Mussina Having a Devil of a Time

By Murray Chass

August 9, 2008

The suspicion first arose earlier in the season, maybe three months ago, early in May. It grew as the season progressed. Now I’m certain. Mike Mussina has sold his soul to the Devil.

You heard me. Like Joe Boyd (later Hardy) in the musical “Damn Yankees,” Mussina has made a deal with the Devil. How else explain the season the Yankees senior pitcher is having at the age of 39?

Mussina, with a 15-7 record and 3.27 earned run average, is only five wins from the 20-win plateau that has eluded him in his 18-year career. Twice he won 19, three times 18, but never 20. No starting pitcher is in the Hall of Fame without a 20-win season on his resume. Even Dennis Eckersley, who became a relief pitcher halfway through his career, had a 20-win season.

Only four Hall of Fame pitchers reached that status without a 20-win season, and they were all relief pitchers – Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, Rich (Goose) Gossage.

Mussina hasn’t won the Cy Young award either. No pitcher who has been virtually invisible in Cy Young award voting is in the Hall of Fame.

Why do I raise these matters in the context of the Hall of Fame? Because of the unusually and surprisingly good season Mussina is having, his fans have begun to put Hall of Fame and Mussina in the same sentence.

I have been critical of Mussina in past years, saying he is not as good as his fans say he is. I believe he has been an overrated and underachieving pitcher. But I acknowledge that he is having a terrific season and has assumed the role of staff ace, a designation he never earned in past Yankees seasons. But Hall of Fame? Don’t engrave the plaque just yet.

Mussina has an impressive career won-lost record (265-151) but not much else. He has never been a dominant pitcher, has never pitched his team to a World Series championship. He, in fact, is the darkest symbol of the Yankees’ failed post-season teams of recent seasons.

He joined the Yankees as a free agent after they won three successive World Series and four in five years, and in his seven seasons with them they have not won the World Series again. Their failures have not been attributable solely to him, but he has a 5-7 post-season record with the Yankees. He has never won two games in a playoff series for the Yankees, but he has lost two.

His status as a pitcher without a 20-win season could change this year. The schedule provides him with nine more starts, and he needs to win only five of those nine to reach 20. However, the schedule has favored him in other seasons.

In 1996, he won his 19th Sept. 7, then failed to win any of his last four starts. The year before, he won his 15th Aug. 27 but won only four of his last seven starts. In 2002 he won his 15th Aug. 17 but won only one of his next six starts. He then won his last two starts for a total of 18 but fell short again.

He could also change his status as a pitcher without a Cy Young award, but Cliff Lee of Cleveland has a 15-2 record and a 2.58 e.r.a. The Angels’ Joe Saunders has 14 victories and a 3.03 e.r.a., and there’s always Roy Halladay of the Blue Jays lurking just off the lead with 13 victories and a 2.77 e.r.a.

In other words Mussina has plenty of competition for the award he has never come close to winning. His best showing in the Cy Young balloting was in 1999 when he received 54 points for second place behind Pedro Martinez, who got all of the first-place votes. Mussina gained votes seven other times, but in four of those instances his totals were single digits.

So are these the credentials of a Hall of Famer? The simple answer is no. For further evidence, check the experiences of three other pitchers – Tommy John, Bert Blyleven and Jim Kaat.

All had career victory totals in the 280s. Except for winning percentage, all had better records than Mussina. None of the three is in the Hall of Fame. Kaat’s 15 years on the ballot expired in 2003. The next election will be John’s last on the writers’ ballot. Blyleven has four years of eligibility remaining.

In Kaat’s best performance in 15 elections, he received 29.6 percent. John’s votes have ranged from 20 to 29 percent. Blyleven began at 17.5 percent and in the last election reached 61.9 percent, an indication that he could get the required 75 percent in the next four years.

  W-L Pct. E.R.A. BR/9 CG SH
Mike Mussina 265-151 .639 3.68 10.9 57 23
Tommy John 288-231 .555 3.34 11.7 162 46
Bert Blyleven 287-250 .534 3.31 11.1 242 60
Jim Kaat 283-237 .544 3.45 11.6 180 31

John and Kaat were each 20-game winners three times, Blyleven once. Mussina doesn’t come close to the number of complete games and shutouts any of the three had. The three had slightly lower totals of baserunners per nine innings. But why let facts get in the way of a partisan view?

“I’m sure there’s a lot of talk for Mike about the Hall of Fame because it’s current,” John said in a telephone interview. “I don’t think he ever won 20 games; I don’t think he ever played on a championship team. I don’t know what the criteria are.”

John said people ask him if his failure to win election to the Hall upsets him. “I say I don’t get upset about things I have no control over,” he said. “I have no control over that so I don’t worry about it.”

Mussina, to his credit, is not among those talking about the Hall of Fame. He is focused on the rest of this season and the Yankees’ chances of getting to the playoffs with a chance to get to and win the World Series.

If not for Mussina, the Yankees would not still be in contention. For once, he grabbed the reins and said “follow me.” That’s what Joe Hardy did for the Washington Senators in “Damn Yankees,” and the circumstances are similar enough to think that Mr. Applegate lurks somewhere in the Yankees’ background.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.