Mike Mussina and Bob Caruthers

Mike Mussina retired last week.  Mussina finished his career with a 270-153 record and a 3.68 ERA, pitching his entire career in the American League for two teams, the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees.  He won 20 games this past season, the first (and as it turns out, only) time in his career he reached the 20-win milestone.

There has been considerable discussion in the press about whether or not Mussina deserves to be in baseball’s Hall of Fame.  In an article by Tyler Kepner of The New York Times, several writers interviewed by Kepner expressed reservations about voting for Mussina, mostly because he wasn’t perceived as a dominant pitcher.  One of them, Dom Amore of The Hartford Courant, stated that while he hadn’t ruled out voting for Mussina, “his candidacy would be based on longevity, and longevity candidates need 300.”

This is probably the typical line of reasoning behind people not supporting Mussina’s candidacy, but there is a problem with it, namely that Mussina isn’t strictly a “longevity candidate”.  Rather, he is a different sort of peak candidate.  He never had a big-win season or won an ERA title, but he was really good almost every season, and as a result posted a career .638 winning percentage, which is extremely impressive.  Sometimes you hear longevity-type Hall of Fame candidates dismissively referred to as “compilers”.  A pItcher with a career winning percentage of .638 is definitely not a compiler.  As pointed out in the article, the only pitchers with as many wins as Mussina and a better winning percentage are his former teammate Roger Clemens and four immortals of the distant past: Lefty Grove, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson.

Of course, all of them were demonstrably better than Mussina, with longer careers, but it speaks to the unusually successful nature of his career.  Wins aren’t everything, obviously, and are often overrated, particularly in individual seasons, but over a long career wins generally give you a good idea of the value of a pitcher.

Even if you dispute that, there is no arguing that wins and winning percentage are key considerations for most writers who have a Hall of Fame vote.  That leads me to this point:  Mussina, by the Hall’s own standards, is a no-questions-asked Hall of Famer.  He is 113 games over .500 in his career as a pitcher.  That’s a very large win-loss differential, and every Hall-eligible pitcher who has finished his career at least 100 games over .500 has a plaque in Cooperstown.  Every pitcher except one, that is.  The lone exception, the man on the outside looking in, is Bob Caruthers, who had a career win-loss record of 218-99.

Caruthers debuted with the St. Louis Browns of the American Association late in the 1884 season, after starting his pro career with Grand Rapids, a minor league club in the Northwestern League.  He was only 5’7″ and weighed less than 140 pounds, but the 20-year-old Caruthers impressed his new team immediately, appearing in 13 games with 7 starts and compiling a 7-2 record (125 ERA+).  St. Louis finished fourth that season, but thanks to Caruthers and teammate Dave Foutz, the Browns would dominate the AA in 1885, winning the pennant by 16 games.  Caruthers went 40-13 (158 ERA+), pitching 482 innings.  He started and completed all 53 games he pitched.  He led the league in wins, ERA, shutouts, and winning percentage.

During the winter he held out for more money.  Caruthers had traveled to Europe, and did his negotiating from Paris via telegraph.  That aspect of the contract dispute led to his nickname, “Parisian Bob”.  Caruthers eventually returned and led the Browns to another pennant, with a 30-14 record and 148 ERA+ in 387 innings.  Caruthers led the league in winning percentage and was second in ERA.  He was more than just a pitcher, though — a lot more.  That season, Caruthers played 43 games in the outfield when he wasn’t pitching (and also made two cameo appearances at second base).  He batted .334 (with a .448 OBP) and a .527 slugging percentage.  That added up to an OPS+ of 200.  Caruthers led the league in OBP, OPS, and OPS+, was second in slugging, and was fourth in batting average.

Caruthers missed three weeks of the 1887 season with malaria, but still managed a 29-9 record with an ERA+ of 138 (341 innings), leading the league in winning percentage.  As a batter, he continued to shine, batting .363 with a .453 OBP and a slugging percentage of .547, playing 54 games in the outfield and 7 games at first base when he wasn’t pitching.  Caruthers finished third in OPS, OPS+, and OBP, and fifth in batting.  The Browns won their third consecutive pennant.

The Browns lost a postseason exhibition series to the NL’s Detroit Wolverines, which angered eccentric (I’m being kind here) St. Louis owner Chris Von der Ahe.  He accused the players of playing too hard off the field, and sold the contracts of those he considered blame-worthy.  One of those players was Caruthers (a known cardsharp and an excellent pool player).  Caruthers went to Brooklyn with Foutz and catcher Doc Bushong for $18,500.

Brief digression Number One:  Bushong was a dentist as well as a catcher, and is credited by some sources as the inventor of the catcher’s mitt.  Bushong was an alumnus of Penn who never let anyone forget that dentistry was his longterm career path, not baseball.

In 1888 Caruthers went 29-15 for Brooklyn (128 ERA+), pitching 391 innings.  Caruthers also played 54 games in the outfield, but his batting declined substantially, with a .230 batting average (still an OPS+ of 111, though).  Brooklyn finished second in the AA, as St. Louis managed to hang on for its fourth straight pennant.

The next season, Caruthers would win 40 games for the second time in his career.  His 40-11 record wasn’t quite as impressive as his sensational 1885 season.  In 1889 his ERA+ was only 112, although that was in 445 innings.  He finished in the top three in the league in WHIP for a fifth consecutive season.  He led the AA in wins, winning percentage, and shutouts.  Caruthers rarely played the outfield this season, although his hitting was still quite respectable (OPS+ of 126).

Brief  (okay, maybe not so brief ) Digression Number Two:  The pennant race in 1889 would be a memorable one.  Brooklyn had to play all its games on the road for a month after its home grandstand burned to the ground, but recovered to catch St. Louis in the standings in August.  A crucial two-game series at home in early September against the Browns would turn into a farce.

In the first game, St. Louis led 4-2 in the eighth, with darkness approaching.  Von der Ahe set up a row of lighted candles in front of the visitors bench in an effort to intimidate the umpire into calling the game for darkness, which would have given the Browns the victory.  The umpire refused to take the bait, and the game continued even after Brooklyn fans threw beer at the candles and started a small fire.  The Browns refused to take the field for the ninth inning, and the game was forfeited to Brooklyn.  In protest, Von der Ahe also would not allow his team to play the next day.

After considerable deliberation, the AA president decided to call the two-game series a split, with the first game awarded to the Browns (because of darkness) and the second to Brooklyn (because of forfeit).  Brooklyn would eventually win the pennant by two games, but in part because of the club’s unhappiness over how the situation was handled by the league office, Brooklyn resigned from the AA after the season and joined the National League.

In his first year in the NL, Caruthers went 23-11 in 300 innings (112 ERA+).  He would finish in the top 10 in wins, winning percentage, and WHIP.  Caruthers also played 39 games in the outfield.  His batting average for the season was .265, with a high OBP (.397) and an OPS+ of 114.  Brooklyn would win the pennant in its first season in its new league.

Caruthers would slip to 18-14 in 1891, although his pitching statistics were very similar to the year before, with the exception of WHIP (which rose noticeably).  Caruthers only played 17 games in the outfield, although his batting improved from the 1890 season (.281 BA and an OPS+ of 120).  Brooklyn would collapse to sixth in the standings, 25 1/2 games out of first.

Caruthers returned to St. Louis (which had by then joined the NL) in 1892, but he could no longer pitch effectively.  His pitching career ended ignomiously, with a 2-10 record.  However, Caruthers could still hit, and he wound up playing 122 games in the outfield.  He compiled an OPS+ of 120 in over 600 PAs.

Caruthers would finish his major league career in 1893 with one appearance for Chicago and thirteen for Cincinnati, all in the outfield.  He would play a few more years in the minors, and also umpired in the American League for two seasons.  Caruthers died at age 47 in 1911 after a long illness (at least one source suggests he had a nervous breakdown).

The three main arguments against Caruthers’ candidacy for the Hall of Fame are 1)  his career length, 2)  the fact he played most of his career in the American Association, which while designated a major league (in retrospect) is generally considered to have been inferior to the National League, and 3) he won a lot of games because his teams were a lot better than their competition.  Of the three arguments, I think the third is weakest, partly because Caruthers wasn’t just winning those games as a pitcher – he was helping his team at the plate, too.  I’m not going to say he was Babe Ruth before there was a Babe Ruth, but he was a remarkable two-way player.  His value to his club was enormous.

He did have a short career, but so did Addie Joss, and Dizzy Dean, and Sandy Koufax (no, I’m not saying he was as good as Koufax).  None of them could hit like him, either.

What is held against Caruthers the most, though, is the level of play in the American Association.  It’s a legitimate point (as is noting the shortness of his career), but if Caruthers is not a Hall of Famer because most of his career was in the AA, then why is the AA considered a major league?  Also, his rate stats from 1889 (when he pitched in the American Association) and 1890 (when he pitched for the same team, but in the National League) are very similar.  The difference is that he only pitched 300 innings instead of 445, which is a significant difference to be sure, but it seems obvious to me that by 1890 he was already on the downside of his career (even though he was only 26 years old).  I suspect that he would have been dominant in the NL in his early years, probably to a similar degree as he was in actuality in the AA.

I’m not saying that Caruthers definitely should be in the Hall, but he is certainly a serious candidate, right on the border.  The main thing held against him is the quality of his competition.  Mike Mussina, on the other hand, pitched his entire career in the AL East.  Nobody’s going to argue about the level of his competition.  Given that, and the history of the Hall voters when considering pitchers with similar numbers, there shouldn’t be any question that Mussina will be (and by the Hall’s own standards, should be) enshrined shortly after he becomes eligible for election.

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