When Mike Mussina arrived in the Bronx prior to the 2001 season, he had already established himself as one of the premier starting pitchers in baseball, regularly silencing AL East lineups while playing for Baltimore in many hitter-friendly ballparks. In Mussina, the Yankees hoped they were getting a co-ace to pair with Roger Clemens at the top of the rotation as they looked to keep their championship window wide open and match the feats of the legendary Yankees squads of yesteryear.
The Moose provided that and more, accruing the fifth-most value of any pitcher in baseball across his first three seasons in pinstripes. Unfortunately, it was not enough to satisfy the team’s ultimate mission statement, as they fell short in the Fall Classic in 2001 and 2003. The team would not return to the World Series for the rest of Mussina’s tenure in pinstripes, as his career wound down in the latter half of his thirties. But what a finale he had in store.
2008 Statistics: 34 games, 200.1 innings, 20-9, 3.37 ERA, 131 ERA+, 3.32 FIP, 1.223 WHIP, 3.6 fWAR, 5.1 bWAR
By the time the 2008 season rolled around, it was clear that Mussina was in the final act of his career. Though he surprised everyone with a top-10 starting pitching performance in 2006, he was a diminished pitcher from his peak Orioles years and in the first few seasons of the millennium with the Yankees. At 39 years old, he alongside Andy Pettitte were the elder statesmen of a young and inexperienced rotation that included Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, and Ian Kennedy, all of whom had made their big-league debuts the season prior.
The season started in much the same way as his previous campaign, stumbling out of the gate losing while three of his first four starts while pitching to a 5.75 ERA and 6.53 FIP. The velocity on his fastball was severely diminished leading owner George Steinbrenner to quip that Mussina should “learn how to pitch like Jamie Moyer.” Rather than react negatively to this slight, Mussina joked that the fact he was not left-handed inhibited his ability to do so.
In fact, the owner’s comments seemed to be just the shot in the arm that Mussina needed, as he would go 9-1 in his next 11 starts with a 3.25 ERA and 3.57 FIP. This newfound success was due to a shift in approach away from attacking the outside corner of the zone, instead establishing the fastball inside early with two-seam spin that created late in-breaking movement against righties.
Unlike in 2007, there would thankfully be no demotions to the bullpen. Mussina secured his 10th win of the 2008 campaign on June 14th with six innings of three-run ball against the Astros to extended his American League record to 17 consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins. That summer represented one of the best stretches of his career, as he would make nine starts in which he allowed two or fewer runs while pitching at least six innings.
Moose provided two of the more memorable moments of that 2008 campaign, the final season at the old Yankee Stadium. On September 18th in his final start at that storied ballpark, Mussina picked up his 18th victory of the season, surrendering a run on five hits in six innings of a 9-2 victory over the White Sox.
That Bronx sendoff set up a truly fairy tale ending to his career ten days later. Pitching in his 537th and final game in the first game of a doubleheader at Fenway, Mussina held the Red Sox scoreless on three hits across six innings to secure his first 20-win season in the 18th and final season of his career.
In doing so, he became the oldest first-time 20-game winner in MLB history and joined Sandy Koufax as the only other pitcher to retire following a 20-win season in the live-ball era. Wins are flawed as a statistic, but they do mean a lot to pitchers, particularly those of Mussina’s generation, and he was visibly thrilled to finally get No. 20 after several seasons of barely coming up short — often due to disappointing run support.
But 20 wins was hardly the only impressive part of Mussina’s swan song. He collected his seventh Gold Glove, led all major league starters with a 67.6-percent first-strike percentage and crossed the 200-inning threshold for the first time since 2003. His 3.8-percent walk rate represented the best mark of his career and tied with Cliff Lee for second-lowest in the league, just a 10th of a percentage point behind Greg Maddux.
Although the Yankees would miss the playoffs for the first time since 1993, Mussina’s performance helped send off the old Stadium in style. It may have taken six tries on the ballot, but I like to think the finale season to Mussina’s career played some role in his eventual (and rightful) enshrinement in the Hall of Fame in 2019.