Monday, March 30, 2009

Through the Years: Mike Mussina

Earlier this winter, Mike Mussina retired from baseball with a 270-153 career record and 2,813 career strikeouts. His 3.68 career ERA was good enough for a 123 ERA+ while pitching exclusively in the AL East for 18 years (in an era in which the AL East was not represented in the ALCS only 4 times in 18 years). When he retired, there was a lot of discussion on whether or not he would be voted in to the Hall of Fame. The discussion seemed to revolve around his apparent lack of dominance and whether or not he was ever the best pitcher in his league (that is, it was the classic compiler vs. dominator discussion).

When Curt Schilling retired last week, the Hall of Fame debate seemed to be resurrected. What surprised me about reading these new discussions was how it seemed to be taken for granted that Mussina was a Hall of Famer. Now, I'm not complaining - I happen to feel he's a definite HOFer - but I thought it was interesting how quickly opinions can change in only three months' time.

Since the Schilling and Mussina discussions were so prevalent last week, I figured it would be a good idea to explore the two pitchers' careers. Last week, I did a "Through the Years" post on Schilling, going back through my collection of baseball preview guides to see how he was being viewed by writers on a year-to-year basis. Now it's Mussina's turn.

Before I begin, I should make the disclosure that, as someone who grew up an Orioles fan, Mike Mussina was my favorite non-Cal Ripken player in baseball for five years or so. I saw how he led the team year-after-year with excellent performances and how he stepped up his game for big moments. He was a great Oriole on some great (and not-so-great) teams, and I was incredibly bummed when he signed with the Yankees. But I never begrudged him any of that, as the Yankees gave him a too-good-to-deny offer (and the Orioles and Peter Angelos treated him terribly). Even when he was on the Yankees, I was always hoping the best for him. With that said, I think we can now begin this retrospective.

Mike Mussina was originally drafted by the Orioles in the 11th round of the 1987 amateur draft when he was 18 years old. He chose not to sign and instead went on to pitch at Stanford. Three years later, after graduating early with an economics degree, he was again drafted by the Orioles, this time in the first round (20th overall), signing a short while later. Heading into the 1991 season, the 22-year-old was already a top prospect. The Sporting News yearbook claimed, in their "Top AL Minor League Prospects" section, that he "could be an Oriole starter in '91." That April's Baseball Digest also said "rookie Mike Mussina may prove a find."

Mussina made his big league debut that August and pitched well in his limited time. His 4-5 record that year obscures some quality numbers, including a 2.87 ERA (138 ERA+) and 52 strikeouts in 87 innings. It was a good start to a good career. TSN agreed in their 1992 yearbook:
"Mussina pitched so well down the stretch that he is being considered a candidate for this year's opening-day starting assignment. He was 4-5 in 12 starts, but his 2.87 earned-run average suggests that he might be the best starting pitcher in the organization."
The 1992 season started even better for Mussina, and it helped the O's get out to a surprising record early. The May 18 issue of Sports Illustrated didn't let it go unnoticed:
"Mussina, 23, looks and acts as if he has been in the majors for years. As of Sunday [May 12], he had made 18 big league starts, dating back to last August, and had pitched into the seventh inning 17 times. He had an 8-5 record with a 2.89 ERA. "He's very creative," says Baltimore pitching coach Dick Bosman. "He'll take a slider we've been fiddling around with in the bullpen and use it in a big situation to get an out. He can change speeds intuitively, which shows a lot of poise and composure. Good pitchers are often bright—not necessarily well educated, but bright."

Mussina is both. He graduated from Stanford in 3 1/2 years with a degree in economics. Says Oates, "I don't talk to him. I'm afraid he'll ask me something I don't know. He's got a line of books about three feet long in his locker. I probably talk to him less than anyone on the team. He needs less stroking than most players."

The Orioles made Mussina the 20th pick in the first round of the June 1990 draft. He pitched only 1 1/2 years in the minor leagues, putting together a 13-4 record and 2.43 ERA, before Baltimore called him up on July 31, 1991. Says Palmer, now an Oriole broadcaster, "The only way Mike won't win 20 games this season is if they don't score runs for him. What do I like about him? Everything.""
His performance didn't diminish as the season progressed, and his 18-5 record with 130 strikeouts and a 2.54 ERA (157 ERA+) was rewarded with a fourth-place finish in the Cy Young voting in only his first full season. He also made his first All-Star appearance that year. It was enough to give him the title of "staff ace".
"Sutcliffe won 16 games to reestablish himself as one of the game's top starters, but Mussina emerged as the ace of the staff. In '92, he led the league in winning percentage (.783) and ranked among the league leaders in wins (18), earned-run average (2.54), complete games (eight) and shutouts (four)."
The '93 season didn't go as well for Mussina, though that was mostly due to injuries. Back and shoulder injuries nagged him enough to limit him to 25 games that season, and contributed to his league-average 4.46 ERA. He did go 14-6 that year, though, with 117 strikeouts in 167 innings. The injury concerns did not dampen anyone's expectations for him in the 1994 season. TSN wrote this, while also predicting that Mussina would start the 1994 All-Star game:
"Mussina's health will remain at issue until he gets back into a regular-season routine, but his standing as one of the most effective righthanders in the game is not in question. He came back from an 18-5 season in '92 to go 14-6 despite nagging injuries last year."
Moose did make the 1994 All-Star team for the third straight year, though he did not start it. By the time the strike rolled around in August, he was having his best year to date. In only 24 starts, Mussina put up a 16-5 record with a 3.06 ERA (163 ERA+) and three complete games. He was awarded with yet another 4th-place finish in the Cy Young voting (David Cone won the Cy that year with a 16-5 record, 2.94 ERA, and three shutouts).

As 1995 rolled around and baseball returned to normal following the strike, it was pretty clear that Mussina was a top-tier pitcher. In four full seasons, he had finished in the top five of Cy Young voting in three of them and his ERA+ only dipped below 145 once, in a season where he was nagged by shoulder injuries all year. In fact, the 1995 TSN yearbook predicted a Cy Young award for Mussina that year (they would predict a Cy Young award for Moose three more times in the next ten years).

Mussina did not win the Cy Young that year, but it was not for lack of trying. In the strike-shortened season, Moose started 32 games and ended the season with a 19-9 record. In 221 innings, Mussina posted a 3.29 ERA (145 ERA+), struck out 158 batters and had the second-lowest WHIP in the AL (1.069). Randy Johnson very understandably won the Cy that year (18-2, 2.48 ERA, 294 K), but Mussina finished all the way in fifth place, behind Jose Mesa, Tim Wakefield, and David Cone. The 1996 TSN yearbook went ahead and predicted a Cy Young for him for the second year in a row.
"Righthander Mike Mussina had another outstanding season in 1995 (19-9) and looks as if he's going to be a perpetual Cy Young candidate, but he can't do it alone."
Moose followed up his excellent '95 campaign with another 19-win season in '96. He also pitched a career high 243 innings and struck out 200 batters for the first time (204). His ERA suffered that year, though, when he finished with only a 4.81 ERA (103 ERA+).
"Mussina still is the cornerstone of the rotation. He won 19 games last year [in 1996] but didn't really pitch that well. His ERA was 50 percent higher than it was in 1995, and he allowed more hits than innings for the first time in his pro career. That could mean one of two things: His arm is wearing down or he is primed for a monster year in 1997."
In 1997, the Orioles went wire-to-wire and took the Indians to Game 6 of the ALCS before bowing out. Individually, Mussina's '97 season was excellent, though a little understated. He posted a 15-8 record with a 3.20 ERA (137 ERA+), but his K-rate and strikeout-to-walk were the best of his career. In only 224 innings, he struck out 218 batters and walked only 54. He also pitched 4 complete games with one shutout. His postseason was even better: in 4 games in the ALDS and ALCS, he pitched 29 innings, struck out 41 batters, and gave up a total of 4 runs. He went 2-0 in those 4 games, with both his ALCS starts ending with extra-inning Cleveland victories (2-1 in 12 and 1-0 in 11).

In the June 1998 issue of Baseball Digest, the cover asks the question "Is There a Cy Young in Mike Mussina's Future?" After pointing out that, from "1900 through 1997, there were 439 pitchers who won at least 100 games in the major leagues, but only three of them posted a higher winning percentage than Baltimore righthander Mike Mussina's .683 mark," the article goes on to say:
"And during the 1997 postseason, Mussina, often pitching on three days' rest, dominated like Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson. His playoff line: two wins, no losses, 29 innings, 11 hits, 41 strikeouts and a 1.24 ERA.

But it's a new season, and the playoff atmosphere has long since faded.
If Mussina, who has posted records of 18-5, 14-6, 16-5, 19-9, 19-11 and 15-8 the last six years, continues where he left off last season, he should be a strong contender for the AL Cy Young Award.

To which Orioles manager Ray Miller, one of the game's outstanding pitching mentors, would say 'Amen.'"
As we all know, Mussina never ended up winning his Cy Young award. His highest finish was in 1999, when he finished second behind Pedro Martinez's line of 23-4, 313 strikeouts, 2.07 ERA (243 ERA+). Despite that, Moose had a great career. For those first 10 years of his career, when he was still with Baltimore, he was clearly regarded as one of the top pitchers in the American League, a notch below Clemens, Pedro, and Johnson, maybe, but still top tier. His strong ERA+ and fantastic won-loss record (as overrated as it can be at times) and his frequent placement in the Cy Young results all help support this.

The last eight years of his career, though, which he spent on the Yankees, were not nearly as good as his first. Whether this is a product of his complacency after signing a big contract, or a result of the pressure of pitching in New York City, or just a natural result of his aging (after all, he didn't sign with the Yankees until he was 32), it's hard to say. It is clear that those Yankees years were not up to the standard that he set for himself in Baltimore, and that seems to be the main reason that some people don't remember him as being great. Still, when you look at Mussina's career on the whole, I think it's pretty clear that he was an outstanding pitcher who belongs in the Hall. I have a feeling it might take him a few years before it happens, though. I'll be happy to see it when it does, though.


tHeMARksMiTh said...

To me, he's a Hall of Famer. It might take him 5-10 tries, but I think he should be in. Guys like Johnson, Maddux, Glavine, and Martinez are first-ballot guys, and guys like Schilling, Mussina, and Smoltz are just a tier below but still excellent pitchers. I think if you asked for the top 10 pitchers of the last 20 years, he has to make that list, and if you can consistently make a list like that, you are a Hall of Famer.

lar said...

I agree, Mark, though I still don't like calling some guys "first-ballot HOFers" and not others. I know the difference and I know what people are (generally) trying to say when they say that (they're saying that the player is so obvious a HOFer that there will be no debate, not even on the first ballot). At some point, if we keep calling people "first ballot HOFers", the distinction will itself become a sign of honor.

I know, I know... we're probably there already. I just don't like it. If it were up to me, Moose would be in on the first ballot, of course, but so would a lot of other people.

tHeMARksMiTh said...

Oh, I totally agree, but I was just using the terminology that's thrown around. In my mind, I've never known how a guy wasn't a HOFer his first year on the ballot and was in a following year. In my opinion, you're on the ballot once and the voters can vote for as many people as they want. If you don't get in, you don't get in. I realize there are problems with this, but I think it would keep out the HOVeryGood players that nostalgically get put in.