Career Value v. Peak Value for Hall of Fame: The Mike Mussina Case

mussina Mike Mussina's main Hall of Fame argument is his career value: he's one of the top 20-30 starters of all time, whether by old-school numbers like wins (his 270 is 33rd, but 25th if you exclude folks from the 1800s), or newer stats like WAR (83.0, 23rd among SP). The argument against Mussina is his weaker peak value. He had two excellent, Cy-caliber seasons, 1992 (18-5, 2.54, 8.2 WAR) and 2001 (17-11, 3.15, 7.1 WAR). But those were far apart, and he never had a several-year span of dominance. He amassed career value mainly with (a) ten very-good-not-stellar seasons (4.4-6.6 WAR) plus (b) several average-to-pretty-good seasons (2-3ish WAR) that made him about what we remember: a #1-2 starter at his best; a #2-3 starter many years; almost never one of the league's top few; and never a guy capable of 9-10 WAR seasons-for-the-ages like his contemporaries Pedro, Roger, Randy, and arguably Curt, who was similar but with a higher peak.

I respect peak value over career value because I don't see compilers as all-time greats. Years of voting show basically no voters agree with me, but here's my contrast: I'd much rather have Dave Stieb than Don Sutton in the Hall, and here's why (don't worry, I'll get back to Mussina).

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Sutton has the old-school and new-school benchmarks of 300 wins and 60 WAR. But he was the classic longevity-not-greatness compiler: he averaged barely 3 WAR/yr (68.7 WAR over 22.5 seasons); only three seasons saw arguably all-star caliber 5 WAR, yet not even those were elite/Cy-level (5.4, 6.3, and 6.6). His seasonal WARs are pedestrian despite eight ERAs in the 2s because he enjoyed a very low-scoring park (Dodger Stadium) and era (the 70s). I suppose if you squint hard you can see a nice little peak: 1971-1973, 16.6 WAR/3yrs. But as peaks go, it's more hill than mountain, a tick below Bartolo Colon's similar peak (16.7 WAR, 2001-2003). Sutton is basically Colon, a star but non-elite and for only a few years; Sutton just added more post-peak mediocre years than Colon. And if I didn't like stats, my fan memory would be similar. I am just old enough to remember how Sutton was viewed: solid and reliable, like the 1989 Corolla whose impressiveness begins and ends with how it's never required more than routine maintenance in logging 250,000 miles commuting you to and from a civil service job in a file room for 25 years.

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Just six years after Sutton entered the Hall with 81.6% of the vote, Stieb dropped off the Hall ballot almost unanimously (1.6%). Ok: Stieb's 176 wins are far below-par for a Hall starter; his career 57 WAR is better but still a sub-hall compilation. But if the Hall is for folks who at some point really were the best, take a look at Stieb's peak:

Year IP W L ERA WAR A.L. Pitcher WAR
1980 242.2 12 15 3.71 4.9 7th
1981 183.2 11 10 3.19 4.5(6.7)* 3rd
1982 288.1 17 14 3.25 7.7 1st
1983 278 17 12 3.04 7 1st
1984 267 16 8 2.83 7.9 1st
1985 265 14 13 2.48 6.8 1st
*1981 was shortened 1/3 by strike, so 4.5 WAR pro-rates to 6.7 for a full-length season

That's an amazing, Hall-worthy six-year run. Just focus on 1981-1985: 7.2 WAR/yr, with a third-in-league 1981 followed by four straight league-best years, is sustained dominance few of the best ever enjoy. Almost no pitchers single-handedly improve their teams by an average of 7 wins, and dominate contemporary starters, for five years straight – not Sutton, not Mussina, and almost-but-not-quite Bert Blyleven (five-year peak: 7.04 WAR/yr). I remember 1980s Stieb: he's the guy you really feared your team facing – the intimidating opponent Jack Morris's supporters mis-remember him to have been in the 1980s. The Hall is about remembering all-time greats, so I think it should be for guys who were, at their best, actually great. If I took my kids to the Hall and saw a Stieb plaque, I know what I'd tell them: this was the intense guy who muttered creepily to himself on rare occasions when his fastball and hard slider didn't make even my Yankees' best hitters look stupid. But in this universe, unlike in the weird one in my head, Stieb has no plaque; if we saw Sutton's plaque, I'd probably just walk on by, because what would I say – hey, kids, this guy was solid for several years more than most solid pitchers?

But this post isn't about overrated compilers like Sutton or the forgotten greats like Stieb; this was just a setup for evaluating whether, like the nearly 80% voting against Mussina for the Hall may think, Mussina really was just a compiler (like Sutton) whose peak falls far short of the elite level (like Stieb's). Taking Stieb as the "peak-not-career" and Sutton as the "career-not-peak" archetypes, where does Mussina fall? The prevailing peak-value metric is Jay Jaffe's tabulation of "WAR7," a player's seven best years. I stressed Stieb's five-year value not only because that was his stretch of dominance, but because I think that's enough dominance to deserve Hall canonization, and I think five consecutive strong years marks dominance more than seven non-consecutive strong years. But I'm happy to accept WAR7 as the accepted "peak" metric, and here's the company kept by Sutton (a true compiler) and Mussina:

  • Stieb is #60 while Mussina is close behind at #65; both are barely behind Sandy Koufax (#55), sandwich Don Drysdale (#62), and surpass both Tom Glavine (#66) and Nolan Ryan (#71). (They're all that low because of nonsense stats from the 19th to early 20th century pitchers who threw 350-650 innings a year.)

Which brings me to my punch line: while Mussina's career exceeds his peak, his peak value was genuinely strong; it's unfair to view him as a Sutton-esque compiler of a few more Candiotti/Moyer-quality seasons than Candiotti/Moyer. Mussina's peak is on par with plenty of folks we think of as strong peak-value folk: Koufax; Drysdale; Ryan.

So the peak-value argument against Mussina is, at most, that he's no Roger, Randy, or Pedro. But that's not an argument against the Hall of Fame, unless you think the Hall should have only 10-15 pitchers. Unless you want the Hall of Fame to shrink into the Shack of Fame, Mike Mussina is far ahead of any plausible standard, even if like me you value peak value over career value.