Billy Wagner Belongs In Baseball’s Hall Of Fame (And So Does Mike Mussina)

1. Billy The Kid

There’s no doubt that Trevor Hoffman is a Hall of Famer. His case is beyond solid. Even for a reliever, especially where counting stats are concerned. His career makes the disrespect closers get seem more and more unreasonable, particularly those who pitched in the 90s. 601 saves, 856 games finished over 18+ years, and an 88.8% saves percentage, more than anyone not named Mariano Rivera (652 saves). Hoffman had four years with at least 40 saves—twice, and a total of nine 40+ saves seasons over his career. 2.87 ERA (141 ERA+) over 1089.1 innings. 1.06 WHIP and 9.4 K/9 (strikeouts per 9 innings.)

Trevor Hoffman also had the most dominating change-up in the modern era of closers. Ask Randy Johnson.

However, if Hoffman is Hall of Fame worthy, then Billy Wagner should be as well.

Wagner trails Hoffman in all the counting stats that matter. 422 saves over 703 games finished and 903.0 innings. However, his rate stats over 16+ years are comparable if not better. 2.31 ERA (187 ERA+). .998 WHIP and and 11.9 K/9. And a 85.9% saves percentage. Wagner also has a comparable WAR (27.7) to Hoffman’s 28.0 and more strikeouts (1196 vs. 1133.)

Of the six closers now in the Hall of Fame, Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, and Goose Gossage were starters at some point in their careers. Pitching lots of innings helped their ascendance to The Hall as closers.

Bruce Sutter was the first modern closer as we know the role and has lots of cultural cache as the pioneer of the split-fingered fastball. As a kid watching as Vin Scully called games in the 80s, I watched him make batters look silly with that thing. Still, the worthy closers before Hoffman don’t give us a good blueprint for what a Hall of Fame closer should look like. In that way Hoffman is the first “postmodern” reliever to join the Hall of Fame. By “postmodern” I mean not only a pitcher who preserves leads at the end of games, but also a pure “closer” who locks down the end of games in a dominating way, particularly when facing the real thumpers of 90s-era baseball.

The idea that closers don’t belong in the Hall of Fame is on life support. There’s a good chance that Mariano Rivera will be elected unanimously in 2019. (Not even Cal Ripken was.) The greatest closer ever entering the Hall will cement just what a closer is (namely, a postmodern one), which will make it easier to elect Billy Wagner before he runs out of chances.

2. Moose

At first glance the case for Mike Mussina seems thin. No Cy Young Awards. Only one 20-win season—in his final year. Supposedly wasn’t a true strikeout pitcher (though he has 7.1 K/9 and only missed 3000 Ks by less than 200 strikeouts), and therefore wasn’t dominant in the average fan’s understanding of dominance. Rather, “Moose” was more in the Greg Maddux mold—smart, cagey, lots of movement on an arsenal of pitches, including a devastating knuckle-curve he could throw in any count. Truly a power/control pitcher with a better control rating (strikeouts divided by walks) of 3.58 K/BB than Maddux’s 3.37. Maddux dominated his decade along with Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson and makes a good case for being the best pitcher of that era.

Nevertheless, Mussina still has a Hall of Fame worthy resume:

“With no starting pitchers with even borderline credentials reaching the ballot until 2019, when Roy Halladay and Andy Pettitte become eligible, Mussina (and Schilling) have one more year in the ballot spotlight alongside Clemens, whose connection to performance-enhancing drugs has put him in a different limbo. Like Blyleven, a high-strikeout pitcher from an earlier era whose dominance over hitters and excellence in run prevention was initially overshadowed by his lack of Cy Young hardware, the numbers and the facts are on Mussina’s side. Soon enough, they’ll carry the day.”

“Mike Mussina Won’t Get Into the Hall of Fame in 2018, but he’s Building Toward Election” | Sports Illustrated | Jay Jaffe | 12/05/2017

Mussina has 270 wins (more than Jack Morris, inducted this year), a 3.68 ERA (123 ERA+), 2818 strikeouts, and a 1.192 WHIP over an 18+ year career. From Wikipedia:

“The only other pitchers to match Mussina’s 17 seasons of 10 or more victories are Ted Lyons, Tom Glavine, Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro, Walter Johnson, Greg Maddux, Warren Spahn, Cy Young, Don Sutton, Tom Seaver, Tommy John and Steve Carlton; all are Hall of Famers, except Tommy John. Of the 23 eligible pitchers who have at least 265 wins and an ERA of 3.69 or less, 20 are in the Hall of Fame, although if Mussina was elected, his ERA would be third highest ahead of Bobby Wallace, who was a full-time pitcher for just two seasons, and Red Ruffing. Mussina’s consistency is often overshadowed by the dominant peaks of contemporaries like Pedro Martínez and Randy Johnson.”

Mussina’s relatively high ERA may be explained by a whole career in the American League East (Orioles and Yankees), perhaps the most hitter dominated division in a very hitter dominated era.

And the 90s were a crucible for pitchers. Newer ballparks were smaller and had stingier foul territories. The strike zone was the size of a license plate. Two rounds of expansion drafts diluted talent (particularly pitchers.) What followed was more power hitting, as well as more 300 strikeout seasons by elite pitchers. (Stephen J. Gould theorized that the increased variance between the best and the worst players made these extraordinary feats more likely.) The “Colorado Effect” made a superstar of Larry Walker but was harsh on pitchers who had to survive at high altitude. Baseballs were allegedly juiced. And so were the hitters—allegedly.

However, ERA+ puts the era in which Mussina pitched in a more proper context. When adjusted, Mussina’s career ERA+ compares with Nolan Ryan’s.

The case for Mike Mussina’s place in the Hall is about consistency, comparables to other Hall of Fame pitchers, and excellence in an era of hitter dominance.

Sadly, Roy Halladay died last year. Andy Pettitte will be on the 2019 ballot. Mike Mussina, with more career wins, strikeouts, strikeouts per nine innings, a lower career ERA+ and WHIP than Pettitte, still has a window. It’s time for Hall of Fame voters to pull him through.

@ProjectDex0

IMAGE SOURCE: By Alex Kim from NYC, US (Wagner pitches…) [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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