Hall Watch 2005-Mike Mussina

Tuesday, January 31 2006 @ 08:14 AM EST

Contributed by: Mike Green

Mike Mussina again battled injury in 2005. For the second straight year, he was an average pitcher who threw under 180 innings. He turned 37 in December. Is the end of his career near, or do his 47 walks and 142 strikeouts in 179 innings portend glorious sunset years?

Mussina was chosen by the Orioles with the 20th overall pick of the 1990 draft out of Stanford. He was sent directly to double A after signing, and blew through that level in 7 starts, and followed that up with 2 good starts in triple A Rochester. The O's started him in triple A in 1991. Mussina went 10-4 in 19 starts with a 2.87 ERA and a 107/31 K/W ratio, and by August, he was in Baltimore and did not skip a beat that season or any one since.

In his first full season in 1992, Mussina went 18-5 with a 2.54 ERA, but his K rate was low. He brought it up in his first 3 years, and has accordingly had a long, consistent and successful career, first with Baltimore and with the Yankees since 2001. He features a good but not overpowering fastball, a knuckle-curve and fine control.Combined with his Gold-Glove quality defence, it's an impressive package.

Finding comparables for Mussina should be easy, but it is not. We will use Jim Bunning, Luis Tiant, Orel Hershiser, Jack Morris and Juan Marichal. Juan Marichal? Yep, the same. He is Baseball Reference's #1 comparable, so I thought I would throw him in.

Here's how they did through age 36:

Pitcher     IP(seasons)   ERA+   K/9IP(Lg)   W/9IP(Lg)  HR/9IP(Lg)  Team DER(Lg)  W-L

Mussina     3013.0(13.0)  125    7.2(6.2)    2.0(3.5)   1.0(1.2)    685(687)      224-127
Bunning     3219.0(12.0)  119    7.0(5.3)    2.4(3.5)   0.9(0.9)    699(706)      196-147
Tiant       2855.0(10.0)  118    6.5(5.5)    2.9(3.4)   0.9(0.8)    712(710)      191-140
Hershiser   2323.3(9.3)   119    6.0(5.8)    2.7(3.4)   0.6(0.9)    699(697)      150-108
Morris      3289.3(12.7)  108    5.9(5.1)    3.2(3.3)   0.9(0.9)    708(700)      216-162
Marichal    3501.3(12.2)  123    5.9(5.8)    1.8(3.2)   0.8(0.8)    700(702)      243-141 

Wow. The statistics say Mussina has been clearly better than any of his comparables save Marichal. You can make a reasonable case that Mussina has been better than Marichal (Mussina has been slightly more effective, Marichal has pitched somewhat more and had more decisions but not relative to the #3-#5 starters of the times). Marichal pitched 6 innings in his career after age 36. Subjectively, I would have much rather had Marichal out on the mound in a key game than Mussina (heck, I'd rather have Marichal out there than just about anybody), but still.

So, is Mussina on a Hall of Fame path? Yes. He has done everything that a medium-length career pitcher can do so far. He has pitched about as effectively as Palmer or Marichal, and has won games at about the same rate. Whether he will go is another story. We now have Clemens, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Curt Schilling, John Smoltz and Mike Mussina in late career, with Pedro Martinez and Andy Pettitte following closely behind. All of these pitchers might retire within the next 3-4 years, and it would be easy for one or two of them to be lost in the shuffle. Mussina would be my bet for the best pitcher from this generation to be overlooked unless he gets 300 wins. That would be a shame.

We will look next at Curt Schilling.