ERA. Until 2008, his 18th and final season, he never won 20 games.
Many Hall of Fame voters apparently agreed: Mussina was named on just 20.3 percent of ballots in his first year of eligibility, 2014, which was well below the 75 percent threshold required for election. It would ultimately take him six years on the ballot to cross the threshold. (Per company policy, reporters at The Washington Post are not permitted to vote for the Hall of Fame.)
But when Mussina enters the halls of Cooperstown in a ceremony Sunday, along with fellow inductees Harold Baines, Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez, Mariano Rivera and Lee Smith, he will do so as one of the most notable examples of how the rise of sabermetrics and advanced analytics has changed the perception and dialogue surrounding individual Hall of Fame cases — for the better. And he will do so, even in the eyes of this natural skeptic, deservingly.
Personal feelings shouldn’t enter the conversation, but Mussina was a joy to cover, his starts every fifth day — and he averaged an astounding 31 starts per season from 1992 to 2008 — representing the best part of covering those awful Orioles teams in the years following the 1997 American League East title. His starts were a pitching clinic, his signature knuckle-curve ranking among the most lethal pitches in the game.
There was a palpable sense of constant danger every time Mussina took the mound — pitching, as he did, in the loaded AL East, at hitter-friendly Camden Yards, during the peak of the steroid era — but it was difficult to quantify at the time.
For that matter, Mussina was equally a joy on the days he didn’t pitch, his locker a place for insight into the craft of pitching or — often punctuated by a pronounced eye roll or a dismissive smirk — the inner machinations of the Orioles organization. Mussina, a Stanford graduate who could be aloof and cold to strangers, made you work to earn his trust. He suffered neither fools nor foolish questions. He wasn’t a sound-bite guy. But put the cameras and notepads away, and he would tell you what you needed to know.
The Orioles didn’t know how much they needed Mussina until he was gone; he signed a six-year, $88.5 million contract with the rival New York Yankees in 2000. In the nearly 20 years since, the franchise hasn’t produced another pitcher with even a fraction of Mussina’s overall value.
But to some extent, I give the Orioles the same pass I give myself for underappreciating Mussina: We didn’t fully understand exactly what we were seeing at the time. It took advanced stats to demonstrate that.
What was missing from Mussina’s raw numbers during his own era — including the relatively pedestrian ERA — was context. That palpable sense of danger from pitching in a tough division, in a hitter-friendly stadium, during a brutal era for pitchers? It turns out there was a way to measure that.
Once adjusted ERA+ — a stat that takes a pitcher’s ERA, adjusts it for the pitcher’s ballpark and league effects, and calibrates it as a ratio in which 100 represents league average — came along and gained widespread acceptance, it cast an entirely new light on Mussina’s career, and that of many of his peers. No longer would we have to guesstimate the difference between a 3.68 ERA during the steroid era and the same ERA from the dead-ball era.
Adding that little plus sign to “ERA” sends Mussina zooming up the all-time list. His ERA+ of 123 puts him in a tie for 88th all-time, his neighbors on that list including Hall of Famers Juan Marichal, Bob Feller and Dazzy Vance — true greats and legends.
Wins above replacement (WAR) takes it even further, using league- and ballpark-adjusted figures to calculate a player’s overall value to his team in wins. By Baseball-Reference.com’s calculations, Mussina was worth 82.8 WAR over the course of his career, a mark that ranks 23rd all-time among pitchers — in the neighborhood of Bob Gibson, Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton. True immortals.
Similar contextual, statistical revelations, propagated by the sabermetrics community, illuminated and ultimately aided the candidacy of 2017 Cooperstown inductee Tim Raines, an outfielder whose career on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .810 ranks 380th all-time (neighbors: Ken Boyer, Kevin Millar) — but whose WAR of 69.4 ranks 73rd all-time among position players (neighbors: Tony Gwynn, Eddie Murray). Like Mussina, Raines was underappreciated during his era and needed years on the ballot (10, to be exact) to reach the 75 percent threshold.
It can be said of most surefire Hall of Famers that they were the best (or close to it) at their position during their own era — an admittedly subjective measure. By that standard, Mussina probably wouldn’t even make a five-man starting rotation from his, ranking behind Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Martinez and perhaps Tom Glavine and/or John Smoltz. In Mussina’s early years on the ballot, it was apparently a difficult leap to send a guy such as that — essentially his generation’s sixth starter — to Cooperstown alongside those other names.
But what ERA+ and especially WAR showed us is that we didn’t realize at the time what our own eyes should have been telling us about Mussina. We thought we were witnessing a very good pitcher, but in reality we were witnessing an all-time great one.