Mussina's magic number

If the retiring Yankee doesn't make the Hall of Fame, it shouldn't be because he failed to win 300 games.

Published November 21, 2008 12:00PM (EST)

New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina announced his retirement Thursday. The announcement had been expected, so we're already seeing a preview of what five years from now will be a particularly dumb debate about whether he's a Hall of Famer.

A reasonable and interesting debate could be staged about whether Mussina deserves to go to Cooperstown. In Mussina's favor would be his sustained excellence and the various statistical indications that he's very much in the class of Hall of Famers such as Don Sutton, Gaylord Perry and Early Wynn.

Working against him would be his lack of a dominant peak and the argument that guys like Don Sutton really shouldn't be Hall of Famers, which is pretty much the same argument. A better way to put it: The Hall of Fame is getting too big. It's meant to honor the great, not the very good.

Much as I hate to say nice things about a Stanford guy, I think Mussina's a Hall of Famer, but I understand and respect those arguments. But the real argument against Mussina going to Cooperstown is going to be dumber than that. It's going to be about how he didn't win 300 games.

Oh, people will talk about the lack of the dominant peak. They might even talk about how Don Sutton doesn't belong. But they wouldn't be saying any of it if Mussina had just won 300 games instead of 270. They'd be talking about how he's a sure-fire Hall of Famer, kind of like how people have talked about Tom Glavine -- a pitcher very much in Mussina's class -- since he won his 300th/

I know what you're going to say. You're going to point out that Don Sutton won 310 games and people still say he doesn't belong in the Hall. Actually, he won 324 but I get your point.

But the anti-Sutton crowd likes to point out that he pitched for 324 years. Whole centuries went by with Sutton only winning five or six games. Anybody can win 324 games if they just hang on long enough. This is a dumb argument too -- short version: You have to be really, really good to hang on that long -- but we're digressing about Don Sutton here.

Sutton's usually an exception to the 300 wins-as-automatic argument, which is the argument that's kept Bert Blyleven out of the Hall of Fame. Blyleven, pitching mostly for lousy teams, won 287 games. In every other way, he was a Hall of Famer, but he's been stiffed so far, mostly because his teammates didn't score enough runs.

The argument that 300 wins shouldn't be a disqualifier for Mussina is different than the one for Blyleven. Mussina, unlike Blyleven, pitched for a lot of good teams. He was on a division winner, a wild-card team and an 89-win third-place team in Baltimore, and while he never played for a World Series winner in New York, he did pitch on seven straight division champs and a wild-card winner.

But he also spent his entire career in the era of the five-man rotation, unlike everyone else mentioned so far. He lost seven or eight starts a year compared to the men who were asked to pitch every fourth day. We could argue about how pitchers today are a bunch of wimps or whatever, but Mussina had no control over how pitching staffs were deployed during his career. He was a horse. From his age 26 through his age 34 seasons, he threw at least 200 innings every year.

Mussina got his 270 wins in 536 starts, meaning he got a W in 50.4 percent of them. Sutton got 321 wins -- he won three as a reliever -- in 756 starts, which was 42.4 percent. Tom Seaver, who pitched on a lot of bad teams and a few good ones, got 310 wins in 647 starts, 47.9 percent. Perry won 44.2 percent of his starts.

If Mussina had won at the same rate in Seaver's 647 starts, he'd have retired with 326 wins. That would have tied him with Eddie Plank for 13th all time, and not only would no one have suggested he didn't belong in the Hall, no one would have dismissed the gaudy win total because he played on a lot of winners. With Sutton's 756 starts -- including the one during the Battle of Bunker Hill -- Mussina would have won 381, more than anyone but Cy Young and Walter Johnson.

Of course, pitching every fourth day, he might have blown out his arm in 1992 and retired with 11 wins. We're talking about silly stuff here.

But so is talking about 300 wins. Today's starters only get the ball a little more than 80 percent as often as yesterday's. Yeah, they have better medical care and aren't asked to complete games anymore, but they also have to face real hitters from the top to the bottom of opposing lineups, which was not true in earlier eras.

If 300 wins used to be your magic Hall of Fame number, you need to lower it. I'm not a big fan of magic numbers but I'd go with something like 250, though that would put Jamie Moyer four wins from immortality, which doesn't feel right.

It would get Mussina in, though. And Blyleven, who was even better.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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