Whom Would You Choose? (Again)

Since we had so much fun with Schilling vs. Smoltz, I thought I would keep the good times rolling. Probably the two names that came into the discussion most frequently were Kevin Brown and Mike Mussina.

They’re today’s victims. I really haven’t thought a lot about this duo since the only reason they’re on my radar screen at all is because they’ve pitched against the Blue Jays and Expos from time to time.

And that’s all that really matters. If it doesn’t involve Toronto or Montreal, for the life of me I cannot understand why anybody would care about them.

I’ve never thought about which pitcher is superior or is better qualified for the Hall of Fame, so I have no preconceived notions about either of them and since they haven’t done anything to benefit the universe’s favorite teams, I have no preconceived notion and no favorites. I might be inclined to lean toward Mike Mussina if the Jays knock him around frequently in 2007, but that is then and this is now.

We’ll use the Schilling-Smoltz column as a template since (1) it worked so well last time and (2) I’m just plain lazy and it’s less work doing it this way. So once again, a quick and dirty look at the numbers:

The Stats

Pitcher   W   L   ERA  ERA+ RSAA  IP    BB   K  WHIP
Mussina  239 134 3.63  125  310 3210.1 719 2572 1.18
Brown    211 144 3.28  127  304 3256.1 901 2397 1.22 

Next, the postseason résumés:

Pitcher  W  L  ERA  IP   BB  K  
Mussina  7  8 3.40 135.0 29 142 
Brown    5  5 4.19  81.2 31  71  

Hardware

Awards: Mike Mussina
Five-time All Star
Six-time Gold Glove

Awards: Kevin Brown
Six-time All-Star
1998-NL-TSN Pitcher of the Year

Other points of interest:

Mussina:
Black Ink: Pitching – 14 (Average HOFer ≈ 40)
Gray Ink: Pitching – 230 (Average HOFer ≈ 185)
HOF Standards: Pitching – 48.0 (Average HOFer ≈ 50)
HOF Monitor: Pitching – 109.0 (Likely HOFer > 100)

Brown:
Black Ink: Pitching – 19 (Average HOFer ≈ 40)
Gray Ink: Pitching – 166 (Average HOFer ≈ 185)
HOF Standards: Pitching – 41.0 (Average HOFer ≈ 50)
HOF Monitor: Pitching – 93.0 (Likely HOFer > 100)

Kevin Brown might have been the most underrated pitcher of his time. From the end of the strike through 2003, he had an insane peak. Despite a clunker of a year due to his perennially cranky back in 2002, when he went 3-4, 4.81 ERA in 63.2 IP, Brown was:

Pitcher   W    L   ERA ERA+  IP    BB   K  RSAA
Brown    119  67  2.70 163 1772.1 419 1522  280 

Of course, it’s easy to understand why he was so overlooked. There were three better pitchers statistically over that span and they’re all eventual inner-circle Hall of Famers—Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux. Of interest, only Pedro has a better ERA (minimum 1,700 IP) from 1995-2003 than Brown. Those three are the proud owners of 12 Cy Young Awards. Interestingly 1996, 1998 and 2003 were the only seasons in which one of the three didn’t cop the award, winning nine of a potential 18 crowns.

Mussina’s peak years were 10 seasons from 1992-2001:

Pitcher   W    L   ERA ERA+  IP    BB   K  RSAA
Mussina  160  87  3.52 132 2150.2 488 1697  253

A few notes: While his ERA+ and RSAA aren’t as impressive as Brown’s, Mussina has logged almost 400 more innings pitched. Granted his run is a season longer than Brown’s, but that still leaves almost a full season of 132 ERA+ pitching to take into account. That has huge value. Also, Mussina averaged fewer BB/9 than the stingy Brown, although Brown enjoyed the better K/9 and K/BB of the two. Although Brown clearly had the quality, Mussina had the quantity—and the quantity was very high quality, too.

Not be overlooked is that, barring injury, Mussina will pass Brown in career innings pitched and at age 38 has three or four more seasons to add to his fine totals and might approach 275-280 win territory. The fact is, while rate stats are impressive and tell us how good a player is/was, they don’t necessarily tell us who had the more valuable career. Here are two pitchers with more than 2,500 IP. The first one is a Hall of Famer. The second isn’t:

Pitcher   ERA   ERA+  IP     WHIP  RSAA
Number 1  1.82  145  2964.1  1.00   256
Number 2  3.31  118  4970.0  1.19   344     

Tell any GM/scout that he could have either player for an entire career and both cost the same. Guess which he’ll choose.

Obviously the Hall of Fame isn’t just about career value but rather greatness. One can be great absent a long career; the Hall acknowledges this fact and has waived the minimum 10-full-season requirement on rare occasions in the cases of exceptional yet abbreviated careers. Whether those were wise decisions is a debate for another day. (BTW: the above pitchers are Ed Walsh and Bert Blyleven.)

However, in the case of Mussina vs. Brown, while Brown obviously had the greater peak, who would be more deserving: Mussina with a 120 ERA+/335 RSAA/4,000 IP or Kevin Brown with 127 ERA+/304 RSAA/3,256.1 IP?

I remember Bill James doing a comparison between Don Drysdale and Milt Pappas in “Whatever Happened To The Hall of Fame? The Politics Of Glory” since their careers were so similar. His study was what had more value to a club: a few monster years mixed in with some less-than-stellar seasons or a nice, consistent pattern of very-goodness when overall numbers were about equal in the end. James concluded that the former would result in more pennants and therefore was more valuable. (Iinterestingly, Drysdale’s top two comps are Pappas and Kevin Brown).

Trouble is, their careers are somewhat similar right now, but by the time Mussina retires they most likely won’t be. There’s no comparing the two peaks; Brown was inferior to only three first-ballot inner-circle HOFers. Mussina’s peak had guys like Tom Glavine and Brown ahead of him and Curt Schilling and Kevin Appier in the general neighborhood. Not exactly chopped liver, but Mussina never had seasons like 233 IP/214 ERA+, 257 IP/160 ERA+, 230 IP/167 ERA+ and 211 IP/169 ERA+; Mussina’s sole season over 160 ERA+ came in just 176.1 IP.

Brown simply had more eye-popping seasons than Mussina. Although Brown pitched fewer postseason innings, he was the clear-cut ace of two somewhat-unlikely pennant-winning clubs while Mussina’s two pennants came after he joined a dynasty team. In the seasons in which they copped the pennant, Mussina was 34-19, 3.27 ERA in 443.1 IP while Brown was 34-15, 2.18 ERA in 494.1 IP.

Last week I mentioned an outstanding e-mail I received from Toby Stern. It was too long to post but I’m going to use some excerpts from it now. (Although generally laziness compels me to use others’ digging in these instances, in this case it was simply too good to pass up):

Random additional sympathetic Mussina point from a fanboy: A lot of his great successes have been undermined for one reason or another:

  • His first and third best ERA+ years came in the strike-shortened 1994/1995. He won 16 of his first 24 starts in 1994 and in 1995 won 19, finishing on a ridiculous 3 GS, 27 IP, 1 ER streak. But hey, he never won 20.
  • His second best ERA+ came in 1992, when he led the majors in VORP. That was a Cy-esque season, but also his first full season.
  • His fourth best ERA+ (142) came in 2001, when he won 17 games despite having the 31st-worst run support in the AL.
  • Two of his important 2003 postseason moments are forgotten—saving the Aaron Boone game by pitching three scoreless innings of relief after coming in with first and third, none out, and beating “Yankee Killer” Josh Beckett. Oh, and he would have beaten Carl Pavano in Game 7.
  • In the 2001 ALDS, Moose was tapped for the win-or-go-home Game 3 on the road in Oakland (AKA the “Jeter-Flip-Throw-Game”). Moose pitched seven scoreless to combine with Mo on a 1-0 shutout; i.e., without Moose, there ain’t no flip…
  • Finally, his insane 1997 postseason is completely forgotten. To summarize: He beat Randy Johnson in the ALDS and beat him again on three days rest. That was 14 innings of three-run ball against the league’s best offense. Then, in the ALCS, he completely shut down a great ’97 Cleveland offense to the tune of 15 IP, 1 ER, 25K. In the first game he gave up a cheap run over seven IP and a record 15 K. Not only that, he pitched Game 6, facing elimination, on three days rest, and threw eight scoreless innings of one-hit ball, striking out 10. And no one remembers this. (They will now—JB)

Finally (with an able assist from Mr. Stern) the stretch numbers: Aug. 1-end of season:

Pitcher     W   L  ERA    IP     BB   K
Mussina    74  50 3.20  1086.1  249  944
Brown      65  44 3.06  1040.2  296  785 

As Toby pointed out in his e-mail: “I know this is just a tiebreaker, but it speaks for itself. Fourteen of Mussina’s 23 SHO have come in the stretch.

I think Mussina qualifies as the better pitcher “down the stretch.”

So, do I vote for the insane peak of Kevin Brown or the high overall quality of Mussina’s career?

The fact is Mussina’s career isn’t done yet; he will add to those totals. Leaving that aside, to this point the RSAA and ERA+ numbers are too close to base a judgment on. While Brown has the better peak, Mussina is no “Milt Pappas-to-Kevin Brown’s-Don Drysdale.” Further, Mussina was clearly better “down the stretch.” And their postseason numbers are deceiving—especially with Brown. Bear in mind that Mussina has pitched 50 more postseason innings:

Playoff ERA   LDS  LCS  WS 
Mussina      3.58 3.34 3.00
Brown        0.98 5.65 6.04

The question is this: Has Mike Mussina done enough to overcome Kevin Brown’s incredible peak?

I say yes.

You say…

References & Resources
All stats courtesy of the amazing Baseball-Reference and Lee Sinins’ Complete Baseball Encyclopedia.

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