In retrospect, Mike Mussina‘s final season is pretty amazing.

20-9, 3.37 ERA, 200 IP, 150 K, 1.22 WHIP

How many pitchers retire after a season like that?

Not many. Here is the top ten list of pitchers with the most wins in their final season.

Rk Player W Year Age Tm L IP ERA+
1 Sandy Koufax 27 1966 30 LAD 9 323.0 190
2 Lefty Williams 22 1920 27 CHW 14 299.0 96
3 Henry Schmidt 22 1903 30 BRO 13 301.0 84
4 Eddie Cicotte 21 1920 36 CHW 10 303.1 115
5 Mike Mussina 20 2008 39 NYY 9 200.1 131
6 Britt Burns 18 1985 26 CHW 11 227.0 109
7 Chief Johnson 17 1915 29 KCP 17 281.1 108
8 Paul Derringer 16 1945 38 CHC 11 213.2 106
9 Hugh Bedient 16 1915 25 BUF 18 269.1 99
10 Ed Doheny 16 1903 29 PIT 8 222.2 102

Sandy Koufax is a special case. We all know his story.

Commissioner Landis banned Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams from baseball after the 1920 season for their roles in the Black Sox Scandal.

Britt Burns is the only non-Koufax pitcher in the post-WWII era on the list. Burns suffered from a chronic hip condition which forced his early retirement in the late 1980s. A similar hip injury would plague Bo Jackson just a few years later.

Paul Derringer appears to be the only reasonable comparison with Mussina. I can’t find any reports as to why Derringer retired after making three appearances during the Cubs 1945 World Series loss.

This fact is clear: pitchers who win 20 games in a season don’t normally retire the next season.

When Mussina comes up for election, he is going to be extensively compared to the other pitchers of his era. But most of them pitched well into their forties and racked up more counting numbers.

From 2006 to 2010, not a single pitcher won more than 10 games in their last major league season besides Mike Mussina (reminder: Mussina hung up his spikes after 2008). Here is Mussina’s final season against his contemporaries:

Player W Year Age Tm ERA+
Mike Mussina 20 2008 39 NYY 131
Curt Schilling 9 2007 40 BOS 123
Randy Johnson 8 2009 45 SFG 87
Greg Maddux 8 2008 42 TOT 92
Roger Clemens 6 2007 44 NYY 108
John Smoltz 3 2009 42 TOT 69
Tom Glavine 2 2008 42 ATL 76

Only Curt Schilling can lay claim to being a fully effective pitcher in his final season (he did help the Red Sox to their second World Championship).

What would Mussina’s counting numbers look like if he had pushed on to age 41 or beyond? Consider:

  • Randy Johnson won 73 games after turning 39 and didn’t get his 300th win until he was 45.
  • Roger Clemens won 61 games and a Cy Young Award after his age 39 season.
  • During his last three years (age 40-42) Greg Maddux won 37 games and struck out 319 hitters. If Mussina had pitched three more years at 80% of those numbers, he would have surpassed 300 wins and 3,000 strikeouts.
  • If Tom Glavine had retired at age 39, he would have finished with 275 wins – five more than the Moose. Instead, he had one good, one mediocre and one poor season as he crept across the 300 win mark at age 41.

As Patrick noted in this excellent 2009 post, perhaps the saddest fate that befell these pitchers is their muddy exit from the game they once dominated. Tom Glavine’s last professional baseball game was a rehab start for the Braves AAA affiliate. He was released by the team in June 2009, after he demanded he be added to the major league roster. The Braves choose Tommy Hanson for the promotion and haven’t looked back since. Glavine received minor league offers from a few other teams, but no guarantee of a spot on a major league roster. Glavine tried for the next year and half to find a role with a major league team. He officially retired in February 2011.

Like Glavine, John Smoltz saw his career come to a sad end. After also being released by the Braves, he caught on with the Red Sox, where he rehabbed his way back to the majors after a shoulder injury cost him most of his 2008 and 2009 season.  Boston cut him after he posted a 8.33 ERA in eight starts. He landed in St.Louis and recovered slightly, making another seven starts and posting a 4.26 ERA. His last appearance was in a relief role for the Cardinals in the 2009 NLDS. He received no free agent offers that winter and officially retired in the fall of 2010.

When injuries and age caught up with Randy Johnson in July 2009, the Giants stopped using him as a starter. His final five appearances came in relief. His final pitching appearance resulted in a blown save.

None of this happened to Mike Mussina. He didn’t limp across the finish line to 300 wins or 3,000 strikeouts. He didn’t have to take a rock bottom offer from a club to keep pitching (Johnson in San Francisco, Smoltz in St. Louis). He didn’t end his career in the bullpen of a second division team. Mussina went out on top and on his terms. When he comes up from Hall of Fame election in eighteen months, remember this when people remark that his career numbers don’t match that of his contemporaries.

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