This morning, I watched the MLB network show with Harold Reynold’s and Matt Vasgersian while folding laundry. Fortunately, I wasn’t near any sharp objects when Vasgersian started going off on how he disagrees with the sabermatrician community when “they” suggest in hall of fame discussions that Mike Mussina is a better pitcher than John Smoltz. Vasgersian started spouting off (1) that Smoltz was a more versatile pitcher than Mussina because he took one for the team when he went to the bullpen to become the Braves closer and (2) that he played injured. Those things are intangibles that count, he said. They make a difference, he shouted. Harold, off to the side, nodded happily in agreement and Ken Rosenthal chimed in with his “me too.”
Logic seems to have taken a hiatus among this threesome when it comes to Smoltz and the HOF.
Smoltz Had Relief Versatility:
The argument that Smoltz took one for the team when he stepped into the closer role is not really an argument, it’s a straw man. Mike Mussina, apparently, was never asked to close by the Orioles or the Yankees. Does that make him lesser of a pitcher, lesser of a team player, and thus filled with fewer intangibles? Is Vasgersian suggesting that Mussina didn’t have the “it” factor to close? I call bullshit on that.
Mike Mussina never recorded a save during the regular season, made only one regular season relief appearance in his entire career, and made only two relief appearances in his playoff appearances. One of those playoff relief appearances is one I’d rank up there as a top clutch performance. I should know, I sat through it groaning the entire time.
It was game seven of the ALDS, Yankees v. Sox. Mussina took over for Roger Clemens in the top of the fourth after Roger gave up a lead off homer to Kevin Millar to put the Sox up 4-0 and then walked Nixon and gave up a single to Bill Mueller. The Sox were rolling and there was glee in Beantown, the Yankees were going down! It was not to be for Mussina came in and shut the door. Mussina single handedly saved the day and set the stage for Grady Little to blunder away the lead by leaving Pedro in too long. In that key fourth inning when the gam could have been put out of reach, Mussina struck out Varitek and induced a double play grounder from Damon to close the floodgates. He pitched another two innings and it was enough to keep the Sox at bay and allow the Yankees the chance to mount a comeback.
Mussina just wasn’t a team player and didn’t display the versatility of John Smoltz – previous line dripping with sarcasm.
Do Vasgersian and Rosenthal really think that Mussina couldn’t have been a closer? I am of the opinion that any great starter, and I’d put Mussina in that category, can pitch in relief. There was just no opportunity for him to pitch in relief. His team didn’t need him to fill that role. In New York, the Yankees had Rivera. In Baltimore, the O’s had squadouche in the rotation and the bullpen. Here is what Mussina had around him in Baltimore and note from 1998 to 2000 the Orioles finished 4th in the AL East:
- 2000: no closer of note in part because most starters outside of Mussina had ERA’s north of 5.
- 1999: Mike Timlin, 27 Saves, 3.57 ERA
- 1998: Armando Benitez, 22 Saves, 3.82 ERA
- 1997: Randy Myers, 45 Saves, 1.51 ERA
- 1996: Randy Myers 31 Saves, 3.53 ERA
It certainly appears that Smoltz became a reliever because he sucked as a starter after he returned from Tommy John Surgery. Smoltz started off 2001 as a starter and bombed. He made five starts from May 17 to June 9. In those starts he had a 5.76 ERA and was not the pitcher he had been. The Braves put him in the bullpen and he didn’t make an appearance as a reliever until July 22. Clearly, he hadn’t yet recovered from the Tommy John surgery and the Braves let him build some arm strength. Smoltz did not take over the closer role until August 15, after the Braves traded the mercurial John Rocker to the Indians for Steve Karsay and Steve Reed. Karsay took over the closer role and held it until he blew a save against the Rockies on August 14. That was his third blown save in 15 appearances for the Braves and Smoltz got the nod. He never let go. Unlike the Orioles, who had little chance of doing anything from 1998-2000, the Braves were still in the middle of winning division titles. They needed a reliable closer to solidify a rotation still anchored by Greg Maddux (Glavine left after the 2002 season) and pitchers way more talented than the Orioles had during Mussina’s tenure. The Braves could afford to move Smoltz to the bullpen in hopes of keeping him healthier than if he started every fifth day. Smoltz didn’t take one for the team, the team arguably moved him to a safer place to protect him.
It’s a nice narrative for reporters but it’s not really true and doesn’t set Smoltz apart from other great starters because he somehow had the intangible quality of selflessness. That just doesn’t seem to have been the case.
Mussina was never a reliever so he wasn’t as great as Smoltz? I’d say taking the ball for 27-34 starts a year from from 1995 to 2008 is quite a feat. But, gee, Vasgersian and Rosenthal wished he taken a turn as closer, they’d like that narrative a whole lot more and it would make Mussina a better player because he was selfless. That seems to be the argument. Consider this about Smoltz’s reliever year – his WAR as a reliever during 2001-2004 was 0.8, 1.2, 3.3, and 2.2. His WAR for the next three years as a starter after rejoining the rotation was 4.9, 5.9, and 4.9. One could certainly argue that Smoltz was more valuable as a starter. Perhaps he’d have been more selfless and more of a team player if he’d argued to stay in the rotation.
Smoltz pitched injured:
I have no idea where this comes from.
It is true that Smoltz suffered injuries – he missed the entire 2000 season with Tommy John surgery and was on and off the disabled list in the 1998 and 1999 seasons. Maybe Vasgersian and Rosenthal were thinking about 2005 when Smoltz was alleged to be suffering a sore shoulder but managed a strong seven innings against the Astros in Game 2 of the 2005 NLDS. But, how can anyone suggest that Mussina didn’t pitch injured. We have no idea what injuries Mussina pitched through and kept to himself. To say that Smoltz somehow is tougher than Mussina has very little, if any, basis. It’s as if Vasgersian and Rosenthal knew that Brian Kenney wasn’t in studio and couldn’t call “Bullshit” on them for this contention. It is a questionable argument in support of Smoltz.
Vasgersian is quickly becoming a FOHR (Friend of Harold Reynolds), which requires, as membership, the desire to disbelieve fact and rely instead on the eyes of former players and broadcasters who interview and interact with major league players on a regular basis instead of the stat geeks who sit in front of computers and don’t deal with people. Sorry, but I’m not buying that and it conveniently puts former players and broadcasters on a pedestal they don’t deserve.
Smoltz might very well be a hall of famer, but he is not more deserving than Mike Mussina. Vasgersian and Rosenthal don’t get to argue that they saw Smoltz, talked to other MLB players, and considered all the intangibles that they saw in person and thus they know things about Smoltz’s makeup that make him a hall of famer. If I were Mike Mussina, I’d be insulted and offended.
Is there something to the fact that John Smoltz is a regular on the MLB network? Might that color the opinions of Vasgersian and Rosenthal? I don’t see Mussina’s name on the list of MLB On-Air personalities. I do see Smoltz’s.