by Chris Kubak
On the 1/4/18 edition of his MLB Network show “High Heat,” Chris “Mad Dog” Russo spent a good portion of the program discussing the Hall of Fame credentials of several players featured on this year’s BBWAA ballot. While he championed the merits of a few, most notably Edgar Martinez, he mostly used the platform to deride many of the candidates as merely being “very good” and having no place in Cooperstown. One of the focal points of this discussion was Mike Mussina, a guy Russo argued was merely ‘very good’ and not stacking up to the likes of the great pitchers, citing Tom Glavine as an example of the type of pitcher who does belong. I could not help but to be curious with the fact that Russo chose to use Glavine as a tool to illustrate Mussina’s Hall of Fame shortcomings, so I thought it would be a fun exercise to stack them up against each other to see how the two pitchers compare from both a traditional and sabermetric point of view.
It’s true that Glavine does have a lot more hardware and black ink to show for his 22 seasons as a starting pitcher. Five times he led the league in wins, which also represents all five of his 20-win seasons. Six times he led the National League in games started, including a stretch from 1999-2002 where he accomplished the feat four years in a row. He was awarded two Cy Young Awards (1991 and 1998), finished in the top-5 in Cy Young voting another four times, was a 10-time All Star, and of course won a World Series Championship (and World Series MVP award) with the 1995 Braves. He was known for being crafty (as most successful lefty starters are), for mixing locations and for limiting damage as much as a starting pitcher could during the 90s…a feat considering that for the first nine full seasons of his career he pitched in a ballpark lovingly referred to as the “Launching Pad.”
Mussina burst on to the scene in 1991 as a 22-year who was not far removed from Stanford University. He only made 28 Minor League starts before landing in Baltimore, and in short order became the number one starter on a Baltimore team that would be a perennial contender through the mid to later 1990s. He led the league in wins only once (1995), and led in games started on two occasions (including his final age-39 season in 2008). While he never won a Cy Young Award, he finished in the top-6 in voting nine times, and also earned seven Gold Gloves along the way. Billy Ripken, speaking on MLB Network, said that playing behind Mussina he was struck by the way he could consistently get you out with three different pitches inside the strike zone.
When you compare them side-by-side, at first glance you might think that Glavine has the upper hand on Mussina. After all, the awards, the 305 victories, and the lower ERA do speak volumes on their own. But the deeper you look, the more interesting the argument becomes. On his show, Russo argued that Mussina only had six Hall of Fame-caliber seasons, suggesting that figure pales in comparison to Glavine’s. But when you compare the fWAR for both players, Mussina turned in four years with 6+ WAR, and another six seasons of 5+. Based on fWAR, Glavine only had TWO seasons total where he turned in more than 5 WAR, one of them being his Cy Young campaign of 1991. In total for their careers, Glavine recorded an fWAR total of 66.9, whereas Mussina totaled 82.2. When you bring bWAR into play (which uses ERA, in contrast to fWAR which uses FIP), the numbers are closer but Mussina still manages to edge Glavine for his career. This is all despite the fact that Mussina pitched in 145 less games and tallied 850 less innings in his career than Glavine.
Another facet of Russo's arguments suggested that Mussina’s 3.68 ERA was too inflated to be considered Cooperstown worthy. While I would not describe Glavine’s 3.54 ERA as being significantly lower, it is an improvement. But this argument becomes murky when you compare the two pitchers career FIP totals (fielding-independent pitching), which measures a pitchers effectiveness at limiting HR, BB, and HBP, and at causing K’s. Mussina registered a FIP of 3.57 for his career, an improvement on his ERA by 0.11 runs; by comparison Glavine’s career FIP equals 3.95, an increase over his ERA by 0.41 runs.
So Mussina’s FIP is 0.38 Runs/9-innings better than Glavine’s for his career, which is magnified even more when you consider that Mussina pitched in a much harsher environment than Glavine did over the course of his career. According to Baseball Reference, Glavine’s career RA9 (Runs Allowed Per 9 Innings, including unearned runs) was 3.87. BBRef also estimates that an average pitcher, given the same defense and parks, would have a career RA9avg of 4.64, making the difference between Glavine and an average pitcher as 0.77 runs/game. Mussina meanwhile, pitching in the AL East his entire career, posted a RA9 of 3.94 vs a RA9avg of 5.16. This makes the difference between Mussina and an average pitcher in the same conditions as being 1.22 runs/game. Comparing the rest of their statistics, Mussina comes out on top more often than Glavine does. Mussina has the edge in K’s, BB’s, K/9, BB/9, WHIP, H/9, ERA+, BAA, OBA, or on the Fangraphs side ERA- and FIP-, and the further down the list you go the more Russo’s argument quickly begins to fall apart.
Stacking the numbers up against each other, the argument almost becomes unfair. By no means am I questioning Tom Glavine's enshrinement, nor should anybody. Tom Glavine was a tremendous pitcher for a long time during one of the toughest eras for starting pitchers in baseball history. However, if you are going to use Glavine as a Hall of Fame standard, you find that pitchers like Mike Mussina more than measure up. It strengthens the argument that Mussina was not just one of the premier frontline starters of the 90s and early 2000s, but that he deserves to have his likeness engraved in bronze in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown.
Spanning an entire continent, lifelong fans Chris Kubak and Tom Baird take you on a magical, sabermetrically enhanced journey through Major League Baseball.