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Saturday, August 23, 2008
Moose moving closer to upstate New York

By Jonah Keri
Special to ESPN.com

Everyone from stat-literate writers like Rob Neyer to members of the blogosphere to the mainstream media agrees: If Mike Mussina wins four more games this season, he's punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame.

This unanimous sentiment comes with Mussina sitting on 16 wins. If Moose can get to 20 wins in a season for the first time in his career, the thought goes, it will legitimize all of his other accomplishments and make up for all the near-misses that, for some, have defined his career. Unfortunately for Mussina, he drew a no-decision against the Orioles on Friday night. That leaves him with just seven more starts this season, many of those coming against tough opponents. There's a very real chance that Mussina will get to 18 or 19 wins this season, only to fall short of the magic number 20 yet again.

Mike Mussina
Mussina, 39, is tied for second in the AL in wins (16) and ranks 12th in ERA (3.45). He has issued only 21 walks in 27 starts.
All of which raises one question: Why should we care?

Mussina deserves to be a Hall of Famer, even if he never wins 20 games in a season, or 300 in his career for that matter.

If you insist on using wins as a barometer, you could argue that only six pitchers in major league history have as many wins as Mussina, with a higher winning percentage: Hall of Famers Lefty Grove, Christy Mathewson, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Jim Palmer, and Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson, two of the 10 best pitchers of all time. If you're into fancier analysis, you could point to the Gray Ink, Hall of Fame Standards and Hall of Fame Monitor tests, all of which show Mussina with more than enough credentials to surpass the average player already enshrined in Cooperstown.

But the argument over Mussina's candidacy based on his (in)ability to win 20 games in a season raises a bigger issue: Baseball's media and fans (mostly the media) butcher the numbers in their attempts to evaluate a player's accomplishments, or his overall worth.

You can break down the most common misuses of numbers into five kinds of problems:

1. The context problem

Most commonly used baseball numbers are nearly meaningless unless you know the context in which they were achieved. For instance, a 40-home run season in San Diego is far more impressive than a 40-homer campaign in Colorado. Likewise, a catcher who hits 20 homers a year can become a Hall of Famer; a first baseman who hits 20 homers a year is barely doing his job. A pitcher who accumulates a ton of saves is probably benefiting, above all, from playing on a team that gives him lots of save chances. A 20-win season requires a lot of help from a pitcher's teammates; it's probably not happening without ample run support from the offense, defensive support from the eight other players on the field and support from a strong bullpen.

Even the biggest Luddites have some inkling that different ballparks affect offense in different ways, that a closer needs opportunities to rack up saves, that the position a player plays matters in assessing his value, and that using wins to evaluate a pitcher's performance means relying heavily on the contributions of his teammates. But somehow when it comes time to vote for awards or for the Hall of Fame, or to simply have an intelligent discussion about a player's ability, these points often get lost.

2. The time frame problem

When it comes to evaluating a player's numbers, 2008 is not 1988, and neither of those years is anything like 1968. Take the argument that a pitcher needs to win 20 games in a season, and/or 300 in a career, to be Hall-worthy. Those benchmarks are much more difficult to reach in today's game than they were in generations past.

For instance, Don Sutton started his career in 1966. In that era, pitchers toiled in four-man rotations, meaning 40-start seasons were not uncommon. The strike zone was much bigger and most lineups featured multiple banjo hitters, with middle infielders more closely resembling Mark Belanger than Chase Utley. That, in turn, meant that a starting pitcher could go deeper into each game. More starts and more innings per start, with a strike zone almost twice as big and a wide array of Punch 'n' Judy hitters striding to the plate. Is it any wonder that 20-win seasons were so much more common in Sutton's time than they are now, or that a player with Sutton's good-but-not-great talent level could win 324 games, while better pitchers in today's game often fall well short of the 300 mark?

In breaking down the Hall of Fame chances of a player from the current era, you have to take time frame into account. Insisting that a pitcher win 300 games in his career to be a Hall candidate is being excessively demanding. On the flip side, hitting 500 career homers in today's game shouldn't warrant automatic Cooperstown induction, given how many hitters have turned the trick in the past decade or two. To give you an idea of how much the game has changed, consider that the following players from the past 20 years have finished or should finish with more than 600 home runs: Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez, with Albert Pujols a good bet at his current production rate, too. Before this era, only three players in major league history had ever hit 600 homers.

3. The Base 10 problem

Baseball writers constantly overstate the importance of multiples of 10, obsessing over 20 wins in a season, or 300 wins, 500 homers or 3,000 hits in a career -- as if 19, 299, 499 or 2,999 are vastly inferior totals. Maybe it's tough to blame them, considering that we all do this in our everyday lives. That's why cars will sell for $19,999 and books for $19.99: It's ridiculous to think that a buck less than $20,000 or a penny less than 20 bucks should make a difference to a shopper's psychology, but it does.

Mussina won 19 games two years in a row, in 1995 and 1996. Yet somehow the impact of those seasons is diminished because he couldn't get to a multiple of 10. It's doubly ridiculous when you combine the Base 10 problem with the context problem. On Sept. 28, 1996, Mussina threw eight terrific innings against the Blue Jays, allowing just four hits, two walks and one run, while striking out nine. Armando Benitez entered the game in the ninth and promptly squandered the Orioles' one-run lead. Baltimore went on to win the game 3-2 in 10 innings. But because of Benitez's lousy performance, Mussina didn't get the win -- the one that would have been his 20th of the year.

Really? Mussina doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame because of Armando Benitez?

4. The aesthetics problem

It's easy to hold a strong bias against strikeouts. When a hitter whiffs, it brings up all the bad memories of our Little League failures, when we couldn't even make contact against the Danny Almontes who made us look foolish at the plate. Strikeouts just look bad, at all levels of the game. A hitter who strikes out a lot, then, tends to be rough on the eyes. We can only conclude that such a player isn't a good hitter.

Once you get past the ugly aesthetics, though, strikeouts aren't nearly as damaging as they might appear. Study after study on the topic of strikeouts shows that they're virtually the same as any other out. Sure, you can't advance a runner the way you can with a well-placed groundout or flyout. But you can't hit into a double play, either.

Still, when we see Adam Dunn strike out 190 times in a season and hit below .240, it's easy to get irrational and conclude that he's not a good hitter or a valuable offensive player, and the Diamondbacks didn't help themselves much in trading for him this summer.

Here's the thing: Dunn's actually one of the most valuable offensive players in the game. Has been for years. In fact, Dunn has an excellent chance to bag his fifth straight season of 40 homers and 100 walks. Only one other player in the history of the game has accomplished that feat. His name is Barry Bonds.

5. The underrated problem

Dunn gets nicked by this problem too. Even though "Moneyball" sold a zillion copies, even though announcers praise lineups that wear down opposing pitchers by going deep into counts and drawing walks, and even though you can now find on-base percentage on virtually every major league scoreboard, we rarely hear talk of the walks leaderboard, or to steal from the Base 10 playbook, how Player X is on pace for his first (or in Dunn's case, his sixth) 100-walk season.

The walk isn't the only stat that is underappreciated by the masses. Both Ian Kinsler (before his injury) and Brian Roberts rank among the most productive offensive players in the American League this season. But neither player has gotten much in the way of MVP love. Much of that is due to Kinsler and Roberts having lousy teammates, depressing the records of the Rangers and Orioles, respectively, and making them MVP afterthoughts (another ridiculous premise, but we'll save that for another time). But another factor working against the two second basemen is the area of the game in which they excel. Roberts and Kinsler rank 1-2 in the AL in doubles, Roberts with 45, Kinsler with 41. But other than the usual early-season noise that makes people mention some guy named Earl Webb, who talks about doubles? Triple Crown stats still get most of the attention, leaving the valuable contributions of great players like Kinsler and Roberts in the dust -- unfairly so.

As much progress as we've made as fans, and as much as the baseball media have improved their understanding of the game in the "Moneyball" era, we still have a long way to go. Forget VORP, FIP, WPA and UZR. Learning how to interpret the most basic stats will go a long way toward improving our understanding of the game.

Then maybe seven or eight years from now, we can all drive to upstate New York to see the Moose take his rightful place among the game's immortals.

Jonah Keri is a regular contributor to Page 2 and the editor and co-author of "Baseball Between the Numbers." You can contact him here.