Hall-of-Fame Reaction: Mike Mussina

5/24/01: Mike Mussina strikes out 12 over eight innings of work in the Yankees' 2-1 win over the Red Sox and Pedro Martinez. Video is property of MLB.com and MLB Advanced Media.

Baseball’s Hall of Fame and the process through which players gain entry into this elite fraternity has garnered significant scrutiny in recent years due to a flawed voting process that has provoked some head-scratching results, both in favor of some seemingly undeserving players while leaving out players who deserved to be first-ballot Hall-of-Famers.  With the selection of Mike “Moose” Mussina, one such error has been rectified.

Moose has steadily picked up votes during each of his 6 years on the ballot.  It seems that many voters did not view Mussina as an “inner-circle” Hall of Fame player.  While the voters have now voted Moose in, I think that both statistics and the eye test indicate that voters waited 6 years to give Mussina the honor of enshrinement in Cooperstown.

Mussina made his Major League debut in August 1991 for the Baltimore Orioles and never looked back.  Following a solid performance in his two-month cameo in 1991, Mussina announced his presence on the big stage by piecing together the best season of his career (according to bWAR) in just his first full season in the big leagues, chucking 241 innings for the O’s while maintaining a 2.54 ERA and allowing just a 1.079 WHIP as the steroid era was reaching its peak.  Mussina served as the staff ace for the Orioles throughout his 9+ seasons in orange and black, earning a spot on the only 5 All-Star teams on which Moose would be elected during his career.  By the end of the 2000 season, Moose had established himself as one of the best pitchers in all of baseball.  The Yankees, in search of a premium pitcher to bolster the aging pitching staff, signed Mussina to a 6-year, $88.5 million contract heading into the 2001 season.

Over the years, I think that Mike Mussina’s time with the Yankees has been criminally underrated.  Among the knocks that Moose has taken over the years regarding his Yankee tenure: he never helped the Yankees win the World Series; he never won a CY Young pitching for the Yankees; he never went to another All-Star game after signing with the Yankees; and the Yankees paid for a couple of Mussina’s decline years.  All of this is true, but these points really fail to paint a proper picture of what Mussina was during this time.  While Mussina is credited by Baseball-Reference.com as producing a personal best 8.2 bWAR during the 1992 season, I would argue that his 2001 season was at least equally as impressive.  Mussina signed a big contract to come to the Bronx, and he dominated on the biggest stage.  Moose anchored the Yankee staff that season, throwing 228.2 innings while producing a 5.10 K/BB ratio, a 143 ERA+ (15% better than the next best Yankee starter, Roger Clemens), and 3 complete game shutouts.  While Moose labored through 3 innings in Game 1 of an emotionally charged World Series against the Diamondbacks in 2001, he came back in Game 5 and absolutely dominated, striking out 10 batters in 8 innings while allowing only 2 runs.  In his only other World Series appearance in 2003, Mussina shut down the Marlins through 7 innings, allowing only 1 run while striking out 9.  It always felt like Mussina could be counted on when the stage was the biggest.

Mussina, while producing a slightly-below Hall-of-Fame average 44.5 bWAR 7-year peak, accumulated 83.0 bWAR throughout his career, more than enough to consider him a better than average Hall-of-Fame candidate.  As much as I love statistics, and have summarized some of them above, I think Mussina’s true greatness can be viewed outside of the lens of statistics.

Mike Mussina was one of my favorite pitchers to watch growing up.  I was in elementary school in the 90’s as Mussina rose to prominence, and I was mesmerized by his calm, icy, and precise demeanor on the mound.  Moose always pounded his fastball right on the mitt, often spotting it at the edges of the strike zone where no hitter could put real wood on it.

As good as his low-to-mid 90’s fastball was, Mike Mussina’s knuckle-curve might be my favorite pitch thrown by any pitcher in my youth.  Today, the spike curve is a popular pitch for pitchers of all ages to throw, and it is derived from the knuckle-curve for which spike curves are often confused.  Spike curves are released like a fastball, but held with the pointer knuckle/nail dug into the baseball, making it easy to learn at a young age.  A knuckle-curve is gripped similarly, but thrown and released like a standard 12-6 curve.  It is a difficult pitch for most to learn, and even more difficult to control, command, and perfect.  The result, when thrown properly, is a hammer curve with a large, aesthetically pleasing hump that has upwards of 15 MPH of separation from a pitcher’s 4-seam fastball.  Mussina mixed speeds with the pitch, throwing it as slow as 65 MPH, and as hard as 77 MPH while dotting corners and burying the pitch in the dirt, making hitters weep as they flailed ineptly at the pitch.  Mussina’s knuckle-curve was quite simply magic, and I am not sure we will ever see another pitcher that can throw it with as much movement, control, and command.

In addition to his ability to pitch, Mussina was widely considered one of the best fielding pitchers in baseball for the entirety of his time in the Majors. Moose was athletic, and pounced from the mound with cat-like reflexes to field batted/bunted balls and cover first base. While Gold Glove Award voting has had its issues, Mussina won 7 of them, and advanced stats and general consensus agree that Mussina’s Gold Gloves were legitimate.

In my opinion, the best pitcher in the American League during my childhood/adolescent years (and I admit this grudgingly) was Pedro Martinez.  During that time, the absolute best match-up I could imagine was watching a rubber match between Pedro Martinez and Mike Mussina.  I remember being as jealous as a 13-year old can be that a good friend of mine got to attend Yankees/Red Sox game in which Pedro faced-off against Moose in July 2003.  I was glued to the TV watching both pitchers dominate strong lineups, but Moose ultimately pitched a little better, chucking 8 innings of 1-run ball while striking out 9 and allowing just 2 hits.  To this day, I remain jealous of my friend for being at that game. Again, Moose always seemed to come up big when the challenge was greatest, and this game was indicative of what Moose could always bring to the table.

Moose finally got his first 20-win season in his final year, a year in which the Yankees did not make the playoffs for the first time since the strike-shortened 1994 season. I was thrilled that Moose overcame two sub-par years to finish his career with a bang.  While I wish Mussina could have stuck around for the 2009 season to get the World Series ring he truly deserved, I was happy he went out on top and on his own terms.  Mussina was considered a different kind of player throughout his career, known for being thoughtful, quiet, and for his ritual of completing a pre-game crossword puzzle.  It was only fitting that Moose got to go out in his own way.

My memories match the statistics.  Mike Mussina is a most-deserving Hall-of-Fame inductee.  I feel so lucky that I got to grow up watching Mussina take the hill every 5 days.  I always felt that I was watching a future Hall-of-Famer when I watched Mussina pitch, and I’m glad that the voters finally agreed.  Thank you, Moose, for providing fans like me so much joy throughout your outstanding career. Congratulations to Moose, and I can’t wait to see his plaque in Cooperstown.