Jack Morris, Mike Mussina and the Hall of Fame

Because of the BBWAA's failure to vote many players into the Hall of Fame in recent years, including none last year, this year's Hall of Fame Ballot has well over ten candidates who have solid to excellent Hall of Fame credentials. Some, like Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire, will lose support because of their connection to PEDs, others like Jeff Bagwell because of rumored connections to PEDs. At least one, Greg Maddux, should be a resounding first ballot selection, but other first time candidates, notably Maddux's longtime teammate Tom Glavine, also clearly deserve enshrinement in Cooperstown.

This year, due to the quality of players on the ballot, the question of which players get less than 5 percent of the vote and fall off the ballot is almost as interesting as who will get elected. It is very possible that players with clear Hall of Fame credentials will not meet this 5 percent threshold and thus not get future consideration by the BBWAA. In this regard former Orioles and Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina is one of the most interesting candidates. He is not as well known as many of the other players on the ballot, but his career numbers compare favorably to many Hall of Famers. Mussina falling off the ballot is a real possibility, but is made more notable by the likelihood that an inferior pitcher, Jack Morris will be elected.

By most measures, Mussina was clearly a better pitcher than Morris. Mussina pitched slightly fewer innings, 3,562 to Morris's 3,824, but had a significantly better ERA+ 123 to 105 while accumulating almost 40 more WAR than Morris, 82.7 to 43.8. Conventional statistics provide further evidence of Mussina being the better pitcher. Despite pitching in a higher offense era, Mussina's ERA was 0.22 lower than that of Morris. Mussina also struck out more than 300 more batters than Morris despite pitching in fewer innings. Importantly, given Morris's reputation for pitching to the score and knowing how to win, Mussina had 16 more wins and a .638 winning percentage to Morris's .577. Morris, of course, is now best known for his extraordinary pitching performance in game seven of the 1991 World Series, for which he deserves full recognition. However, it should be noted that Mussina pitched more post-season innings with a lower ERA than Morris.

Morris is one of the most controversial players on the ballot whose candidacy has become the project of the faction of baseball writers opposed to advanced statistical analysis of the game. His candidacy is no longer just about what Morris did on the field, but it is about how the voter views the game itself. Morris is probably more famous for being the surrogate for those who believe in things like grit and pitching to the score than for being the ace of the Detroit Tigers for much of the 1980s. This is Morris's last year on the ballot so there will very likely be an uptick in support for him that will ensure his election.

The question of whether or not Morris belongs in the Hall of Fame has been debated ad nauseam; and there his little to add. Nonetheless, the possible contrasting fates of Mussina and Morris are hard to ignore. Ironically the two pitchers are similar in many respects. Both AL righties were very good for a long time, but rarely in the conversation for best pitcher in baseball. They both had the good fortune to play for strong teams thus bolstering their win loss record. However, Morris was clearly an inferior pitcher to Mussina so electing him to make a point while pushing Mussina off the ballot would be evidence of a process that has gone very wrong.

Neither Morris nor Mussina were viewed as likely Hall of Famers when they were playing. Morris's strongest credential came towards the end of his long career, while Mussina was overshadowed by better AL pitchers like Pedro Martinez or Roger Clemens as well as more famous pitching teammates like Clemens, Mariano Rivera and Randy Johnson. Mussina is also, along with Don Mattingly, the rare great Yankee who never played on a World Series winner. Only when his career is viewed as a whole does it become clear that Mussina was a great, not just good player.

Despite being the fifth best starting pitcher on the ballot, Morris's election to the Hall of Fame seems inevitable this year. He will join other questionable choices from his era like Jim Rice and Andre Dawson in Cooperstown, but his election will not be the worst mistake the BBWAA has made, nor will it be the last one. Morris's election will be a lot more palatable if all four of the superior starting pitchers, Maddux, Glavine, Mussina and Curt Schilling go in as well, but that is very unlikely. However, if Morris goes in and Mussina is forced to wait for the veteran's committee after only one year on the ballot, the mistake will be much worse.