Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Mussina makes bid for comeback player of the year, Hall of Fame

One story developing in the last 2 months of this MLB season is the resurgence of Yankee starter Mike Mussina. Here is a pitcher who fell quickly from grace last season – after a very poor August he was replaced in the starting rotation by unproven yet heralded rookie, Ian Kennedy. A second chance, however, came sooner than Mussina expected: When Roger Clemens went down with an elbow injury, Mussina was given another start. He made the most of his opportunity, pitching well for the Yankees down the stretch, going 3-0 in September.

Still, Mussina finished 2007 with a 5.15 ERA (the first time he’s ever topped 5). Even more indicative of his dimishined returns was the fact that he gave up 188 hits in 152 innings pitched.

After looking like a washed-up junkballer in April and May of 2008 (including a start where he surrendered a career high 7 runs in 2/3 innings against the Orioles), Yankee brass had to wonder if they were going to have to write Mussina off for the season, essentially eating his 11 million salary.

But the ship now appears to be righted for the Stanford grad: Since that forgettable bloodletting on May 20th in Baltimore, Mussina is on an impressive 10-3 run. Once a lowly 1-3 in April, his record now stands at an ace-like 11-6. Remarkably, he has only walked 16 batters in 107 innings (Best in the A.L.). To put it mildly, he has been a stabilizing force for a disheveled Yankee staff that desperately needed a lift. As injuries have decimated Yankee pitching, Mussina, the poised veteran, has come to the rescue.

He’s not a hall of famer, or is he?

While it may be true that the 39 year-old isn’t worthy of being enshrined in Cooperstown yet, it is a shame to judge his impeccable body of work strictly against that measuring stick. It is a shame, in this writers humble opinion, to judge Mussina by what he hasn’t achieved; Mussina, the consummate professional, is better judged by his accomplishments.

Ranking 4th in total wins among active pitchers, and 5th in strikeouts among active pitchers, we are talking about one of a handful of the finest pitchers of the last two decades. The lack of a 20-win season or a Cy Young award, while legitimate concerns with regard to a Hall of Fame nomination, needn’t be the focus of a discussion on the merits of Mussina’s game.

It would be more proper to disciss his unsurpassed level of consistency. 17 straight 10-win seasons speak to that. Or his intrepid pursuit of team goals. His 6 Gold Gloves are evidence of his dedication to every facet of the game. Mussina leads by example, starting with preparation and ending with mental toughness. As he nears the conclusion of his distinguished career, and attempts to reinvent himself for one last stab at greatness, it might be time to stand up and applaud; instead of second guessing this phenomonal talent, we should appreciate him as his career nears it’s conclusion.

1997: Remarkable in Defeat

Did you know that in the 1997 post season Mussina had a 1.24 era, 41 K’s and 11 hits allowed in 29 innings? Mussina dazzled in those playoffs, baffling hitters with ease and increasing regularity - he singlehandedly tried to carry the languishing Baltimore Orioles franchise back to the promised land of a World Championship. Mussina, tough on even the toughest of hitters, relied on the the stunning accuracy of his live fastball, deceptive changeup, and knee-buckling knuckle curve. He went 2-0 in the Division Series, outdueling Randy Johnson and his hungry for glory Seattle Mariners in two consecutive matchups.

In the next round against Cleveland, as the O’s battled for their first pennant since 1983, Mussina did not disappoint - not by any standards. He piched like a superhero, and got tougher as each game progressed. Here are the Gaudy numbers from that series: 15 IP’s, 4 Hits, 1 run, 25K’s. If you watched those games you’d know that this was a true ace doing everything in his power to bring the Orioles a title. But the Orioles couldn't even muster a run to support him. They lost the series and Mussina lost a chance to burst onto the scene as the best pitcher in all of baseball in 1997.

Sad, but true

The reason Mussina’s greatness will always be debated is that his stellar body of work lacks the burden of proof. He doesn’t possess that singular shining moment that makes it automatic for us to immortalize him. His perfect game near-miss against the Redsox on September 2, 2001 is seen by many as more of a failure than a highlight. As prepostorous as that may seem, it is true. But what is most endearing about Mussina cannot be defined by his numbers; There are larger forces at work. Even as he completely toyed with a daunting opposition in a pressure situation, striking out 13 and casting aside hitters with ease, the real redeeming magic in his effort was in the way that he regrouped; the way that he gathered his wits, got back on the horse after losing his chance at perfection, and finished the game off for his team. He retired Trot Nixon, secured the win and the Yankees marched on into the post season. While many choose to look at this episode as a failure, it is anything but that – it was clutch September pitching at its very best.

A Model of Consistency

When Mussina left the Orioles after the 2000 season, I remember feeling very sorry for the Orioles. However risky paying big money to a starting pitcher can be, it was obvious that Mussina would be worth every penny. He had just gone 6 seasons of over 200 innings pitched. He was on par with the greatest Oriole pitchers of all-time. He was a model of consistency, a pressure pitcher, a stopper, a true role model, and he never got injured. Mussina was a no-brainer acquisition for the Yankees.

His .645 winning percentage over 2009 innings is the highest all-time among Orioles. That beats Palmer, Cuellar, and McNally, – and he is one of only 7 Oriole pitchers to have thrown 2,000 innings. Now perched at 39th on the all-time wins list for MLB with 261, the lofty plateau of 300 wins, and all the accolades that come with it, does not seem entirely out of the question. Mussina is, after all, rarely if ever, found on the disabled list.

Let’s speculate a bit: Say he wins 6 more games this year. That would be 267. If was to win 11 a year for three more successive years he’d finish the 2011campaign with 300. Even if Mussina never pitched another inning after, it would be impossible to deny him a spot in Cooperstown with 300 wins under his belt.

Nothing like a good comeback

Mussina’s improbable return to form in 2008 could be the inspiration that the Yankees need right now. There will be tremors of sizable magnitude if the Yankees can’t secure their 14th consecutive post season berth as a tribute to “The House that Ruth Built.”

A lot hangs in the balance in the 2nd half of 2008, both for the Yankees and Mussina. Nothing less than October baseball will be acceptable for the passionate city of New York in 2008, but that’s okay for Mussina – he’s no stranger to the pressure that expectations can bring.