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Entries in Mike Mussina (2)

Tuesday
Jan072014

Mike Mussina: King of the Called Third Strike

Mike Mussina seems like the type of pitcher whose brilliance may get lost in the translation between traditional, back-of-the-baseball-card stats and sabermetrics. He falls thirty wins shy of the revered 300 club, and his career ERA (3.68) is way above that of the average Hall of Fame inductee (2.96). Some voters will take a cursory look at Mussina's candidacy and dismiss him as a good, but hardly dominant pitcher. Former Hall of Fame research associate and Cooperstown swami Bill Deane projects that Mussina will receive just seven percent of the vote -- precariously close to the five percent minimum required to stay on the ballot the following year.

But Mussina's bubble gum card stats ignore context -- the long-time Oriole and Yankee pitched in a high-scoring era, against lineups filled with sluggers in the cut-throat AL East division. Once you adjust for park factors and the go-go run-scoring environment of the 90s and early 2000s, Mussina easily clears the bar for enshrinement. His adjusted ERA is 23 percent above average, which ranks 13th all-time among starting pitchers logging at least 3,500 innings pitched. With 82.7 career Wins Above Replacement, Moose trumps the average Hall of Famer (69 WAR) and resides in the same neighborhood as Fergie Jenkins (82.7 WAR) and Bob Gibson (81.9 WAR).

Mussina managed to vanquish AL East hitters up until the end, recording one of his finest seasons in 2008 at age 39. He topped 200 innings and had a 131 ERA+, good for sixth among AL starters. Talk about finishing strong -- Mussina had the highest WAR total (5.2) among starters during his final major league season this side of Sandy Koufax (who had to retire at 30 due to a bum elbow) and Win Mercer (who committed suicide at age 28).

Highest WAR totals for SP in last MLB season

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

So, how did Mussina turn in arguably the finest season ever for a pitcher voluntarily calling it quits? He was the best in the game at freezing hitters in two-strike counts. Moose got the most strikeouts looking in the majors in 2008:

Called third strike leaders among starters, 2008

Mussina got the vast majority of those looking Ks with his fastball (36) and slider (20), and most of them (56 percent) came on pitches thrown just outside of the rule book-defined strike zone:

Location of Mussina's called third strikes, 2008

Hopefully, Hall of Fame voters study Mussina's pitching as thoroughly as these batters did. This guy deserves a plaque in Cooperstown.

Monday
Jan062014

How to Dominate With Mid-80's Heat, By Greg Maddux

In this polarized age of Hall of Fame voting, when debates center on how to evaluate stars associated with PEDS and whether the limit of ten players per ballot should be abolished, one man unites the masses: Greg Maddux. Newly eligible for Cooperstown, Maddux is expected to soar past the 75 percent threshold for induction and perhaps even challenge Tom Seaver's record vote percentage of 98.84, established in 1992.

It's easy to see why Mad Dog will achieve baseball's highest honor. He was durable, eclipsing 5,000 innings pitched during his 23-year career, and dominant, posting the tenth-best park-and-league-adjusted ERA (32 percent above average) among starting pitchers (minimum 3,000 frames). There's also his record 18 Gold Gloves, the product of a silky-smooth delivery that left him square to the batter and surprising athleticism for guy who looks more like a CPA than an MLB legend.

Maddux was still schooling hitters at the end of his career in 2008, despite possessing raw stuff that wouldn't have landed him so much as a minor league deal. He had no fastball to speak of, throwing the pitch at an average speed (84.3 MPH) that bested only Jamie Moyer (80.9 MPH) among qualified starters. Just about nobody swung through Maddux's "heat," as his whiff rate (7.1 percent) was barely half of the league average (14 percent). Yet, Maddux got elite results with an ultra-slow pitch that elicited scads of contact. Among qualified starters, only Ryan Dempster and Daisuke Matsuzaka had a lower opponent slugging percentage on fastballs thrown:

Lowest opponent slugging percentage on fastballs, 2008

 

How did Maddux do it? The then-42-year-old triumphed over the radar gun by stealing strikes on pitches thrown just outside of the strike zone, avoiding the fat part of the plate, and generating bushels of ground balls.

Stealing Strikes

Maddux was the dean of expanding hitters' strike zones. In '08, he had the highest called strike rate (42.8 percent) among National League starters and trailed only another deserving, though much less acclaimed, Hall of Famer in Mike Mussina (43.8 percent) among all pitchers. Maddux was especially adept at getting called strikes on borderline pitches. Check out his called strike rate on pitches thrown outside of the strike zone, compared to the league average:

Maddux's called strike rate on fastballs thrown outside of the strike zone, 2008

League average called strike rate on fastballs thrown outside of the strike zone, 2008

Overall, pitchers got called strikes 13.1 percent of the time they threw something off the plate in 2008. But Maddux? He got a called strike 20 percent of the time, ranking behind only Livan Hernandez (21.7 percent) and Jake Peavy (20.5 percent). If there's one saving grace in being a soft-tosser, it's that umps tend to give you more calls compared to power pitchers.

Avoiding hitters' wheelhouse

Everyone knows that Maddux threw a ton of strikes -- you don't compile the best career strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.37) this side of Mussina, Cy Young and Curt Schilling by nibbling. But Maddux threw quality strikes as well, painting the corners and rarely missing his spots. Take a look at his fastball pitch location against lefties and righties in '08:

Maddux's fastball location vs. left-handed hitters, 2008

 

Maddux's fastball location vs. right-handed hitters, 2008

For Maddux, it was all about avoiding the center of the plate. He threw fewer pitches to the horizontal middle of the strike zone (21.2 percent) than the average starter (23.3 percent), instead living on the outside corner against lefties and righties alike. Maddux tossed the fifth-highest rate of fastballs to the outside corner (60.6 percent) among all starters. That kind of command is the difference between getting clobbered (hitters slugged .500 that year against fastballs thrown down the middle) and entering Cooperstown (they slugged .355 versus fastballs thrown away).

Burning worms

Mad Dog knows that chicks dig the long ball, but he was notoriously stingy in giving them up. He surrendered just 0.6 home runs per nine innings pitched, second-lowest among starters who have logged 3,000+ innings since his big league debut in 1986 (Kevin Brown is first, at 0.57 HR/9). During his swan song season, Maddux still ranked in the top ten among starters in fastball ground ball rate:

Highest ground ball rate on fastballs, 2008

Maddux is a prime example of why so many former Little League and high school players, eventually forced out of the lineup, still love the game. He wasn't big. He didn't throw hard. He had crappy vision and wore the biggest glasses this side of Harry Caray before eventually undergoing LASIK surgery. He was like us. Or, at least it felt that way. Appearance and stuff aside, Maddux is in a class all his own when it comes to outwitting hitters.