Guest Post: Joe Sheehan

This post is one I’ve been hoping to make for a few years now. Ryan and I have spent nearly a decade trying to convince you that Mike Mussina should be in the Hall of Fame. We’ve made nearly every argument we can think of, which is why this site now mostly focuses on the hows and whys of the election process. But we’re not experts in that stuff. I’ve always wanted to get an “insider” view of why Mike Mussina’s struggled to get elected to the Hall.

Thanks to the generosity of Joe Sheehan, we now have that. Mr. Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus, one of the most well-respected sources of sabermetric analysis available. He currently publishes the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter. If you’re interested in learning more about the game, we strongly encourage you to subscribe to it, because few do it better. He can also be found on Twitter

A few weeks ago, I caught wind that Mr. Sheehan had written an impassioned defense of Mike Mussina’s Hall worthiness, so I approached him with a simple question: What’s stopping Mike Mussina from getting into the Hall of Fame? With his permission, I’ve reprinted his reply, taken in part from his newsletter article:

Why hasn’t Mike Mussina been elected to the Hall of Fame? There’s no one reason. Rather, a confluence of factors has served to leave him underrated by the voters. First, he did have some of the greatest pitchers in baseball history as his peers. Across his 17-year career, Mussina ranks sixth in WAR behind four inner-circle Hall of Famers and Curt Schilling, also fully qualified for induction.

There’s an idea that Hall of Famers should be the best of their era, but baseball talent doesn’t distribute itself quite so neatly over time. There were no Hall of Fame pitchers born from 1952 through 1961, which is how we ended up fighting over Jack Morris for 15 years. Then Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown, Greg Maddux, Schilling, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Mussina were born from 1962 through 1968. It’s not at all unreasonable to suggest that the sixth- and seventh- and eighth-best pitchers of an era could be Hall of Famers. There were 12 Hall of Fame starters active in 1968. There were 12 in 1975.

 Those two years, 1968 and 1975, are also part of Mussina’s problem. The 1960s, with their high mounds and large strike zones, queered the idea of what a great pitcher’s statistics should look like. The 1970s, a historical aberration, queered the idea of what a great pitcher’s workloads should look like. The combination created standards for Hall of Fame starting pitchers that cried out for era-neutral comparisons…which, since developed, have not moved the needle. Hall voters haven’t adjusted for the changes in starting-pitcher usage that have rendered career standards and seasonal standards largely obsolete. 

Since 1991, covering 27 elections, the writers have elected 13 starting pitchers, including Smoltz, who probably doesn’t qualify without his four seasons as a closer. Nine of the other 12 had at least 300 wins. The other three had 287 (Bert Blyleven, after a long war over his candidacy), 284 (Ferguson Jenkins, who had seven 20-win seasons) and 219 (Pedro Martinez, one of two or three guys on the short list for greatest pitcher who ever lived). The writers have put one starting pitcher with fewer than 280 wins in the Hall in 27 elections.

That’s not about the pitchers and their greatness; that’s a failure to change with the times. Hall voters have not adjusted their standards for the 35-start and 25-decision seasons that became common in the 1980s. This applies particularly to Mussina, but also to Schilling and Brown, and in the future to Roy Halladay behind them.

This is where WAR comes in. This is why you need to use a tool that can measure performance across eras independent of the wildly varying pitcher-usage patterns throughout baseball history. Christy Mathewson and Pedro Martinez were both pointed to a mound and asked to get guys out, but the similarities in their jobs ended there. Mathewson threw almost 4,800 innings and completed 435 starts; Martinez threw 2,800 innings and completed 46. WAR cuts through that to put them on a scale: Mathewson 95.3, Martinez 86.0, both comfortably among the top 20 pitchers ever.

WAR is the starting point. No one’s advocating for the Hall of Fame to be reduced to WAR rankings. At that, though, Mussina is the best eligible player in baseball history left out of the Hall of Fame for baseball reasons.

Top Careers, by bWAR, Not in Hall of Fame

3.  Barry Bonds    162.4

8.  Roger Clemens  139.4

59. Mike Mussina    82.7

61. Curt Schilling  80.7

65. Pete Rose       79.1

71. Jim McCormack   75.5

73. Bill Dahlen     75.2

Seventy-four players in MLB history have produced at least 75 bWAR in their careers. The only ballot-eligible ones not in the Hall are two 19th-century stars, two players dinged by the steroid mess…and Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling. 

Mind you, even this analysis pretends that Mussina and Tim Keefe were playing the same game. That’s not entirely unfair, but the Hall process has been stacking the deck against latter-day baseball players, while shoveling in the best of the 1890s and 1930s, for 50 years. If you put your thumb on the scale, even a little, to account for evolution and expansion and integration, Mussina’s absence from the Hall becomes that much more hard to justify.

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