Moose Hunting

Publish date:

It's time once again to play the numbers game:

Pitcher A: 243-142, .631 winning percentage, 3,507 innings, 3,153 hits, 2,303 Ks, 709 walks, 263 Win Shares, 123 ERA+.

Pitcher B: 270-153, .638 winning percentage, 3,562 innings, 3,450 hits, 2,813 Ks, 785 walks, 270 Win Shares, 123 ERA+.

That's pretty comparable, no? Pitcher A gave up fewer hits and walks, but pitcher B won more games at a higher clip and struck out more batters. They have the same ERA+.

If this is all you had to vote for the Hall of Fame, you would probably have a hard time deciding. Of course you wouldn't vote for the Hall of Fame based solely on those numbers ... you would want to dig a little deeper. So, OK, here are the Top 7 ERA+ seasons for each pitcher:

Pitcher A169 ERA+168 ERA+167 ERA+144 ERA+132 ERA+123 ERA+121 ERA+

Pitcher B163 ERA+157 ERA+145 ERA+142 ERA+137 ERA+132 ERA+129 ERA+ (twice)

So, it looks like Pitcher A had a couple more top-end seasons, Pitcher B better lower-end seasons.

How about a few other statistics:

Walks per ninePitcher A: Led league four times, finished Top 10 eleven times.Pitcher B: Led league once, finished Top 10 fifteen times.

Strikeouts per ninePitcher A: Finished Top 10 five times.Pitcher B: Finished Top 10 nine times.

Innings pitchedPitcher A: Led league twice, finished Top 10 eight timesPitcher B: Led league once, finished Top 10 eight times

WHIPPitcher A: Led league twice, finished Top 10 eight timesPitcher B: Never led league, finished Top 10 twelve times

ShutoutsPitcher A: Led league twice, finished Top 10 nine timesPitcher B: Led league once finished Top 10 eleven times.

WinsPitcher A: Led league twice, finished Top 10 eight times.Pitcher B: Led league once, finished Top 10 nine times.

Adjusted ERA+Pitcher A: Led league twice, finished Top 10 six timesPitcher B: Never led league, finished Top 10 eleven times.

OK, so we are probably getting a clearer picture now. Pitcher A looks to be slightly more dominant at the top end, and Pitcher B looks to have had more good years. But, all in all, their similarities -- it seems to me anyway -- dwarf their differences. They are both good control pitchers who threw a lot of innings, struck out their share and won a lot.

So, now I'm going to tell you that Pitcher A is the guy Pete Rose and Joe Morgan, just over the weekend, called the toughest pitcher they ever faced. That would be Juan Marichal.

And Pitcher B is Mike Mussina.

Well, it shocked me anyway. On Monday I was among those asked by New York Times sportswriter Tyler Kepner whether or not Mussina, who turns 40 next month, is a Hall of Famer even if he does not come back next season.* My initial reaction was that yes, he is a Hall of Famer already. A cursory look at the numbers confirmed it for me. That 123 ERA+ is better than, among others, Tom Glavine, Bob Feller, Bert Blyleven, Warren Spahn, Gaylord Perry, Steve Carlton, Jim Bunning and Nolan Ryan. He has certainly pumped up plenty of good counting numbers if you care about those -- 270 victories places him 33rd all-time, which sure isn't bad in this five-man rotation, bring-in-the bullpen era. Plus he won more than 10 games 17 times -- only Don Sutton, Greg Maddux, Phil Niekro and Walter Johnson have done that more.

*I have now read the story, and it seems that I'm a bit more enthusiastic about Mussina's career than others.

But, even as I looked over the numbers, I had no idea how similar Mussina's career numbers are to Marichal's until I just compared them on the computer screen. Now, admittedly the numbers are only similar if you leave out one critical statistic -- that being ERA.

Marichal: 2.89 career ERA -- sub 2.50 ERA six times.Mussina: 3.68 career ERA -- sub 2.50 ERA 0 times, sub 3.00 ERA once.

But I think that ERA difference is a bit of an illusion, which is why I left it out -- Marichal pitched in a very low run-scoring environment and Mussina pitched in a very high run-scoring environment. That's why it's easy to miss the similarities. Plus, Marichal pitched in a time when pitchers threw a lot of complete games (certainly Marichal threw a lot of complete games) and, as such, got a lot of decisions. Marichal won 25 or more games three times, he won 20 or more three other times. Mussina, of course, has only won 20 once, and that was this past year with the Yankees.

But compared to their eras, Mussina and Marichal were both big winners who threw a lot of innings and had low ERAs. I think if you strip away the quirks of the times, Mussina and Marichal were both right-handed pitchers, about the same size (Mussina is two inches taller at 6-foot-2, both weighed 185), both threw a bunch of different pitches, both had dandy control, both attacked hitters inside, both won about 63% of their games, both had an unconventional pitch that sort of marked them -- Marichal threw the screwball, Mussina a knuckle-curve.

Neither one won a Cy Young because they were overshadowed by world-class pitchers -- Marichal did not even get a single Cy Young vote the three years he won 25 games, because those years belonged to Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson. Mussina lost the 1999 Cy Young to Pedro Martinez, and he found himself somewhat lost in the decade of Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens.

They both have quite low "Index of Self Destruction" numbers -- this is another invention of Bill James where he takes the total number of a pitchers' hit batsman, balks, wild pitches and errors per nine innings pitched. It's just a fun way of looking at how much a pitcher hurts himself....

Marichal: 0.41 Index -- quite low, in large part because he hit only 40 batters in his career and only threw 51 wild pitches. His control was stellar.

Mussina: 0.37 Index -- even lower in large part because, amazingly, the man only has one balk in his entire career. One balk. I had no idea. The only pitchers in baseball who have thrown more innings than Mussina with one balk are three of the all-time greats, Pete Alexander, Lefty Grove and Carl Hubbell -- and they hardly ever seemed to call balks back then. Mussina also is one of the best fielding pitchers in baseball history.

They are so alike, and yet Marichal has a much bigger reputation, maybe because of his remarkably low ERAs, his big-win seasons, his high leg-kick and some legendary moments. I'm not saying that Mussina is as great as Marichal was -- I haven't studied it that closely and anyway I think Marichal's peak is clearly higher than Mussina's. But I do think that this gave me something to think about. I do believe that Mussina, who's supposed to announce this week whether he's retiring or coming back, should be a Hall of Fame lock right now. And I'm wondering if he is simply the overlooked pitcher of our era, sort of the Blyleven of the time.

I just got an email from Tyler Kepner at The New York Times. I bring this up because I mentioned above that, based on his story, I seemed to be sort of an island with my feeling that Mussina is a slam-dunk Hall of Famer. But Tyler says that he got 40 responses from writers, and 32 of them said they would vote for Mussina as a Hall of Famer. That's more than 75% -- which is enough to get him in. And it shows that, actually, lots of people see Mussina the way I see him.

This touches on a larger topic that I started writing in another blog post -- I think this has been a very good year for the Baseball Writers Association. Yes individually there have been some rather quirky and cranky ballots and opinions, but as a group the voters:

1. Chose Tim Lincecum over Brandon Webb for Cy Young even though Webb had more victories.2. Chose Cliff Lee over K-Rod for Cy Young even though K-Rod set the saves record.3. Chose Albert Pujols over Ryan Howard for MVP even though Howard had more homers and RBIs and had a big September and played for a team that reached the playoffs.

I see all of these as promising signs that the BBWAA as a whole is tilting toward more nuanced reasoning and thought. Lincecum had a measurably better year than Webb -- so did Johan Santana, who finished behind Webb, but that's down-ballot and not especially important.

Lee and a whole bunch of other people -- including a handful of relievers -- had better years than K-Rod.

And Pujols was about 200 times better than Howard this year. You know, Howard really had a very pedestrian .251/.339/.543 season, and even that was aided by his bandbox of a ballpark. I don't even think Howard was especially close to being the MVP of the Phillies, much less the National League, and I don't think he should have been anywhere near the second-place MVP. But the point remains: Howard didn't win. The right guy did. The voters got it right.

While we're here, I would like to make one more point about Mussina. Brilliant reader Thomas offers this thought-provoking comment:

"But my thought about Moose is always this: if you were the opposing team facing him during a pennant race, were you ever frightened that you wouldn't be able to get to him? He never had that invincible aura about him that the top pitchers of the day (Unit, Pedro, Clemens/Steroids, Schilling, Maddux) had. I know this is a rather weak argument against him, but it fits in there somewhere doesn't it?"

I think there's a real point here -- sports is fun because we do have emotional feelings about people. I can remember precisely how terrorized I used to get when John Elway got the ball with the Broncos down by four in the fourth quarter. And, being a Browns fan and later a writer who covered the Kansas City Chiefs, I was right to be concerned -- Elway didn't miss much. But what interests me here is how often our emotional feelings are just wrong, how often conventional thinking is just wrong.

For instance, when I read Thomas' comment I thought -- yeah, that sounds about right. Of course, when you compare anyone to Unit, Pedro, Clemens and Maddux -- four of the, say, 15 greatest pitchers who ever lived -- it's hard to come out looking good. But then I thought ... Wait a minute: Is that really true? Did those guys really pitch better in those pennant races? Really?

Unfortunately, I didn't have time to do some kind of involved sweeping study. But I figured as a test-case, I would take a quick look and see how each of those pitchers pitched in September during their careers.

And, I found precisely what I was looking for: Mussina pitched as well or better than any of those guys.

Mike Mussina in Sept/Oct.: 44-21, .676 winning percentage, 2.86 ERA, 517 Ks, 130 walks.Randy Johnson in Sept./Oct: 51-17, .750 WP, 2.95 ERA, 790 Ks, 230 walks.Pedro Martinez in Sept./Oct: 28-27, 509 WP, 3.19 ERA, 496 Ks, 126 walks.Roger Clemens in Sept./Oct: 53-35, .602 WP, 3.27 ERA, 745 Ks, 261 walks.Greg Maddux in Sept/Oct: 62-49, .558 WP, 3.42 ERA, 565 Ks, 157 walks.Curt Schilling in Sept./Oct: 34-25, .576 WP, 3.63 ERA, 494 Ks, 114 walks.

So Mussina has the best September ERA, the second best winning percentage and an outstanding strikeout to walk ratio.

Now, does this prove anything? Of course not. It's only a snapshot. Every September isn't a pennant race. Every pennant race game isn't in September. But I think that, often enough, our image of people is simply colored by, you know, our image of people. Mike Mussina was not celebrated as a dominant and scary pitcher -- Thomas is right, he never gave off that aura -- but maybe that is our failing. He was pretty damn good, even in September, even without that aura.