The Yankees may have been encouraged by Mike Mussina’s second outing of the spring over the weekend, when the 39-year-old veteran struck out 5 batters in just 2 2/3 innings. Then again, he also walked a pair and allowed a home run, failing to finish the third frame.
It’s too soon in the spring to draw conclusions from any pitching performance. But the Yankees are keeping a particularly wary eye on Mussina, who limped to the 2007 finish line.
So much is on the line with Mussina’s performance—not just the fate of the 2008 pitching staff, but the future of the Yankees’ young arms, not to mention Mussina’s Hall of Fame chances.
The Yankees read a thin pitching market following the 2006 season, and believed they were getting a bargain by signing Mussina to a two-year, $22.5 million deal. And had they gotten 2006 Mussina in 2007-08, such a deal would have been favorable—that season, he posted a 3.51 ERA, 172 strikeouts and just 35 walks in 197 1/3 innings.
But Mussina had showed signs of slipping in 2004-05, with ERAs worse than league average in both seasons, and the regression accelerated in 2007, reaching dot.com bust levels in the season’s second half. Mussina posted a poor 4.62 ERA in the first half; in the second half, that ballooned to 5.72. Mussina even lost his spot in the rotation to Ian Kennedy late in the season. Considering his manager was Joe Torre, every veteran’s best friend, such a move only underscores how awful Mussina looked.
A look inside the numbers doesn’t seem to indicate that Mussina was unlucky—instead, it appears that he became far more hittable. In a nearly identical number of innings (78 in the first half, 74 in the second half) Mussina allowed 10 home runs in the first half, just four home runs in the second half. In other words, Mussina had a home run rate about half of his 2006 mark—a likely unsustainable amount of luck—and still posted an ERA nearing 6.
His strikeout and walk rates remained relatively consistent in both halves—but the strikeout rate was down significantly from Mussina’s career average. (At 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings, Mussina was about two strikeouts per nine off of his career mark.)
A simple truth runs through all of Mussina’s numbers—he has become extremely easy to hit.
This is supported by the anecdotal evidence of Mussina’s disappearing velocity. In his prime, he routinely hit 92-94 with his fastball—a solid, above-average heater. But too often last season, Mussina’s fastball averaged 84-86. Considering that his walk rate is still excellent, it isn’t as if he can cut down on free passes to make up for the fact that he isn’t fooling anyone.
Combined with a solid curveball and excellent changeup, Mussina managed a long period of sustained success. With 250 victories, a career ERA 22 percent better than league average, and nearly 3400 innings on his resume, Mussina is certainly a strong candidate for the Hall of Fame already. But should Mussina add another 15-win season to his career totals, he’d have 265 wins—and just two post-1900 pitchers (Tommy John and Bert Blyleven) have earned more wins while failing to earn a place in Cooperstown—but both had winning percentages (.555 and .534, respectively) far lower than Mussina’s .635.
While Mussina will be focused on his legacy, though, the Yankees simply have to have a full slate of innings from him. Assuming 200 innings apiece from both Andy Pettitte and Chien-Ming Wang, the Yankees would seem to have a full complement of starters without Mussina, due to the presence of youngsters Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain.
But they’re acutely aware of the innings limits for each of their three prized youngsters. Phil Hughes threw 110 1/3 innings last season; Ian Kennedy threw 165, and Joba Chamberlain tossed 112 1/3. While Kennedy should be set for a full season on the mound, both Hughes and Chamberlain are unlikely to add more than 30-40 innings to last season’s totals. To ask them for more would be irresponsible, and would likely result in ineffectiveness from both pitchers in October.
That also assumes no growing pains from three pitchers with a combined 16 major league starts between them, and no health problems from a position with more injury uncertainty than Moises Alou’s career. If Mussina can’t provide that stability, the next in line for starts would be Kei Igawa (career ERA 6.25) or Jeff Karstens (career ERA 5.65). The temptation to push their young starters too hard would be enormous.
So listen closely as March turns to April. It is often hard to tell the difference between Yankee Stadium’s Moose calls when Mussina takes the mound, and good old-fashioned Bronx cheering. The distinction will tell quite a bit about both the present and future of the New York Yankees.