One of the great things about being an Orioles fan in this new era for the team is that as each new year begins, you can really believe that there are a lot of exciting things that could happen. The sky is the limit for the team on the field.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame, the same cannot be said. There will be little there to excite O's fans when the results are released later on Tuesday. Mike Mussina is one of the greatest pitchers of his era, but he got short shrift for recognition as such while he played and now those same writers who ignored his greatness before get to pass the judgment against him in Hall of Fame voting as well.
Darren Viola of the Baseball Think Factory keeps a tabulation of all of the publicly-released Hall of Fame votes prior to the wide release of the results. In his update on Monday night, he had 181 ballots included in his tally, over 30% of last year's vote total. Mussina sits at only 34.8% of the vote, well short of the 75% needed to be enshrined in Cooperstown. Mussina was named on 20.3% of ballots last year, but his support was drastically lower among non-public ballots last year. That will probably be the case again.
The voters consist of ten-year members of the Baseball Writers Association of America who choose to submit ballots. Not all are still baseball writers; recent years have seen articles from not one but three golf writers posting their Hall of Fame ballots. Some institutions prevent their employees from voting. The Baltimore Sun is one of the newspapers to do so.
I wrote about Mussina's strong Hall of Fame case last year. Nothing has changed, including, unfortunately, the limit of 10 players per ballot. As with last year, Mussina's case is not helped by the fact that his star looks more dim when placed next to some other legendary pitchers.
Last year, he had to play third banana to the likes of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, no doubter great pitchers. This year, joining the ballot were Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, and John Smoltz, all of whom figure to waltz right in. Guys like Martinez and Johnson were indeed just on another level. Why Mussina doesn't get his due in the second tier with pitchers like Glavine and Smoltz is one of those mysteries of life.
Glavine and Smoltz had great careers, for sure, but they look much better because they spent so long in the spotlight with Maddux. Mussina did not have the good fortune of being on the receiving end of this kind of reinforcing positive narrative for his career, toiling away on some bad Orioles teams and being dumped on by his bullpen even when he led the staff on a good Orioles team.
Consider the most recent World Series champions, the Giants, who had Madison Bumgarner put them on his back and drag them to a title. Mussina was in the process of doing this in the 1997 postseason until the Orioles bullpen failed him completely. He missed that chance at postseason glory, but it wasn't his fault.
Later in his career, once he was on the Yankees, Mussina shared time on a staff with a should-be Hall of Famer in Roger Clemens, who will miss out on election for reasons entirely unrelated to the numbers on the back of his baseball card. Unlike the trio of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz, this proximity did not benefit Mussina, even once he'd shifted to baseball's largest market.
Indeed, Mussina came in fifth place in the 2001 AL Cy Young despite being hands down the league's best pitcher. The winner that year was his Yankee teammate Clemens, though Mussina led him in ERA, WHIP, and innings pitched.
This is the kind of stuff that dogs Mussina. It's not that he wasn't great or Hall of Fame worthy in his career, but rather that the only people whose opinions matter refused to see it even when it was right in front of their eyes.
In writing about this for last year's election, I pointed out all of the ways that Mussina's career compares favorably, or even is better than, Glavine's. That's not to take anything away from Glavine, who had an amazing career. The point is that if he's a slam dunk Hall of Famer, so should be Mussina. The same is true if you take a look at Mussina's career compared to Smoltz.
Much like Glavine, Smoltz is helped by the fact that he was on the Braves in the 1990s. He was part of their success, for sure, but he was not the biggest reason they succeeded by any stretch. Mussina, well, he was on the Orioles.
From 1992-2000, the years where Mussina pitched a full season for the O's, the team had a record of 725-665 and made the playoffs twice with one division win. Smoltz pitched 1992-99 with the Braves and missed 2000 with an injury; in those same years the Braves went 861-531 and won the division in eight of the nine years. For all of that they won the World Series once. On average, those Braves teams won 15 more games per year than did the Orioles for Mussina's O's career - his prime years.
Everybody looks better when they play on good teams all of the time. Mussina did not get the benefit of that narrative for the bulk of his best seasons.
In Smoltz's first 12 seasons in the league, which was every year before that 2000 injury season, he pitched to a 3.35 ERA over 2,414.1 innings while striking out 2,098 batters. He won 157 games in that time, which isn't the sort of thing that matters to you or I but it does matter to the writers. The first 12 years of Mussina's career, he had a 3.54 ERA over 2,454 innings, with 1,931 strikeouts. He won even more games than Smoltz, notching 182 wins.
When you consider that Smoltz recorded his ERA while facing National League lineups, there's no way that the prime of his career looks so much better than Mussina's does, unless you just aren't paying attention.
Comparing the full careers, Smoltz edges Mussina in ERA, finishing at 3.33 to Mussina's 3.68. However, four of those years for Smoltz were years he spent in relief, so while Smoltz's 1.12 ERA and 45 saves in 2003 were nice, they don't tell us much about who was the better starting pitcher in his career. Again considering the league difference, the only way that Mussina's career numbers don't look equal to or better than those of Smoltz is if you haven't looked at all.
None of this is to say that Smoltz is not a deserving Hall of Famer. He is. He sits at 86.7% of the votes recorded in Viola's tally and he looks to get inducted in his very first year. There is no doubt that he has earned the honor. But if Smoltz is cruising in, why is Mussina languishing down on the ballot for the second straight year?
The good news for Mussina supporters is that after this year, the picture should look brighter than it has in his first two years. The writers look to be inducting four candidates this year after jamming up the ballot with a lack of action in recent years. The likely inductees are Johnson, Martinez, Smoltz, and Craig Biggio. It's possible that Mike Piazza will be elected as well, though the silent voting bloc that torpedoes anyone they think is connected to PEDs will probably end up sending him below the election threshold.
To the extent that a problem for Mussina is that he might be the 11th choice on many writers' ballots when they're limited to 10, clearing four names ahead of him is huge. Mussina has the 11th-highest vote total on Viola's tally. The only guaranteed Hall of Famer joining the ballot next year is Ken Griffey Jr.
More importantly, three of Mussina's starting pitcher peers will be cleared out ahead of him, so if we give the electorate credit in assuming they will consider his case anew (some will, some won't), he shines brighter when he's competing against fewer of his fellow greats. The other holdover starters are Clemens and Curt Schilling.
It won't be this year that Orioles fans get to have a personal stake in the Cooperstown festivities, but the next Orioles Hall of Fame player is certainly on the ballot. The only question is when the gatekeepers get around to noticing that he's there. Maybe next year.