It was something of a surprise that Mike Mussina retired last week. Mussina, famously coming off of the first 20-win season of his career, seemed to have a lot of innings left in his arm. He was one of the ten best starters in the AL last season, and had established a new approach to his craft that could have allowed him to be an effective pitcher with a diminished fastball. ESPN’s Keith Law had him at 29th on his free-agent list, which would seem to have portended an eight-figure salary for two seasons, at least.

Then again, I would refer back to last week’s piece about the intensely personal decisions that people-not players, people-make at times like this. Mussina weighed the money, and his opportunity for personal milestones or a championship, against his desire to continue playing and traveling and forgoing other aspects of his life, and he chose to walk away. It’s a little hard for me to separate my personal feelings about this-Mussina has long been one of my favorite players-from the professional aspects, but I think it’s fair to say that Mussina’s decision means that he walks away from the game, rather than it walking away from him.

Now, it comes time to evaluate that career. Mussina should be a Hall of Famer-he’s been that good for that long, and the biggest thing working against him is that his career happened to overlap that of some of the greatest pitchers in baseball history. Just judged on his merits and the established standards of the room, Mussina belongs in the Hall. He had career value, a Hall of Fame peak, solid secondary markers such as Gold Glove Awards and post-season performance, so he loses nothing in any of those areas.

The whole “20 wins” thing was always a ridiculous concept, and the focus on his attempt to win 20 in 2008 was misplaced. Pitcher wins are a terrible evaluative tool, and in an era in which starting pitchers get fewer starts and fewer decisions than at any time in baseball history, Mussina’s career isn’t just something to admire, it’s something to teach off of: Hall of Fame pitchers from the 1980s onward are simply not going to have the win totals of their predecessors, and you have to evaluate them in other ways. Using 20-win seasons, or 300-win careers, as any kind of standard will lead you to the wrong answers.

Mike Mussina is a Hall of Fame pitcher, and he was before he took the mound on the last day of 2008, and for that matter, before he took the mound for his first start of the season. Mussina has performed the actual job of a starting pitcher-preventing the other team from scoring-better than many Hall of Famers ever did. That the accounting didn’t add up in his favor is irrelevant.

Just to illustrate the point about how good Mussina has been, let’s compare him to one of the top starting pitchers currently on the ballot, and a controversial choice himself, Jack Morris.

Hurler    W   L    Pct.  ERA   ERA+    IP      K   PRAA   PRAR
Mussina  270 153  .638  3.68   123  3,562.2  2813   312   1302
Morris   254 186  .577  3.90   105  3,824.0  2478   -52    897

In wins and winning percentage, the areas where Morris is supposed to be strongest, Mussina beats him handily. I would not at all build a case for Mussina on these data points, but the comparison to Morris makes the point that even in Morris’ best categories, Mussina is the better choice. When you look deeper into the record… it gets ugly. Mussina prevented more than 400 additional runs than Morris did, or about 24 per 200 innings over the course of their careers. That’s the difference between a number one starter and a number two starter, not just in one season, but in every season for 17 years.

It’s the difference between belonging in the Hall of Fame and not.

Put another way, Morris had Mussina’s career… and then he threw another 260 innings and allowed about 256 runs. You can’t set replacement level low enough to make that valuable, which is one reason why Mussina’s edge over Morris becomes larger (405 runs) when you compare to replacement rather than average (364 runs). The differences between the two in Morris’ favor are usage patterns, run support, and bullpen support. Mussina did his job-preventing the other team from scoring-better than Morris ever did.

Is there a peak argument for Morris? Here are the two pitchers’ best ten seasons by PRAR, in descending order:

PRAR Morris:   85  81  80  80  74  69  61  58  53  49*
PRAR Mussina: 104  94  92  90  89* 88  80  80  80  78

*indicates strike-shortened season

Mussina’s top six seasons are better than Morris’ best, which I suppose gives us another way of comparing the two: Mussina had Morris’ career, but with four seasons of Cy Young-caliber pitching tacked on, which accounts for the 400-run difference between the two in PRAR. This is a massive gap, both in peak and in career value. If you were to look at this from a “pennants added” perspective (both Bill James and Michael Wolverton have done this as a means of determining the season-level value of different career shapes), you’d find that Mussina’s performances would have done more to push his teams toward championships than Morris’ did. That they didn’t in real life is entirely about each players’ teammates, not some particular talent or deficit in the two pitchers.

One significant marker that Morris’ advocates will bring up is his post-season work, which is really a proxy for Game Seven of the 1991 World Series. Post-season performance should be a positive marker for players who deserve it, and a signature game like Morris’ 10-inning shutout in the ultimate game should work in his favor. Like Roger Maris’ 61-home-run campaign, however, it merely raises a player not good enough into consideration, rather than pushing a nearly qualified player over the top. Morris’ entire post-season career is bolstered by that start, but on the whole, he was ordinary: 3.80 ERA in 13 starts and 92 1/3 innings. He made seven World Series starts with a 2.96 ERA. That’s very good.

Mussina, however, was better. Helped by the expanded postseason, Mussina made 23 post-season appearances, 21 of them starts, throwing 139 2/3 innings with a 3.42 ERA. He pitched more, and more effectively, than Morris did even in the postseason. In Mussina’s only two World Series, he made three starts-two of them effective, one a disaster-for a total line of a 3.00 ERA in 18 innings. Morris had Game Seven, but Mussina had a number of post-season starts like that:

  • 10/5/97: Seven innings, allowing just two hits and one run to beat Randy Johnson and send the Orioles to the ALCS.
  • 10/11/97: Seven innings, one run, 15 strikeouts in Game Three of the ALCS.
  • 10/15/97: Eight shutout innings and ten strikeouts on three days’ rest in Game Six of the ALCS, an elimination game.
  • 10/13/01: Seven shutout innings in Game Three of the ALDS, another elimination game.
  • 11/1/01: Eight innings, two runs, and ten strikeouts in Game Five of the World Series.
  • 10/16/03: Three shutout innings of relief, enabling Grady Little and Aaron Boone and Mystique and Aura. In another elimination game.

The point to make here isn’t that Mike Mussina has some special ability to pitch in the postseason. The point is that while he doesn’t have Jack Morris’ signature moment, he has a whole bunch of October moments that line up just behind it. Mussina’s 1997 ALCS against the Indians was one of the dominant performances of the three-level era in playoff history. Look at his work in some of those elimination games: Andy Pettitte has the reputation as the post-season go-to guy, but Mussina went to the mound with the season on the line and didn’t allow a run on three separate occasions. There are a lot of guys who can’t make that claim. His post-season track record is a huge positive for him, and the fact that his “record” is 7-9 is as misleading as anything you’ll find.

Comparing Mussina to a pitcher who is not in the Hall of Fame may not seem like a worthwhile exercise, but when you consider the reputations of the pitchers involved, the reason for choosing the two becomes clear. Mussina, with his lack of 20-win seasons, without a championship team to his name, and pitching with two of the five greatest pitchers ever in his peer group, is perceived as less than he actually was. Morris, who was the second- or third-best pitcher of his comparatively weaker era, is considered the best of his time, has an outsized reputation as a winner which had more to do with run support than any objective reality, and one of the greatest moments in baseball history. From a narrative standpoint, the two are complete opposites, and because of that, it may be hard for the voters-233 of which inexplicably think Jack Morris belongs in the Hall of Fame-to see past the narrative to the performance. The performance is what matters, and Mike Mussina performed not only better than Morris did, but much, much better than Morris did.

It will be interesting, in five years, to see how well that lesson sinks in.