Pinch hitting: Erik Didriksen • 01.30.15
Today’s Pinch Hitter is Erik Didriksen, a 26-year-old from northeastern New Jersey, now living in Astoria, N.Y. (“with my wonderful girlfriend of six years,” he wrote, trying to win brownie points). Erik works for NBC as a software developer by day, and he writes Pop Sonnets at night. He described himself as three things: a musician, a proud uncle, and a trivia buff. He got into the Yankees because of his father, and he has been “blessed with the good fortune to attend fifteen games a year with him for the last decade.” Among those games: the last walk-off and the last game at the old Yankee Stadium, and all three postseason walk-offs in the new Yankee Stadium.
For his post, Erik is writing about one of many borderline Hall of Famers who’s likely to keep generating a lot of annual discussion when ballots are released.
Mike Mussina stood on the mound and looked in for the sign. He’d retired 26 Red Sox in order and had pinch-hitter Carl Everett down to a 1-2 count. Everett was just 1-for-9 with seven strikeouts against Mussina – four strikeouts, all swinging, had come in a single game three months prior. Mussina elected to stick with the same game plan: get ahead in the count, then go to the high fastball.
The pitch came in on the black and at the letters, right at the corner of the strike zone, enough to freeze a batter but still get the call. Everett did not freeze, though. He swung, looping the ball into left-center field. Just like that, the perfect game was gone.
Bad luck was nothing new for Mussina. September 2, 2001 was the fourth one-hitter of his career, and not only had he just lost a perfect game, the score was 1-0: the tying run was now on base. He was pitching the season of his life in front of the fifth-best offense in the league, yet somehow was given the third-worst run support in the league. In a few short weeks, he would end the season with 214 strikeouts (second to Hideo Nomo), a 3.15 ERA (second to Freddy Garcia), and a glowing 1.067 WHIP (second to Mark Buehrle) … to place fifth in the Cy Young voting.
What separated that pitch from all of the other disappointments, though, was that Mussina controlled the situation. He could never make the diving outfield catch, slug a home run, or cast a Cy Young vote. All he could do was pitch. And with a perfect game on the line, he did what a truly great pitcher would do – he made the perfect pitch.
The perfect result, and the glory that might have come with it, simply did not follow.
That’s the story of Mike Mussina. Despite a long career of consistent dominance, he is without a Cy Young award, a World Series ring, or a plaque in Cooperstown. For now, he appears on just under a quarter of the Cooperstown ballots, while peers like Tom Glavine have been inducted on their first ballot.
Yet the differences between Mussina’s and Glavine’s stat lines are astounding. Glavine allowed more hits per inning than Mussina. For every nine innings pitched, Glavine walked an extra batter and struck out two fewer. Glavine’s strikeout-to-walk ratio is less than half of Mussina’s.
In all the rates you could compare between them, Glavine bests Mussina only in ERA: 3.54 to 3.68. Even then, it’s hard to compare their ERAs when they pitched in such different leagues. Mussina squared off against designated hitters in the height of the steroid era; Glavine faced pitchers who squared up to bunt. The numbers confirm the narrative. In every season of Glavine’s 22-year career, the National League’s overall ERA was lower than the American League’s by an average of a third of a run. In 1996, the year before interleague play began, the National League’s average ERA was 4.18. The American League’s was a whopping 5.00.
If we account for these differences and measure each pitcher against their competition we find Glavine’s career ERA was 18 percent better than league average while Mussina’s was 23 percent better. Even in ERA, Mussina grades out as the better pitcher.
Career rates aren’t everything, though. Season-to-season dominance is important in making a true Hall of Famer. Glavine led the league in wins five times while Mussina only led his league in wins once. But if you expand your criteria ever so slightly, the playing field suddenly looks even. Glavine finished top-five in the league in wins eight times; Mussina managed the same feat in seven season. Glavine posted a top-five finish in ERA five times; Mussina did it seven (if we expanded it to top-six instead, it’d be five to ten.) Glavine posted a top-five finish in strikeouts once; Mussina did it six times. Glavine finished top-five in WHIP once. Mussina? Ten.
In his best showing, Glavine was eighth in the NL for strikeout-to-walk ratio. Mussina was top-five in the American League thirteen times. Yet when they both were up for election for the first time in 2014, Mussina barely made 20 percent of the ballots while Glavine was inducted with a startling 91.9% of the vote. When all of the numbers point to Moose as the better pitcher, what could possibly push Glavine so far ahead of him?
Marty Noble will tell you the answer: the voters aren’t looking at the numbers. Instead, they’re looking for the archetype of the Hall of Fame Pitcher™. Glavine reached the magical 300-win benchmark while Mussina “only” won 270 – in four fewer seasons. Is Glavine a first-ballot Hall of Famer simply on longevity? He retired when a shoulder injury and a slowly growing ERA forced him to. Mussina, on the other hand, chose to go out on top, retiring after a season with 20 wins and an ERA well above average. It’s not a stretch to imagine a team signing him into his 40s and allowing him to pad his résumé.
While 300 wins has long been the yardstick of the Hall of Fame, the importance of the pitching win in the post-Moneyball era is pretty much nil. It’s not as if the BBWAA doesn’t recognize this: Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young Award in 2010 with a 13-12 record. So if they no longer believe wins tell us who had the best season, why are they still using wins to tell us who had the best career?
Furthermore, they’re compounding the problem by focusing on the awards they gave based on the same outdated criteria. Arguably the biggest difference between Glavine and Mussina’s résumés are Cy Young Awards: Glavine has two to Mussina’s zero. But Felix’s sabermetrically-sound win in 2010 eerily echoes Mussina’s 2001 fifth-place finish. Felix led the league with 7.1 WAR while Clay Buchholz was a distant second, mustering 5.6.
In 2001, Mussina led the league with 7.1 WAR; Roger Clemens ranked second in the league with 5.6. Clemens, however, won the Cy Young on the strength of a 21-3 record. This despite Mussina’s otherwise superior statistics – ERA, WHIP, IP, K, H/9, HR/9, BB/9, K/BB, you name it. The discrepancy in win-loss record came down to run support: the Yankees scored two more runs per game for Clemens than Mussina. Does that make Mussina an inferior pitcher or Clemens a superior one?
The voters in 2010 wouldn’t think so – but in 2001, success was still spelled out in wins.
Glavine’s Cy Youngs were awarded the same way. Granted, he still would’ve won his first Cy by any standards. Not only did he reach 20 wins, he finished almost three wins ahead of second place on the WAR leaderboard. His 1998 campaign, on the other hand, likely would’ve ended differently. Though Glavine led the league in wins, the Padres’ Kevin Brown led the league with 8.6 WAR, almost two wins above the second-place finisher, Al Leiter. Glavine trailed Greg Maddux and Curt Schilling for fifth in the NL.
Perhaps regular season success is not enough to make a Hall of Fame career. Maybe postseason success is what separates the two. Glavine has a ring; Mussina does not. Glavine is a World Series MVP, earned on the strength of a one-hit, eight-inning gem against the Cleveland Indians in the decisive Game 6 of the 1995 World Series.
But postseason glory is like wins: you get nothing unless your team cooperates. Two years after Glavine’s gem, Mussina also hurled an eight-inning playoff one-hitter against the Indians. The difference – other than the ’97 Indians being the better offensive team – is that Baltimore couldn’t score behind him. Mussina took a no-decision in an eleven-inning, 1-0 game that ended the ALCS. Had the Orioles scored even one run behind Moose that series (he also pitched a seven-inning three-hitter in Game 3, another extra-innings loss) his 1997 postseason might’ve been the stuff of legend. He was eliminated from the playoffs with 29 IP, 41 K, a sterling 1.24 ERA, and two Division Series wins against Hall of Famer Randy Johnson.
Even when Mussina’s team won on the strength of his clutch performance, it was overshadowed. No one remembers that Mussina held the Oakland A’s scoreless for seven innings in an elimination game. People only remember Derek Jeter’s flip.
No one remembers Mussina pitching in relief for the first time in his career to bail out Clemens. The Rocket gave up four runs, leaving Mussina with runners on the corners and no outs. Moose stopped the bleeding, pitching three clean frames to give the Yankees a fighting chance. But no one thinks about that when they remember the image of Aaron Boone depositing a knuckleball into the left-field seats.
But even if you do believe a Hall of Fame starter ought to bring his team a ring, how do you explain the Hall of Fame trio of Glavine, Smoltz, and Maddux earning just one together? Even if you believe the Cy Youngs matter, is the gulf between Glavine and Mussina so wide that one’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer while the other can’t crack a quarter of the ballots?
Hasn’t Mike Mussina been unlucky enough?
Associated Press photo
When the Yankees decided shifted their offseason focus to the bullpen, it was with games like this in mind. Tied after seven innings, the Yankees were able to role out Joba Chamberlain, Rafael Soriano and Mariano Rivera through the seventh, eighth and ninth. Not one of them allowed a base runner.
“I know my job,” Soriano said. “I know what I have to do.”
The Yankees have seen Chamberlain and Rivera in the past, and although both are always popular topics of discussion, the day was especially significant for Soriano who faced the heart of the Tigers order in an impressive Yankees debut.
Soriano said afterward that he sought out a meeting with Brian Cashman this spring. Friends back home had told Soriano that Cashman didn’t want him on the team, obviously reacting to Cashman’s comments that he wanted the Yankees to focus their spending elsewhere. They met in Cashman’s office, and Soriano said he left that meeting with a better understanding of the situation, confident that the general manager believed in him.
Today he earned that confidence by retiring Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Ryan Raburn.
“It was different (pitching the eighth),” Soriano said. “But when I signed I knew it would be different.”
• One last Soriano note: He said he usually went to the bullpen in the sixth inning last year. This year, he’s been picking Rivera’s brain, and when Rivera said he was heading to the bullpen in the fifth, Soriano went with him. There was no way Soriano was going to leave later than Mo.
• Speaking of Rivera: Why did he go with the high socks? “I just wanted to do it like that,” he said. Fair enough, Mo. Fair enough.
• Curtis Granderson said he wasn’t sure he would be allowed to play today until he talked to Cashman at around 4 p.m. yesterday. Less than 24 hours later he was in center field.
• As for his home run against a left-hander, Granderson said that’s connected to the changes he made last season. “When I got (the moving parts) all aligned, it didn’t matter if it was a lefty or a righty,” he said. “It was just always a little issue of getting everything in the right spot. What Kevin Long and myself decided to do was, hey, lets eliminate some of those things. This is where we want to be, let’s go ahead and get you right there.”
• Russell Martin on Granderson’s catch in the ninth: “That’s an incredible read off the bat,” Martin said. “He might be the only guy who can catch that ball.”
• Speaking of Martin, he joked that he’s on pace for 162 stolen bases this season. Truth is, when he’s been healthy, Martin has run quite a bit for a catcher. He stole 21 bases in 2007, and 18 in 2008. “I like to pick my times,” Martin said. “We’ll see, if my legs stay healthy, I’ll try to get as many as I can.”
• For Brett Gardner, there’s really no such thing as a straight sacrifice bunt. Today he laid down two sac bunts, and although I’m usually on board with the idea that most bunts are a bad idea, I think it’s a little different when the guy bunting has a chance to turn every good bunt into a single. “He’s bunting for base hits there,” Joe Girardi said.
• Why Joba Chamberlain in the seventh inning and not Dave Robertson? “My gut told me to go to Joba,” Girardi said.
• Martin said the cold and wind had an impact on CC Sabathia’s offspeed stuff, but as Girardi said, the Yankees will take six innings, two earned runs every time. “He said he didn’t have any problem (with the weather),” Martin said. “But my hand was freezing.”
• Building on his strong spring training, Alex Rodriguez had a sharp double and two walks. Off the bat, I was positive — positive! — the double was a home run.
• The Yankees are now 63-45-1 all time on Opening Day. They are 35-14-1 at home and 28-31 on the road.
• According to Elias, the Yankees have started the exact same infield and outfield on consecutive Opening Days for the first time since 1926-27 (1B Gehrig, 2B Lazzeri, SS Koenig, 3B Dugan, LF Meusel, CF Combs and RF Ruth).
• Today was the Yankees first ever home game in March. “I’ve been petitioning the league to start in March for years now,” Mark Teixeira said. “Finally they let us start in March because everyone knows about my Aprils.”
Associated Press photos of Rivera, Rodriguez and Mike Mussina