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25 Smartest Moves of the Past 25 Years: Yankees sign Mike Mussina

While never considered the ace of the staff, Mike Mussina was the Yankees’ best pitcher during his tenure in the Bronx.

Former New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra (L) and Photo credit should read MATT CAMPBELL/AFP via Getty Images

When the Yankees wrapped up their 26th title with a win over the crosstown rival Mets in 2000, it marked a period of dominance unseen in the sport in over 25 years. Not since the 1972-14 Athletics had a team won three straight World Series, and it was the first time since the Yankees of the early-‘50s that a team had won four titles in a five year span. With the core of their team still in the mid-to-tail-end of their prime years, it appeared the infrastructure was in place to continue this run of supremacy.

However, there were still areas of that team structure that needed a facelift, most notably the starting rotation. Longtime starter David Cone had departed in free agency for the Red Sox while midseason acquisition Denny Neagle signed with the Rockies. Dwight Gooden was on his last legs and would later retire after being cut by the Yankees in spring training. The soon-to-be 38-year-old Roger Clemens, while still effective, was not quite the same pitcher in his first two years in the Bronx compared to the world-beater they acquired from Toronto.

And so the Yankees chose to do what they did best in those years. They signed one of the premium free agents at top dollar, inking the steady-but-excellent Mike Mussina to a big-money contract. In doing so, they stole one of the game’s best pitchers from a division rival, seemingly setting up their rotation for another sustained period of success.

Signing Details: Signed to 6-year, $88.5 million contract

Transaction Date: December 7, 2000

NYY stats during first contract (2001-06): 187 games, 92-53, 1,200.2 IP, 3.80 ERA, 117 ERA+, 3.47 FIP, 1,037 K, 7.8 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 1.179 WHIP, 2-time Gold Glove; 2019 Hall of Fame inductee

In Mussina, the Yankees were getting a frontline starter whose résumé held up to the big-name aces around the league. In his 10 seasons with the Orioles, Mussina accrued the sixth-most fWAR (46.7) of any pitcher in baseball — behind only Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown, and Pedro Martínez — while placing in the top-20 in ERA, FIP, and walk rate.

Mussina’s Yankees career got off to a flying start — 7.2 innings of five-hit shutout ball against the Royals on April 5th.

The Moose’s remaining April starts were not as smooth sailing, with the righty giving up at least three runs in each while being saddled with the loss in three of the four contests. Luckily for the Yankees, he turned that ship around — including a 12-strikeout duel against Red Sox ace Pedro Martínez on May 24th — setting up one of the most memorable Septembers by a Yankees starting pitcher in the team’s history.

Mussina’s first start of the month came on a cool night in Boston against one of the men he replaced in the rotation in Cone. He retired the first 26 batters he faced before pinch-hitter Carl Everett blooped a single to break up the perfect game bid. Mussina retired Trot Nixon to cap off one of the great near-perfectos in baseball history: a one-hit, 13-strikeout, 1-0 shutout against the pitcher who had thrown the most recent perfect game.

Mussina would fan 13 batters four weeks later against his former employers, the Orioles, in a three-hit complete game shutout. He finished his first regular season in the Bronx with a 17-11 record, tossing 228.2 innings with a 3.15 ERA and 214 strikeouts. He led all AL starters with 6.9 fWAR, a 2.92 FIP, and and 18.9 percent K-BB%. This would earn him a fifth-place finish in AL Cy Young voting (well behind the 20-3 Clemens, who trailed Mussina in nearly every other statistic), though he did collect his fifth Gold Glove award.

The Yankees won the AL East by 13.5 games, giving Mussina a chance to prove his mettle to the fans in the postseason in his first year in pinstripes. He did just that in his first two starts, winning Game 3 of the ALDS 1-0 over the 102-win A’s with seven shutout innings and Game 2 of the ALCS, 3-2 over the 116-win Mariners with six innings of two-run ball.

Mussina faltered in Game 1 of the World Series against the Diamondbacks, giving up five runs (three earned) in only three innings of the Yankees’ 9-1 loss. However, he bounced back, turning in an absolutely terrific effort in Game 5. Mussina struck out 10 and gave up two runs in eight innings of the Yankees’ 3-2 comeback win, putting the Bombers a win away from a four-peat. Unfortunately, we know how that turned out, but Mussina certainly did his part in his final appearance that postseason.

Mussina remained a frontline starter across the 2002 and 2003 campaigns. In 2002, he went 18-10 with a 4.05 ERA and 182 strikeouts in 215.2 innings. He finished third in the AL in K-BB% (15.1 percent), fifth in fWAR (4.5), and sixth in FIP (3.64). A year later, he went 17-8 with a 3.40 ERA and 195 strikeouts in 214.2 innings, finishing second in K-BB% (18.1 percent), third in FIP (3.09), and fourth in fWAR (6.1). Alas, his postseason starts were plagued by inconsistency.

In Game 3 of the 2002 ALDS, he gave up four runs in four innings, and although the Yankees would retake the lead, they would eventually lose the game, 9-6, and the series three games to one to the upstart Angels.

The 2003 playoffs saw Mussina used the most of any postseason of his career. He took the loss in his first three appearances — three runs in seven innings of a 3-1 ALDS Game 1 loss to the Twins, four runs in 5.2 innings of a 5-2 ALCS Game 1 loss to the Red Sox, and three runs in 6.2 innings of a 3-2 ALCS Game 4 loss later that series. However, Mussina would redeem himself and then some with one of the all-time clutch performances in Yankees postseason pitching history.

The Yankees could not have started the winner-take-all Game 7 against the Red Sox in a worse fashion. Clemens gave up four runs in only three-plus innings while the Yankees offense couldn’t manage a run. With runners on the corners and no outs in the top of the fourth, and on only three days’ rest after his Game 4 loss, Mussina made the first relief appearance of his career.

The Moose buckled down, striking out Jason Varitek and inducing a Johnny Damon double play to silence the threat. He then pitched a scoreless fifth and sixth to keep the Yankees’ hopes alive. The rest of that game is history, with Mariano Rivera pitching three scoreless innings and Aaron Boone hitting arguably the most famous home run in Yankees history in the eleventh inning to send the Yankees to their sixth World Series in eight years.

Mussina was equally brilliant in his lone start of the World Series — a seven-inning gem giving up one run with nine strikeouts to secure the Yankees’ 6-1 Game 3 victory over the Marlins — and one has to wonder how the Bombers would have fared had he been available for another appearance. Alas, Josh Beckett outpitched Andy Pettitte in Game 6 for the series win and that was that.

The next two years saw Mussina’s effectiveness hampered by injury. He went 25-17 with a 4.50 ERA and 274 strikeouts in 344.1 innings. And again, he was solid if not spectacular in the postseason. In 2004, he gave up two runs in seven innings of the 2-0 ALDS Game 1 loss to the Twins, four runs in 6.2 innings of the 10-7 ALCS Game 1 win over the Red Sox, and two runs in six innings of the heartbreaking 14-inning 5-4 Game 5 loss. A year later, it was a tale of two starts. Mussina pitched 5.2 shutout innings in the Yankees’ ALDS Game 1 win over the Angels. This was regrettably overshadowed by his Game 5 stinker, giving up five runs in only 2.2 innings as the Yankees were eliminated by the Angels, three games to two.

Mussina rebounded in 2006, going 15-7 with a 3.51 ERA and 172 strikeouts in 197.1 innings. He finished third among AL starters in K-BB% (17 percent), fourth in fWAR (5.2), and fifth in FIP (3.46) and with an assist from manager Joe Torre, provided one of the memorable moments of his career during the ninth inning of a complete game against the Tigers.

That year motivated the Yankees to decline their 2007 option on Mussina and re-sign him to a two-year, $22.5 million contract. Unfortunately, the ‘07 campaign did not mirror ‘06, and it was easily Mussina’s worst as a big league starter. With a 5.15 ERA season that briefly saw him lose his rotation spot, it became clear the 38-year-old Mussina was on his last legs.

That’s what made Mussina’s grand finale season of 2008 all the more spectacular. He topped 200 innings for the first time since 2003. He won his 18th decision of his season in his final start at Yankee Stadium, tossing six innings of one-run ball.

He saved the pièce de résistance for the final start of his career. In his 34th start of the season, and in classic Mussina style, the 39-year-old pitched six shutout innings to secure his first and only 20-win season. He became the oldest 20-game winner in MLB history, finished second in AL Comeback Player of the Year and sixth in AL Cy Young voting while securing his seventh Gold Glove. It was a crowning moment in an otherwise bleak season as the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

During his tenure in the Bronx, Mussina was arguable the Yankees’ best pitcher. He accrued the most fWAR (34.6) while winning at least 10 games in every season. But despite his consistency playing for the Yankees, it felt like Mussina was never fully embraced by the fanbase. Perhaps this was due to the slight drop off in dominance relative to his years in Baltimore. Perhaps it was the lucrative contract. More likely, one could chalk it up to the uneven nature of his performances in the postseason.

In any case, I always lamented the fact that he and Jason Giambi narrowly missed out on winning a ring with the Yankees. That being said, it was nice to see him go out on a high note, and his 2019 Hall of Fame induction was more than well deserved. Whatever your opinion of him, there is no doubt that bringing Moose to the Bronx was one of the smartest moves of the past 25 years.