Two exciting things happened for the Orioles during the 2018-19 offseason, with the first being the hiring Mike Elias as the team’s executive vice president and general manager in November. The second, however, had no impact on the future success of the franchise but was a win for fans nonetheless: Former right-handed pitcher Mike Mussina, in his sixth year on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. It never should have taken six years … but better late than never.
During Mussina’s career (1991-2008), the list of pitchers who were better and more reliable was short. Drafted in 1990 and promoted to the Orioles in August 1991, he never pitched fewer than 152 innings in any of the following 17 seasons. He never won a Cy Young, but he did finish second in 1999 and in the top five six times.
Mussina finished with an ERA Minus above 100 just four times, and only once was his ERA Minus above 102. ERA Minus is a league- and park-adjusted version of ERA in which 100 is league average and the lower the number, the better. He also never finished with a FIP Minus above 93. FIP Minus is like ERA Minus, but it’s based on FIP — Fielding Independent Pitching — which attempts to estimate a pitcher’s ERA by focusing on strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches and home runs allowed. He also never completed a full season below 2.6 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs.
Between 1990 and 2010, Mussina’s 81.2 fWAR places him fifth out of 490 qualified starters. Only four starters threw more innings. Just six accumulated more strikeouts. Among the 47 pitchers who threw at least 2,000 innings during that span, his ERA Minus of 82 is tied for 13th best on a list that includes some of the game’s all-time great starters, including Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Roy Halladay, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and John Smoltz. His FIP Minus of 79 is 10th.
It doesn’t take a Hall of Fame induction to recognize that Mussina’s rightful place among his peers is secure, but nonetheless, it’s still a notable achievement. And yet, his standing looks even more absurd when compared to just Orioles starting pitchers. Mussina accumulated 46.7 fWAR with the Orioles from 1991-2000. Baltimore’s next closest starting pitcher dating back to 1990 is Scott Erickson at 18.8.
It’s even more comical when looking at all Orioles starters since 2000. During that time frame, the fWAR leader is Erik Bedard at 15.4. Just two Orioles — Bedard and Sidney Ponson (13.7) — surpass the 10-fWAR mark. And despite pitching just one season during this period of time — in 2000 before he joined the New York Yankees — Mussina (6.4) ranks ninth. That’s all it took to make the top 10. From 2001-2018, without the benefit of having Mussina around, Orioles starters ranked last in the majors in fWAR, ERA, FIP and innings pitched.
Throughout Orioles history, there’s Jim Palmer (56.6 fWAR) and Mussina, and then there’s everybody else. After 2000, Mussina went on to pitch another eight seasons in New York — and he did very well, racking up another 34.5 fWAR.
Disappointment in free agency is part of the territory when it comes to Orioles fandom, but losing Mussina to the Yankees was particularly brutal. The Yankees offered Mussina two things the Orioles didn’t — more money and a chance to win — and he jumped at the offer and left Baltimore.
No one could truly blame Mussina’s rationale for leaving, though they could, and still do, blame majority owner Peter Angelos. It didn’t help that, as reported by Joe Strauss of The Baltimore Sun, Angelos said of Mussina’s departure: “I don’t believe people come out to watch individual performances. Baseball is a team game; it’s not an individual star game.” A statement like that packs a lot less punch considering the pitching staffs the Orioles have put together since Mussina left town.
While the Orioles continue to search for the next Mussina — or even someone in the same vicinity of his ability — he’ll enter the Hall of Fame in July, and the hat on his plaque will not include a team logo. While some Orioles fans were disappointed in the decision, it doesn’t take anything away from his excellent career and how much fun it was to watch him pitch.
It also doesn’t make his knuckle-curveballs dance any less in retrospect, nor does it make his pitching delivery any less picture-perfect.
“You try to give kids a Mike Mussina wind-up,” Jim Palmer once told Tyler Kepner of The New York Times, “so they never get hurt, they throw the ball over the plate, everybody likes them and they like what they’re doing.”
And it doesn’t take away the joy — and anguish — of watching him come tantalizingly close to throwing multiple perfect games.
Fans can only dream that the Orioles develop another starting pitcher who can find even half as much success as Mussina did. If they do, maybe they’ll keep him around this time.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles
Issue 255: June/July 2019