Career Statistics: 3562.2 IP, 536 GS, 7.11 K/9, 1.98 BB/9, 3.57 FIP, 82.5 fWAR (19th among pitchers all-time)
Years Active: 1991 - 2008
Position: Right-handed starting pitcher
Time on the Ballot: Second (20.3% of the vote in 2014)
As we continue to look back on the careers of the historically deep 2015 Hall of Fame ballot and their connections to the New York Yankees, it is time to consider a prospective Hall of Famer whose Bronx tenure is second only to a former Yankee captain among members of this ballot.
Mike Mussina was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles twice, either side of a three year economics degree from Stanford University. Mussina signed with the Orioles after being selected in the first round in 1990, and made his major league debut just a year later in August 1991. By 1992, his first full season in Major League Baseball, Moose was already an All Star, finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting. His highlight game of the year, a one-hit shutout where Mussina was perfect save for a Kevin Reimer double to lead off the fifth. It was Mussina's first brush with perfection, but it would not be his last, or his most dramatic.
After a 1993 limited by shoulder soreness, the strike shortened seasons of 1994 and 1995 saw Mussina continue to perform as one of the best pitchers in the American League, pitching his way to back-to-back top five placings for the Cy Young award. Moose won 19 games in 1995, and when he reached 19 wins again in 1996 with four starts remaining he looked set to collect his first 20-win season as a 27-year-old. However, Mussina didn't pitch particularly well in his next three starts, though he did dominate the Toronto Blue Jays in his final start of the year, leaving with a 2-1 lead after pitching eight innings. With closer Randy Myers being rested for the postseason, young set-up man Armando Benitez could not hold on to the lead and the win for Moose. The 1996 Orioles had already punched their ticket to the postseason as the American League Wildcard, though; the first postseason trip for the Orioles since 1983 and the opening one of Mussina's career.
Baltimore faced New York in the 1996 American League Championship Series, best remembered for the "Jeffrey Maier home run" that helped the eventual World Series winning Yankees take Game 1 of the ALCS. The Orioles tied the series the next night, setting up a crucial Game 3 in Baltimore with Mussina on the mound. Moose cruised through the first seven innings, and the Orioles were up 2-1 with two outs in the eighth inning. Here though, the game turned on Mussina. First a Derek Jeter double, then a Bernie Williams single to tie the game. A Tino Martinez double and Todd Ziele dropped-relay-throw followed, before Cecil Fielder capped the inning with a home run. The Yankees won the game and didn't look back, taking Games 4 and 5 to win the pennant; leaving the Orioles in Baltimore and heading back to New York to welcome the Atlanta Braves.
Heading into a contract season in 1997, 28-year-old Mike Mussina might have expected to have received a long-term deal to spend the rest of his prime with the Orioles. However, owner Peter Angelos took a hard line in negotiations, and ultimately Mussina signed a three year, $20.45 million extension, a clear hometown discount. Moose pitched his way through another solid season, finishing sixth in the Cy Young race in 1997. The highlight of the regular season was a masterful gem spun against the Cleveland Indians. Moose retired the first 25 hitters he faced before Sandy Alomar broke up the perfecto with a single. Mussina had to once again settle for a one-hit shutout. Mussina faced the Indians again in the postseason, and again dominated Cleveland to a tune of 15 innings of one run ball, striking out 25 and allowing just four hits. All was to no avail though, as Baltimore lost both games and the series.
Baltimore carried the highest payroll in the league in 1998, but fell to 79-83 and fourth place in the American League East. Mussina continued to pitch as the ace he was though, even a trip to the disabled list for a liner to the face couldn't stop him posting a fourth straight season with at least 5 fWAR. Although Mussina did slack off a little in 1998, failing to take a perfect game into the ninth, only making it as far as two outs in the eighth against the Detroit Tigers. Baltimore could not break .500 in either 1999 or 2000 either in spite of Mussina posting a combined 12 fWAR in those two years. At the end of the 2000 season, the failure of the Orioles to commit long-term to Mussina before came to haunt them when Moose became a free agent. Not only did he not re-sign with Baltimore, he signed with a hated division rival that had just won their third straight World Series and fourth in five seasons.
"It just came down to who really seemed to want me on their team the most,"
Mike Mussina - November 30th, 2000
Mike Mussina was signed to a six-year, $88.5 million dollar contract by the New York Yankees ahead of the 2001 season. Moose was signed to be a part of continued October success, although it did seem like he might earn his contract early when he retired the first 26 Boston Red Sox he faced on September the 2nd. This before pinch-hitter Carl Everett blooped a single to end Mussina's latest and greatest dice with perfection in heartbreaking fashion. Moose had to settle for yet another one-hit shutout, this time with 13 strikeouts and total dominance over the Boston lineup. Mussina sparkled through the Division and Championship Series as New York made it to a fourth straight World Series. Ultimately though, the Yankees fell short against the Arizona Diamondbacks in seven games.
Moose continued to pitch effectively in 2002, admittedly his fWAR tally of 4.7 broke a eight year streak where he was worth at least five wins above replacement, although more than anything else that speaks to Mussina's incredible consistency. Mussina was once again excellent in 2003, and a big part of the Yankees making another deep postseason push in getting to their sixth World Series in eight years. Once again though, New York fell short, this time to the Florida Marlins in six games. Mussina, for his part, pitched well as he usually did, out dueling eventual Series MVP Josh Beckett in Game 3 by holding the Marlins to one run in seven innings. This second World Series in three years for Mike Mussina was also the last of his career, as the Yankees would fall short in their next four postseason trips.
As his once power-fastball began to fade in the second half of his Yankee contract, Moose continued to remain an elite pitcher through continued evolution. Always a 'pitcher' more than a 'thrower', Mussina coped with the loss of his mid-90's heater by slowing down his changeup and relying more heavily on control and deception. Mussina would work the entire plate to get hitters out, with near-perfect placement of not just his fastball and changeup but also his knuckle-curve and later in his career a split-finger fastball. Mike Mussina continued to be very successful as a Yankee pitcher all the way through to the end of the original six-year deal, a rarity for a mega-contract pitcher in his 30's at the time of signing. The Yankees declined a $17 million option on Mussina for 2007 but signed him to a 2 year $23 million deal to continue his time in pinstripes.
2007 was a difficult year for Mussina as he struggled to a 5.15 ERA that caused him to be pulled from the rotation for a stretch in favor of rookie Ian Kennedy. In this time Moose made his first and only regular season relief appearance, though he had previously pitched three scoreless innings in relief during the 2003 ALCS Game 7 against the Red Sox, before Aaron Boone's walkoff home run.
Heading into the final year of his contract in 2008, expectations were low for Moose, so much so that Hank Steinbrenner famously suggested he learn to pitch more like Jamie Moyer in order to cope with his declining natural ability. However, Mussina had one last, great season in him as he pitched masterfully, stepping up as the ace of the staff when Chein-Ming Wang went down for the year after a base-running mishap in Houston. New York failed to make the postseason for the first time since before the 1994 strike, but in one of the two most memorable Yankee moments of 2008 (behind only the final game played at Yankee Stadium) Mussina earned his 20th win of the season in his final start, facing the Red Sox at Fenway Park. No player had ever been older when they completed their first 20 win campaign, or had a more distinguished career before finally reaching that milestone.
Mike Mussina will almost certainly not be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015. He has too much of a deficit to make up from his first year on the ballot when he collected barely over a quarter of the votes he will need, and there is far too much talent on the ballot for Moose to make a sizable push this year. This is a shame, because there are few players with resumes more worthy of induction, and fewer still who would lend as much class to the proceedings.
Hopefully Mussina's name will be called on someday, until then the Hall of Fame is a poorer place for not having him be a part of it.
Congratulations on an incredible career Mike Mussina.
Likely Cap if Elected: Blank Cap / Baltimore Orioles