Tonight Mike Mussina will begin his 18th major league season and his eighth as a New York Yankee. Regardless of how he performs this year, it will likely be his last as a Yankee, as he is in the second year of the two-year contract he signed following the 2006 season. At age 39, if he struggles the way he did last year, it could prove to be his last year in the majors as well.
In the winter following the Yankees' last World Series win, the two big free agents were Manny Ramirez and Mike Mussina. The 2000 season saw David Cone post a 6.91 ERA in his final year as a Yankee and Denny Neagle post a 5.81 mark after coming to the Bronx from Cincinnati in a mid-July deal. With a rotation just three-men deep and no apparent reinforcements on the way from the then-barren farm system, the Yankees made the correct choice by signing the 32-year-old Mussina to a six-year deal worth $88.5 million. The 28-year-old Ramirez, a Washington Heights native who longed to play in the Bronx, instead landed with the rival Red Sox for $168 million over eight years. In those eight years, both men have helped their teams to a pair of World Series appearances, but Mussina's Yankees lost both times (despite going 2-1 in the three games Mussina pitched in those two Series), while Ramirez's Red Sox won both times, with Ramirez claiming the MVP trophy in the team's curse-breaking victory in 2004.
Mussina pitched well enough to earn the Cy Young award in his first year as a Yankee, but the award instead went to his rotation-mate Roger Clemens, who won 16 straight games to arrive at a 20-1 record on September 19 thanks to a handful of convenient no-decisions while Mussina went 17-11 with more than a run and a half less offensive support per game. In his first postseason with the Yankees, Mussina pitched well in three of his four starts, most memorably in the "Jeter flip" game in Oakland with the Yankees facing elimination in the ALDS. Mussina also struck out ten Diamondbacks in eight innings of two-run ball in Game 5 of that year's World Series, but his performance was overshadowed by the fans' chanting of Paul O'Neill's name, Scott Brosius's game-tying ninth-inning home run, and the Yankees' eventual twelfth-inning victory.
In his first three seasons with the Yankees, Mussina posted a 3.52 ERA and struck out 8.07 men per nine innings against just 1.78 walks, he averaged nearly 220 innings a year, more than 6 2/3 innings per start, and more than 17 wins a year despite never reaching the magic total of 20. Since then, however, he's been a different pitcher.
Since out-dueling Josh Beckett in Game 3 of the 2003 World Series, Mussina has posted a regular season ERA of 4.36, struck out a more pedestrian 6.97 men per nine innings (against a still-stellar 2.04 walks), and averaged just 173 1/3 innings per year and less than six innings per start. Take away his strong performance in April and May of 2006, when he briefly managed to compensate for his decreasing velocity with a Bugs Bunny changeup that would occasionally dip below 70 miles per hour, and things look even worse. Prior to 2004, Mussina had never posted an ERA below league average and only come close to average on two occasions. In the past four years, he's only been above average once, and that was largely due to those two strong months in 2006.
Last year, Mussina struggled through his worst major league season. After getting rocked in his season debut in the bitter cold of the Bronx, he pulled a hamstring in the second inning of his next start and missed three weeks. After returning, he was more of the same, posting a 4.25 ERA, averaging six innings per start exactly, and striking out just 5.22 men per nine innings. Then, facing the Tigers at home on August 16, the bottom fell out. Mussina gave up seven runs in five innings in that start, then 13 more in 4 2/3 innings between his next two starts combined while striking out just three men total in the three outings. Things were so ugly that Joe Torre, in the heat of his final pennant race as the Yankee skipper, was all but forced to pull Mussina from the rotation in favor of rookie and first-year professional Ian Kennedy.
Kennedy pitched well, giving Mussina a two-week rest during which his only game action was a poor relief outing in an early September loss. The break seemed to do Moose some good. When Roger Clemens' elbow discomfort forced Mussina back into the rotation, Moose returned with three strong starts, winning all three with a 1.37 ERA and lasting a full seven frames in the latter two, but he closed the regular season with another five-inning stinker. Faced with starting Mussina in Game 4 of the ALDS while facing elimination, Torre opted to give the ball to Chien-Ming Wang on three-days' rest, a decision I supported. Wang was awful and Mussina came in to relieve in the second, but Moose allowed a pair of inherited runners to score, then coughed up two more runs of his own. That was enough to make the difference in the Yankees' eventual 6-4 loss.
At his peak, Mussina threw in the low-90s with a devastating knuckle-curveball. This spring, he had several starts in which he had command of a monstrous curve, but his velocity was topping out in the mid-80s. Even with two rookies in the rotation, Mike Mussina is no better than the Yankees' fifth starter. He starts the second game of the season tonight because of seniority and Andy Pettitte's balky back. With Moose unlikely to make it out of the sixth, both Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera having pitched last night, and the Yankees in the second of 20 straight games to open the year, we should get our first informative look at Joe Girardi's bullpen moves tonight.
Facing Mussina is A.J. Burnett, who dominated the Yankees in his two starts against them last year, allowing just one run (a Johnny Damon solo homer) in 15 innings while striking out 13 and allowing just seven other hits. Burnett has a similar repertoire to Mussina (fastball, knuckle-curve, change), but has at least ten more miles per hour on his heater, which is no small difference. In contrast to Mussina's success with his curve this spring, the oft-injured Burnett had an awful spring (7.36 ERA, just 8 Ks against 9 walks in 18 1/3 innings), which stemmed from a November incident in which Burnett slammed his pitching hand in a car door, breaking the nail on his index finger. With the nail still healing, Burnett was unable to throw his knuckle-curve until the end of spring training. That forced him to spend more time on his changeup, which could be to his benefit as the season progresses, but clearly wasn't doing him much good in Florida. The key to tonight's game will thus be each starter's effectiveness with his curve, which means we could know pretty early on what kind of game to expect.