Mike Mussina: Oriole, Yankee, Hall of Famer?

Nick GiarrussoContributor INovember 25, 2008

The New York Yankees have been waiting since the conclusion of the regular season for word on whether or not Mike Mussina would be returning to their rotation in 2009. Wednesday afternoon they got their answer. Mike Mussina has decided to retire from Major League Baseball, ending his 18-year professional career.

With the Yankees already expected to be major players in free agency, the timeliness of Mussina’s decision couldn’t have been better. And, like always, the Yankees have a contingency plan.

They have already reportedly offered a record-breaking contract to CC Sabathia, and are also rumored to be preparing free-agent offers for A.J. Burnett and Derek Lowe. No need to shed a tear for the Bombers; something tells me they’ll be fine.  

For Mussina, the question surrounding him is sure to shift from “Is he retiring?” to “Is he a Hall-of-Famer?”

This debate is the type we live for as sports fans. And in Mussina’s case, you’ll find staunch opinions on both sides of the Cooperstown fence.

Many believe Mike Mussina is a lock, maybe not on his first ballot, but eventually—without question—a lock. That contingent will shout from the rooftops the following fact—of the 16 Hall of Fame eligible pitchers 100 or more wins over .500, all 16 are enshrined in Cooperstown. Mike Mussina is 270-153, 117 games over .500.

That makes him a lock, right?

Not so fast. You see, the Mike Mussina Hall of Fame argument gets a little tricky from here.

His supporters will continue to blitz you with numerous facts and figures, ranging from his durability to his defensive prowess—and everything in between. After a deep breathe they begin…

“He was durable, man; nobody was more reliable than Moose.”

They have a point. Mussina started 30+ games in a season 12 times, along with pitching 200+ innings 11 times.

“And bro, don’t go tellin‘ me about that 20-win business...Mike got his 20 wins this season.”

Correct again. Mussina had arguably his best season in 2008, going 20-9 for New York, finally hitting the 20-win plateau for the first time in his 18-year career.

However, this particular debate would have never been a Hall-of-Fame deal-breaker in the first place. Hall voters are smart enough to realize that Mussina had five seasons with at least 18 or 19 wins.

They’re also alert enough to figure out that Moose would have probably hit the 20-win mark all the way back in 1994 and again in 1995, if not for strike-shortened seasons. It’s not a knock to win 18 or more games six times; that’s a good thing, people.

“Oh, and let me tell ya something...Moose pitched all 18 years in the A.L. East, over half in a hitter-friendly ball park, and don’t forget about the steroid era...Mikey pitched right through the heart of that thing and didn’t miss a beat!”

True. True. And true...Sort of.

Yes, Mussina pitched in the A.L. East his entire career. But come on, was the A.L. East the same monster it is now back in 1991? ’92? ’93? ’94? ’95? ’96? Didn’t think so. Still, this is not a knock; let’s just keep things fair and not consider it to be the great equalizer, either.

He did pitch in Camden Yards, but only up until 2000. He did pitch during the steroid era but only for half of his career. All are still valid points. However, if simply pitching in a hitter-friendly park during the steroid era is a deciding factor in gaining entry into Cooperstown, then the bar for entry has been significantly lowered. I hope we would all agree on this point.

“Well...what about his five All-Star appearances and his six Gold Gloves? The Moose did that! What do ya gotta say to that? Huh?!”

It’s all very impressive, and I’m not being sarcastic, either. These are all the reasons that make Mike Mussina the ultimate fringe Hall of Famer. Herein lies the endless debate sure to had in Baltimore, New York and all over baseball, from now until...well, he either gets inducted or his eligibility expires in the year 2028.

So what about the other side of the coin? Glad you asked...

He didn’t win 300 games, falling 30 short.

He didn’t reach 3,000 career strikeouts, ending with 2,813.

No Cy Young’s.

No MVP awards.

What about postseason success?

Mussina was a pedestrian 7-8 with a 3.43 ERA in the playoffs.

No World Series ring.

The lone 20-win season.

The lone sub-3.00-ERA season.

Are you starting to get the point? Mike Mussina is the pitching version of Jim Rice. He’s a very good player, just not a Hall of Fame player. Rice, like Mussina, falls short in all of the major milestone categories.

He doesn’t have 500 home runs or 3,000 hits or a lifetime .300 batting average. And, like Mussina, a lofty postseason resume is not there to bail him out. Rice’s Hall of Fame fate has been hanging in the balance for the past 19 years, with 2009 marking his final year of eligibility.

This does not bode well for Mike Mussina.

To gain an even deeper understanding of how Mussina’s candidacy might be viewed, simply think about his predecessor, Tommy John. John might be known for the famous surgery that now bears his name, but he also has a strong case for induction. John has 18 more wins and a career ERA .34 points better than Mike Mussina.

However, like Rice, 2009 will be the final year that Tommy John can be inducted into Cooperstown.  

When you take a close look at Mussina’s resume, a good case can be made in favor of his induction into Cooperstown or against it. He is a classic example of a fringe or borderline hall of fame player. He could get in, but he could just as easily sit and wait, year after year, like Rice and John, for a call that may never come.


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