Mike Mussina won’t make the Hall of Fame for the fourth straight year. He’s trending in the right direction, and he probably won’t need a champion like Bert Blyleven did, but he’s still not a shoo-in. Mussina fans should have another year or four of biting their nails.
Curt Schilling won’t make the Hall of Fame for the fifth straight year. He’s trending in the wrong direction, and finding him a champion will be, uh, problematic. He’s not a shoo-in, not at all. Schilling fans should have five years of biting their nails, sitting around the kitchen table, and wondering why voters are being so mean to their dad.
It’s possible to find explanations for these omissions from clearheaded, logic-imbibing writers who aren’t voting for them. Andrew Baggarly found eerie similarities in the unadjusted counting stats of Curt Schilling and Mickey Lolich, for example. These aren’t the arguments that I would make, but they aren’t unreasonable arguments. They start with a premise of “X makes for a good starting pitcher,” and finish with, “and Schilling and/or Mussina don’t have enough X,” which is fair enough. We just disagree on what X stands for.
I would like to point something out, however. I am not the first person to point this out, and I won’t be the last. It’s something I’ve railed on in previous articles, but it deserves to be a standalone article with a thesis in bold, oversized font. Here goes:
It’s absolutely ludicrous for voters to dismiss hitters from the Steroid Era without giving pitchers like Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina extra credit.
The argument against, say, Rafael Palmeiro is that his 500 home runs and 3,000 hits didn’t mean as much because they came in the Steroid Era. The drugs allowed him to get stronger, which helped his peak numbers. They allowed him to stay healthier and recover quicker, which helped his career numbers. Not all of his peers were willing to take those drugs because of valid health and ethical concerns, which gave him a definable advantage.
These are valid arguments against a hitter. And considering there were dozens, if not hundreds, of hitters willing to take performance-enhancing drugs, it’s worth being skeptical about all of the offensive statistics. It was an offense-heavy era, and logic dictates that PEDs probably had a lot to do with it.
The problem is that almost no one is pointing out the obvious corollary. If it isn’t right to vote in every hitter with gaudy statistics because he played in an artificial, high-offense era, why wouldn’t you give the pitchers of that era extra credit?
There’s no precise start to the Steroid Era, just like there’s no precise end, but I think it’s safe to wall off a period that stretches from the Bash Brothers to the Mitchell Report, just to have a finite era to discuss. Here are the pitchers who accumulated the most WAR in the 21 seasons from 1987 through 2007:
- Roger Clemens (126 WAR)
- Greg Maddux (104)
- Randy Johnson (101)
- Pedro Martinez (86)
- Curt Schilling (81)
- Mike Mussina (78)
- Tom Glavine (74)
- Kevin Brown (68)
- John Smoltz (66)
- David Cone (62)
In the middle of the Steroid Era, here were the dominant pitchers. Clemens isn’t in the Hall of Fame because he defines the era, at least when it comes to pitchers. After that, though, the pitchers who were voted in didn’t have to deal with the same kind of blanket suspicion that Jeff Bagwell has dealt with. Maddux is in because he looks like your dad, and the only PEDs your dad takes are a couple of cold ones and a good night’s sleep, ha ha. Johnson is in because he’s unusually tall, and unusually tall people would never need PEDs. Martinez is in because he’s on the small side for pitchers, and small players don’t take PEDs. Glavine is in because he didn’t throw hard, and pitchers who don’t throw hard don’t take PEDs. I can’t think of a snarky reason for Smoltz to sneak in, other than he was part of a matching set.
Right in the middle of the elite pitchers, we have Schilling and Mussina. They don’t get the blanket suspicion, either, but they don’t get the everyman credit that Maddux, Martinez, and Glavine get, either. They thrived in an era with ludicrous offensive numbers, but it’s far, far too easy to forget that. When Mussina won 19 games in 1996 and finished fifth in Cy Young voting, his ERA was 4.81, which looks ugly to modern eyes. Except in the American League East in ‘96, that was a pretty decent season, comparable to numbers put up by Jimmy Key, Kenny Rogers, Dwight Gooden, Scott Erickson, David Wells, and Tim Wakefield, all pitchers who were widely credited at the time for helping their teams win. That’s how tough the AL, and specifically the AL East, was at the turn of the millennium.
That was one of Mussina’s very worst seasons. In the middle of the Steroid Era, his worst year was slightly above-average and helpful. In his best years, he was much, much better than that. Yet he gets very little credit from the same voters who want to flush every last hitting record from that era.
This all applies to Schilling, too, who succeeded with an ability to miss bats that was absolutely freakish for the era. Hitters were bigger and stronger, and the strikeout stigma for hitters hadn’t completely crumbled, and here was a command maven with an absurd fastball and devastating splitter, making them all miss anyway. He wasn’t indestructible and missed parts of several seasons, which hurts him, but for eight or nine years, he was clearly one of the best pitchers in baseball, without question.
We don’t have time to get into Kevin Brown and David Cone falling off the first ballot, but if you want me to throw a shoe through my front window in disgust and anger, I can do that. I have it in me.
What Mussina and Schilling are showing is the silliness of the Steroid Era vote. Were there just five great starting pitchers in that two-decade stretch, three of whom pitched primarily for the same team? That seems unlikely. Here, then, are two pitchers who were excellent year after year, who were recognized as such, who pitched better and lasted longer than almost all of their peers, and who did it all when ballparks were lively and hitters were unfathomably large.
Give them the extra credit of proper context, then. Give Mussina and Schilling the bonus points they deserve. They weren’t as great as Johnson, Maddux, or Martinez because no one really was. Those are three inner-circle magicians. But they were as good as Glavine and Smoltz, and they did it all when it was as hard to pitch in the major leagues as it was in just about any era in baseball history. It’s time for voters to figure that out.