Close but?: Mussina on the verge

Mike Mussina can whittle his illustrious career down into one word.

Almost.

Four times in his career, he’s almost thrown a perfect game. In four different seasons, he’s almost won 20 games. He’s almost won a Cy Young, finishing in the top six eight separate times. And, perhaps the most frustrating to Mussina, he’s almost won a World Series, coming within one out in 2001.

Always the bridesmaid. Never the bride.

But as Mussina pushes into the twilight of his career, he can add another “almost”: He was almost written off, only to remind everyone of why he’s considered a borderline Hall of Famer.

The 2008 season has been a renaissance for Mussina. He’s 15-7 with a 3.27 ERA, and one of the few bright spots in a Yankee rotation that has been marred by injuries, inexperience and ineffectiveness. In hindsight, it is the most improbable of Mussina’s Cy Young-type seasons, considering where he started this year.

FORGOTTEN MAN

2007 was the worst year of Mussina’s career. Bothered by a hamstring injury, Mussina limped through a 11-10 season, as his ERA sailed to 5.15. His fastball, which hummed in the mid 90s in the prime of his career dipped into the low-80s.

He was relegated to long relief in the Yankees 4-game playoff exit against Cleveland, only appearing in game four to mop up the mess left by an ineffective Chien Ming Wang.

Had Mussina not been signed for more than $11 million this season, the Yankees may have decided to cut ties with their former ace. So, when pitchers reported for spring training, it wasn’t too much of a surprise when the question arose of whether Mussina even had a spot in the rotation.

At the time, the Yankees were driven by a youth movement, and Mussina’s successors were already in place.

There was the ace, Chien Ming Wang, who had won 38 games over the past two seasons, most of any pitcher in baseball. There was Ian Kennedy, who, like Mussina, relied on pinpoint control and bent from the waist with runners on base. There was Phil Hughes, who possessed a brilliant curve and a live fastball that raced to the plate at 95 mph. And then there was Joba Chamberlain, whose place in the bullpen would not last for the entire season.

The four were all younger than 30, and each possessed live fastballs that the 39-year old Mussina would never be able to touch again in his career.
Mussina, it seemed, was an afterthought.

But Kennedy and Hughes struggled mightily. Kennedy was demoted to the minors after going 0-3 with a 7.41 ERA. Hughes would fair no better, going 0-4 with a 9.00 ERA, before going on the disabled list with a cracked rib.

Wang was his consistent self, until the middle of June, when a freak foot injury would shelve him for the entire season. And, while Chamberlain would transition into the starting rotation with ease, the Yankees were forced to shut him down in early August because of tendonitis in his throwing shoulder.

It left the Yankees with a patchwork rotation, with the team relying more than ever on the brilliance of Mussina.

SHIFTING PHILOSOPHIES

Mussina has always been able to rely on a wide arsenal of pitches, each of which can be thrown for a strike. Besides his fastball, he possesses a vaunted knuckle-curve, curve, splitter, slider and offspeed pitches.

For most of his career, Mussina would start hitters with a fastball before switching to his offspeed pitches later in the count. Many of Mussina’s 2,759 career strikeouts can be attributed to this formula.

But last year, with a diminishing fastball, Mussina was essentially throwing batting practice because there was little variance between his fastballs and his offspeed pitches.

Some of Mussina’s resurgence has been credited to him reinventing his approach to pitching this season. Even though Mussina isn’t able to throw in the high 80s consistently, he has shifted to using his off speed pitches earlier in the count.

Mussina has found a way to slow down his offspeech stuff. His changeup now darts away from hitters in the high 60s. His curveball, once thrown in the low 80s has been readjusted to come in at the mid 70s and both are consistently thrown for strikes.

With the shift in his offspeed pitches, it has allowed Mussina to get away with throwing a two-seam fastball in the mid 80s, which acts more like a backdoor slider, starting off the plate and finding the strike zone at the last possible moment.

The philosophical change was on display on Thursday, when Mussina shut out the best offense in baseball, the Texas Rangers. In the 3-0 win, Mussina lasted seven innings, scattering eight hits and striking out six.

It was vintage Mussina, as the six-time Gold Glove winner turned two double plays of his own, while striking out All-stars Josh Hamilton and Michael Young twice each. He became the first pitcher in a year to blank the Rangers at home, and tied Cliff Lee for the American League lead in wins at 15.

Lee, who has experienced a resurgence of his own, is the current frontrunner for the American League Cy Young Award. Mussina, once again, is in the discussion. But while his ERA (3.27) is good for 9th in the league, he still trails Lee (2.58), Roy Halladay (2.77), Francisco Rodriguez (2.40) and teammate Mariano Rivera (1.43). Mussina also lacks the gaudy strike out numbers that Halladay (149 Ks) and Ervin Santana (150 Ks) possess.

The Cy Young, like many of Mussina’s prior seasons, will once again, be another “almost.”

If Mussina has any chance for toppling one of the landmarks synonymous with greatness, it will likely be the 20-win season. Mussina stands at 15 right now, and the Yankees have 46 games left in the season, with a little under two months remaining. If Mussina remains healthy, and depending on how manager Joe Girardi wants to handle his aging ace, that would leave Mussina with approximately nine starts left.

But the Yankees will play division leading Tampa Bay, rival Boston and major league leading Anaheim six more times. In other words, while five wins is not out of the question, Mussina will need to beat the best in the American League to arrive at 20.

MOOSE CALL TO THE HALL?

A 20-win season would be the cherry on top of an already impressive resume. But now the question on Mussina is whether his consistency will be enough to garner a trip to the Hall of Fame.

While Mussina doesn’t have the aforementioned Cy Young, or a 20 win season, or a World Series ring, Mussina holds the American League record for most consecutive 10-win seasons (17). He is a six-time Gold Glove Award Winner, and has twice in 2001 and 2003 reached the World Series.

The reason Mussina has not won a World Series has little to do with his own post season performance. He has accumulated a 7-8 record and 3.40 ERA, with 142 strikeouts in 22 career postseason games. Among active pitchers, he is fourth in wins (265), sixth in strikeouts (2,759) and ninth in win-loss percentage (.637).

Another interesting argument that has been put forth is the Bill James grey ink test. According to Baseball-Reference.com, the test “counts appearances in the top ten of the league. […] To get a point you must be in the top 10 in the league in that category.”

The test measures a player’s consistency over a period of time, while penalizing players who have a handful of brilliant seasons, while being mediocre for the rest. A middle-of-the-road Hall of Fame player would work out at 185 on Grey Ink.

Mussina, on the other hand, easily clears the mark at 236.

But these are statistics to look at when Mussina’s career has reached an end. For now, Mussina’s career still has plenty of life, even if it is almost over.
For Mussina, that is an “almost” he can embrace.

This article appeared in the September 2008 edition of The New York Sportscene.

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