Mike Mussina's numbers are surprisingly comparable to Juan Marichal's
Of 40 writers surveyed, 32 said they would vote for Mussina for the Hall of Fame
It's time once again to play the numbers game:
Pitcher B: 270-153, .638 winning percentage, 3,562 innings, 3,450 hits, 2,813 Ks, 785 walks, 270 Win Shares, 123 ERA+.
That's pretty comparable, no? Pitcher A gave up fewer hits and walks, but pitcher B won more games at a higher clip and struck out more batters. They have the same ERA+.
If this is all you had to vote for the Hall of Fame, you would probably have a hard time deciding. Of course you wouldn't vote for the Hall of Fame based solely on those numbers ... you would want to dig a little deeper. So, OK, here are the Top 7 ERA+ seasons for each pitcher:
So, it looks like Pitcher A had a couple more top-end seasons, Pitcher B better lower-end seasons.
How about a few other statistics:
Walks per nine
Strikeouts per nine
OK, so we are probably getting a clearer picture now. Pitcher A looks to be slightly more dominant at the top end, and Pitcher B looks to have had more good years. But, all in all, their similarities -- it seems to me anyway -- dwarf their differences. They are both good control pitchers who threw a lot of innings, struck out their share and won a lot.
So, now I'm going to tell you that Pitcher A is the guy Pete Rose and Joe Morgan, just over the weekend, called the toughest pitcher they ever faced. That would be Juan Marichal.
And Pitcher B is Mike Mussina.
Well, it shocked me anyway. On Monday I was among those asked by New York Times sportswriter Tyler Kepner whether or not Mussina, who turns 40 next month, is a Hall of Famer even if he does not come back next season.* My initial reaction was that yes, he is a Hall of Famer already. A cursory look at the numbers confirmed it for me. That 123 ERA+ is better than, among others, Tom Glavine, Bob Feller, Bert Blyleven, Warren Spahn, Gaylord Perry, Steve Carlton, Jim Bunning and Nolan Ryan. He has certainly pumped up plenty of good counting numbers if you care about those -- 270 victories places him 33rd all-time, which sure isn't bad in this five-man rotation, bring-in-the bullpen era. Plus he won more than 10 games 17 times -- only Don Sutton, Greg Maddux, Phil Niekro and Walter Johnson have done that more.
*I have now read the story, and it seems that I'm a bit more enthusiastic about Mussina's career than others.
But, even as I looked over the numbers, I had no idea how similar Mussina's career numbers are to Marichal's until I just compared them on the computer screen. Now, admittedly the numbers are only similar if you leave out one critical statistic -- that being ERA.
Marichal: 2.89 career ERA -- sub 2.50 ERA six times.
But I think that ERA difference is a bit of an illusion, which is why I left it out -- Marichal pitched in a very low run-scoring environment and Mussina pitched in a very high run-scoring environment. That's why it's easy to miss the similarities. Plus, Marichal pitched in a time when pitchers threw a lot of complete games (certainly Marichal threw a lot of complete games) and, as such, got a lot of decisions. Marichal won 25 or more games three times, he won 20 or more three other times. Mussina, of course, has only won 20 once, and that was this past year with the Yankees.
But compared to their eras, Mussina and Marichal were both big winners who threw a lot of innings and had low ERAs. I think if you strip away the quirks of the times, Mussina and Marichal were both right-handed pitchers, about the same size (Mussina is two inches taller at 6-foot-2, both weighed 185), both threw a bunch of different pitches, both had dandy control, both attacked hitters inside, both won about 63% of their games, both had an unconventional pitch that sort of marked them -- Marichal threw the screwball, Mussina a knuckle-curve.
Neither one won a Cy Young because they were overshadowed by world-class pitchers -- Marichal did not even get a single Cy Young vote the three years he won 25 games, because those years belonged to Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson. Mussina lost the 1999 Cy Young to Pedro Martinez, and he found himself somewhat lost in the decade of Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens.
They both have quite low "Index of Self Destruction" numbers -- this is another invention of Bill James where he takes the total number of a pitchers' hit batsman, balks, wild pitches and errors per nine innings pitched. It's just a fun way of looking at how much a pitcher hurts himself....
Marichal: 0.41 Index -- quite low, in large part because he hit only 40 batters in his career and only threw 51 wild pitches. His control was stellar.
Mussina: 0.37 Index -- even lower in large part because, amazingly, the man only has one balk in his entire career. One balk. I had no idea. The only pitchers in baseball who have thrown more innings than Mussina with one balk are three of the all-time greats, Pete Alexander, Lefty Grove and Carl Hubbell -- and they hardly ever seemed to call balks back then. Mussina also is one of the best fielding pitchers in baseball history.
They are so alike, and yet Marichal has a much bigger reputation, maybe because of his remarkably low ERAs, his big-win seasons, his high leg-kick and some legendary moments. I'm not saying that Mussina is as great as Marichal was -- I haven't studied it that closely and anyway I think Marichal's peak is clearly higher than Mussina's. But I do think that this gave me something to think about. I do believe that Mussina, who's supposed to announce this week whether he's retiring or coming back, should be a Hall of Fame lock right now. And I'm wondering if he is simply the overlooked pitcher of our era, sort of the Blyleven of the time.