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Yankee Preview: Monday

For Starters: Mike Mussina

By Ben Jacobs

In the grand scheme of things, Mike Mussina is a lucky man. He has an ability that an employer is willing to pay millions of dollars for the services of, and he enjoys using that ability in the manner in which his employer asks.

So, it’s hard to feel too bad for Mussina. However, in the baseball world, his luck hasn’t really been good and the public’s perception of him hasn’t really been fair.

Mussina is generally a reserved guy who avoids talking to the media whenever possible, which means the only way he draws attention to himself is with his performance on the field. That performance has consistently been very good throughout his career, but it hasn’t really captured the attention of most fans.

The reason is simple: while he’s always been good and often been great, he’s never been the best. He’s finished in the top six in Cy Young award voting eight times, but he’s never actually won the award. He’s finished in the top 10 in ERA nine times, but he’s never led the league. He’s finished in the top 10 in wins eight times, but he’s never won 20 games.

That last item is probably the most damning. There is a special aura attached to winning 20 games in a season. Once you do so, you’re forever a “former 20-game winner.” Mussina has never done so, but it’s not really his fault. You see, Mussina isn’t just some pitcher who’s never won 20 games in a season. He’s the best pitcher who’s never won 20 games in a season.

In 13 seasons, Mussina has a career record of 199-110 with a 3.53 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 2126 strikeouts (7.17 K/9IP), 597 walks (2.01 BB/9IP) and 278 homers allowed (0.94 HR/9IP) in 2668.2 innings. For his career, the average batter facing him has hit .247 with a .288 OBP and a .391 SLG (.679 OPS).

So, Mussina has obviously been a very good pitcher. In fact, his career ERA+ of 129 is tied for 38th among all pitchers who have pitched enough (1,000 innings and 100 decisions) to be listed on the leaderboards at Baseball-Reference.com. That he’s never been able to win 20 games in a season isn’t his fault.

Mussina has won 19 games twice, 18 games three other times and 17 games two more times. In fact, with better timing, he wouldn’t even have needed better luck to join the 20-win club.

In the strike-shortened 1994 season, Mussina went 16-5 in 24 starts. Had the season not ended 50 games early, Mussina could have made 10-12 extra starts and would have had a good chance of getting those four extra wins. In the strike-shortened 1995 season, Mussina went 19-9 in 32 starts. Had the season not started 18 games late, Mussina would have made three or four more starts and likely would have won at least 20 games.

Had the strike never happened, or at least happened at some other time, it’s almost certain that Mussina would have won 20 games in at least one of those two seasons.

Now to answer the question of whether or not he really is the best pitcher who has never won 20 games, as I said he is. The answer to that particular question might not be yes. There is one pitcher who could currently be considered a better pitcher and who never won 20 games.

According to Baseball-Reference, there are nine pitchers with a better career ERA+ than Mussina who have never won 20 games in a season. None of those pitchers, however, were primarily starters. Five of them (Dan Quisenberry, John Franco, Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith and Kent Tekulve) never made a single start and two others (Doug Jones and Jesse Orosco) made just four career starts. Of those seven pitchers, only Tekulve (1436.1 innings) pitched more than 1300 innings in his career. One of the other two pitchers was John Hiller, who made 43 career starts but pitched just 1242 innings.

Since none of them came close to pitching as many innings as Mussina has, I’d have a lot of trouble calling any of them a better pitcher than Mussina. That leaves just Hoyt Wilhelm.

Wilhelm made 52 starts in his career and pitched 2254.1 innings. He finished with a 146 career ERA+.

In 21 seasons, he went 143-122 with 227 saves and a 2.52 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 1610 strikeouts (6.43 K/9IP), 778 walks (3.11 BB/9IP) and 150 homers allowed (0.60 HR/9IP). He won 15 games twice (once strictly as a reliever and once when he made 27 starts in 1959) and 11 or 12 games three other times.

He pitched about 400 fewer innings than Mussina has, but his ERA+ is much better and he probably pitched more “crucial” innings than Mussina has.

Quite frankly, however, I don’t care whether or not Hoyt Wilhelm was a better pitcher than Mike Mussina is because, while it would answer the question, it wouldn’t answer the interesting question.

It’s not interesting to learn that Wilhelm never won 20 games in a season because you wouldn’t have expected him to ever win 20 games in a season. So, let’s modify the question so that it’s interesting.

Is Mike Mussina the best pitcher who has primarily been a starter in his career to not win 20 games in a season?

The answer to that question is definitely yes.

Of all the pitchers with a career ERA+ of at least 125 who have made at least 100 starts in their career, only two have never won 20 games in a season. One is Mussina and the other is Max Lanier. Lanier pitched from 1938-1953, mostly with the Cardinals, and went 108-82 with a 3.01 ERA (125 ERA+), 821 strikeouts, 611 walks and 65 home runs allowed in 1619.1 innings.

You’ll notice that I didn’t provide as many statistics for Lanier as for Mussina and Wilhelm. That’s because you don’t need as many statistics to see that Lanier wasn’t nearly as good a pitcher as Mussina has been. Especially if you consider that Lanier’s best seasons (including his career-high 17 wins in 1944) came while many of the best baseball players were serving in World War II.

If you look at all the pitchers who have an ERA+ better than 120, the list of players with at least 100 starts who never won 20 games in a season has four additions — Kevin Appier, Jimmy Key, Dave Stieb and Johnny Rigney. Rigney only played for eight years, making 132 starts and pitching 1186.1 innings, so he can be eliminated from the discussion immediately.

Appier, who won 18 games with the Royals in 1993, just had a horrible season, but he’s had a pretty nice career. He has a 121 career ERA+ and he’s 169-136 with a 3.72 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 1992 strikeouts (6.92 K/9IP), 930 walks (3.23 BB/9IP) and 232 homers allowed (0.81 HR/9IP) in 2591.1 innings.

As you can probably tell, he’s not as good a pitcher as Mussina. He’s pitched fewer innings with a higher ERA, higher WHIP, lower K/9IP and higher BB/9IP. The only thing he’s done better than Mussina is keep batters from hitting home runs.

Key, like Mussina, may have been robbed of a shot at a 20-win season by the last strike. Key had 17 wins for the Yankees when the season was canceled in 1994 and he probably would have gotten 10 or so more starts that season. As it is, his career high in wins was 18 in 1993.

Key went 186-117 with a 3.51 ERA (122 ERA+), 1.23 WHIP, 1538 strikeouts (5.34 K/9IP), 668 walks (2.32 BB/9IP) and 254 homers allowed (0.88 HR/9IP) in 2591.2 innings. Like Appier, Key is clearly not as good as Mussina. He pitched fewer innings and, although his ERA was about the same as Mussina’s is, Key retired before the offenses really started going crazy (hence his worse ERA+). Hey also didn’t strike out nearly as many batters as Mussina and walked more.

Stieb won 18 games twice and 17 games three times. For his career, he was 176-137 with a 3.44 ERA (122 ERA+), 1.25 WHIP, 1669 strikeouts (5.19 K/9IP), 1034 walks (3.21 BB/9IP) and 225 homers allowed (0.70 HR/9IP).

This might be a lot closer if Stieb had retired after the 1991 season, but he pitched 169 bad innings (5.11 ERA in his final three seasons) after that. Had he retired, he still would have pitched more innings (2726.1) than Mussina has so far, his career ERA would be 3.33 and his ERA+ would be at least somewhat closer to Mussina’s.

Instead, Stieb has a better ERA, but worse ERA+ (thanks to the recent offensive increase) and had many fewer strikeouts and many more walks. He did allow home runs much less frequently, but that can probably be partly attributed to the seasons in which he pitched as well.

So, it seems pretty clear that Mussina is, in fact, the best starting pitcher (however you want to define that) who has never won 20 games in a season.

Fortunately for him, he has at least a few more years to try and pass that mantle on to somebody else. In fact, he could very well win 20 games this season.

Mussina is still a very good pitcher from whom you can expect at least 200 innings and an ERA in the low 3.00’s, and he has a very good offense behind him. It’s not like he “doesn’t know how to win” or something either. He has 52 wins since joining the Yankees, with at least 17 wins in each season.

The only pitchers with more wins the last three years than Mussina are Mark Mulder, Jamie Moyer, Barry Zito and Curt Schilling. Mussina obviously doesn’t have any of the18 20-win seasons that have happened in the last three years, but no pitcher besides Mussina has won at least 17 games in each of the last three seasons.

The fact of the matter is that wins are an overrated way to measure a starting pitcher. Fans shouldn’t harp on the fact that Mussina’s never won 20 games and they certainly shouldn’t say that he pitches just well enough to lose in big games. Instead, they should enjoy watching a future Hall-of-Famer, because that’s exactly what Mussina is.

In fact, Mussina is a lot like a former teammate of his who is also underrated, and for the same exact reason. Mussina and Rafael Palmeiro are both future Hall-of-Famers, but neither has ever been the very best at his job. They’ve both merely been among the best at their jobs for a very long time.

When trying to figure out whether or not a player deserves to be in the Hall of Fame or not, two of the things you should look at are his black ink and his gray ink. Black ink measures how many times the player has led his league in various stats while gray ink measures how many times the player has finished in the top 10 in those categories.

Mussina’s black ink count is 11, while 40 is average for a Hall-of-Fame pitcher. However, his gray ink is 210, while 185 is average for a Hall-of-Famer. Similarly, Palmeiro’s black ink count is eight, while 27 is average for a Hall-of-Fame hitter. However, his gray ink is 181, while 144 is average for a Hall-of-Famer.

There are two types of Hall-of-Famers once you get past the very best of the best: those who were exceptional but not for as long as you’d like and those who were at the top of their game for a long time but were never truly exceptional. Mussina and Palmeiro are both the second type, but do not doubt that they will belong in the Hall of Fame when they call it quits.

Actually, it might not be a bad thing for Mussina’s legacy if he never wins 20 games. He could go down in history as the first major-league starting pitcher in the Hall of Fame who never won 20 games in a season. Right now, the only Hall-of-Famers without at least one 20-win season are relievers Wilhelm and Rollie Fingers and Negro Leaguer Hilton Smith.

If I were a Yankees fan, and I’m not, I’d rather have Mussina than a legendary Yankee hurler who was noted as a winner. The difference is that Mussina has consistently been very good, while Allie Reynolds had one very good year (1951) and one amazing year (1952).

In that amazing year, Reynolds went 20-8 with a 2.06 ERA in the regular season and 2-1 with a 1.77 ERA in New York’s World Series victory over Brooklyn. It was a truly great season for Reynolds, and he finished second in the MVP voting.

But would you rather have a pitcher who comes in and knocks your socks off for a year or two or a pitcher who you can count on to help carry your team each and every season? I know which one I’d rather have, and Mussina falls in that category.

If you still don’t agree with me, consider the following. After Mussina’s outstanding 1992 season as a 23-year-old, Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell wondered whether Mussina’s career would end up more like Mike Boddicker’s or Jim Palmer’s. Eleven years later, we have more information about the answer to that question.

Palmer finished his career with a 268-152 record and a 2.86 ERA in 3,948 innings. That gives him a .638 winning percentage and a 125 ERA+. To refresh your memory, Mussina’s 199-110 record gives him a .644 winning percentage and his 3.52 ERA gives him a 129 ERA+. For the record, Boddicker finished 134-116 with an ERA+ of 107 in 2,123.2 innings. To say that Mussina has passed him by would be an understatement.

Aside from pitching six more seasons and almost 1,300 more innings, Palmer also differed from Mussina in that he was a three-time Cy Young award winner and an eight-time 20-game winner. Palmer’s 313 win shares are also almost 100 more than Mussina’s 215.

Still, if Mussina can finish his career with as many seasons pitched as Palmer (19), he could end up with more wins, more win shares and a better ERA+. I’m not saying Mussina’s as good as Palmer was, but Bill James ranked Palmer as the 17th-best pitcher in history in the New Bill James Historical Abstract.

The fact the two pitchers are at all comparable should tell you something.

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