"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Sun Rise, Sun Sets

Steven Goldman’s final column for the New York Sun is about Pedro Martinez and Mike Mussina:

Mussina reached the majors in 1991. Martinez received a cup of coffee the following year. Both excelled in their first full seasons, though Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, in his dotage, put Martinez in the bullpen for a season before trading him for Delino DeShields, one of the worst swaps of all time. Simultaneously, Mussina was going 18-5 with a 2.54 ERA for the 1992 Orioles, helping that franchise improve its record by 22 wins over the previous season. He finished fourth in the Cy Young voting that year.

Mussina quickly established himself as the rare control pitcher with good enough stuff to get more than his share of strikeouts. Although he never posted another ERA under 3.00 amid the rising offensive era in which he pitched, he did reel off another 10 seasons under 4.00, and had nine top-four finishes in the ERA category. Mussina never won a Cy Young award, but he was a top-10 vote-getter eight times. There were often pitchers who had more spectacular, dominating seasons than the cerebral hurler, but few matched him in year-in, year-out excellence.

…If both pitchers’ careers are indeed over, neither will have the 300 wins that lets the Baseball Writers’ Association of America voters avoid thinking. This is a bad thing only insofar as when the writers start thinking, they generally come to the wrong conclusion. Three-hundred wins has little meaning where they are concerned, if it ever had meaning at all. One flared brighter than any pitcher, the other shone sharply and steadily. There is great value in these things regardless of numbers. Ironic that those who claim the least regard for statistics put the most faith in them.

It’s too bad that the Sun won’t last because they had a good arts section and a sharp, progressive sports page.

Speaking of Moose, here is an interesting exchange between Jay Jaffe and Rob Neyer on Mussina’s chances for the Hall of Fame. First, Jaffe:

Over the weekend, ESPN’s Rob Neyer noted the supportive comments of former Orioles great Jim Palmer, who thinks Mussina is Hall-worthy. “I always said I thought he was every bit as good as I was,” Palmer told the Baltimore Sun’s Roch Kubatko. Neyer begged to differ: “He wasn’t. Jim Palmer won three Cy Young Awards and finished with 268 wins and a 126 career ERA+. Mussina’s got 269 wins, zero Cy Young Awards, and a 122 career ERA+.”

With all due respect to Neyer, he’s off base here. Mussina may lack Palmer’s hardware, but over the course of his career he’s been more valuable than Palmer was, and not by a little. Over the course of 19 seasons, Palmer pitched 3,948 innings and was 151 Pitching Runs Above Average and 1,064 Pitching Runs Above Replacement, worth 99.6 WARP3 according to Clay Davenport’s system. Mussina, in 18 seasons totaling about 400 fewer innings, was 312 runs above average—more than double Palmer, in other words—and 1,302 Pitching Runs Above Replacement, good for 132.4 WARP3. Palmer’s best seven seasons (his peak, in JAWS terms) were worth 64.3 WARP3; Mussina trumps that with 66.5 WARP3. Mussina’s also got a considerable edge in career VORP (860.7 to 752.9) and a slight one in SNLVAR (99.7 to 96.2). Properly adjusted for the context of a more difficult work environment, he gains the advantage.

Jim Palmer was a great pitcher on some ballclubs that are regarded among the best of the ’60s and ’70s. The matinee-idol good looks, the underwear ads, and the public feuds with manager Earl Weaver make for a colorful public persona that rounds out out his Hall-worthy credentials to the point of legend. Mussina bore the burden of spending the first half of his career pitching in the shadow of that legend on ballclubs that weren’t the equal of those Weaver squads, and he developed a public persona that, while thoughtful, was far more reserved than that of the outgoing Palmer. Accompanied by the evolution of the starting pitcher’s role over the last three decades, those differences dramatically distort the perceptions of the two pitchers, but props to Palmer for recognizing that and for speaking up on Mussina’s behalf. Even if he never throws another pitch, Mike Mussina is worthy of a spot in Cooperstown.

And here’s Neyer:

Jaffe makes a pretty compelling case with all those statistics. Overwhelming, one might even think; more than double Palmer. I’m not prepared to pick through the details of Pitching Runs Above Replacement or WARP3 or VORP or SNLVAR, and anyway I’ve relied on some of those metrics myself from time to time. They certainly have their place.

But while one can argue (as Jaffe does) that Mussina pitched in a “more difficult work environment,” one might also argue that Mussina pitched in an environment conducive to the best pitchers looking wonderful relative to their peers.

If you run the numbers, all (or almost all of) the best pitchers of the last 40 years pitched in the last 20 years. Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens … Why didn’t we have anyone like that between 1969 and 1985? Of the top 20 single-season ERA+ for qualifiers from 1969 through 2007, 15 have come after 1993. You do the math.

Statistically speaking, Palmer was probably the second-best pitcher in the 1970s (behind only Tom Seaver). Mussina was maybe the eighth-best pitcher in the 1990s. It seems to me that might mean something.

The thought of Mussina hanging ’em up now makes me sad because I’d like to see him make a run at 300 wins. At the same time, I think it’d be nifty–as Mussina himself mentioned, how often do you see athletes go out on their own terms? He’ll likely never pitch as well as he did this year and it would be a grind for him to reach 300 wins. Maybe his ego says yeah, he should go for it, but then he’s also got his family to consider. It’ll be very interesting to see what choice he makes.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver