Heading into the season, I did not have high expectations for Mike Mussina. The right hander, 39 years old on Opening Day, was coming off his worst season and had been replaced in the starting rotation in September. That the Yanks were counting on Moose this year was, seven months ago, more than a little alarming.
Of course, as baseball fate would have it, Mussina threw one helluva season. After a 1-3 start that saw Moose lose twice to the Red Sox before the middle of April, we were ringing the death knell. But over his last 30 starts, Mussina went 19-6 with a 3.10 ERA.
On the season, he threw 200 innings for the first time since 2003 and racked up 20 wins for the first time ever. He allowed 214 hits and walked fewer than one batter per start. His season ERA was 3.37, and Mussina will garner some Cy Young votes this year.
So what changed? A quick glance at some of Moose’s stats reveal that he wasn’t that was able to change the way batters hit him. While he allowed line drives 21.9 percent of the time as he did in 2007, his ground-ball rate skyrocketed. Batters hit ground balls off of him 48.5 percent of the time this year as opposed to just 41.9 percent of the time last year.
In fact, Moose’s numbers should actually be better than they were. According to Baseball Prospectus, Moose’s BABIP, a measure of opponents’ average on balls in play, was .327, a remarkably high number. So while hitters were markedly worse against Mike Mussina in 2008, he should have been even better this year.
Mussina enjoyed this new-found success simply because he changed his approach to pitching. No longer in possession of a mid-90s fastball, Mussina had to adjust to a breaking ball-based, control approach to pitching. In the words of Hank Steinbrenner, Mussina had to become Jamie Moyer, and while the idea seems a bit preposterous, that’s exactly what Moose did this year. He became the AL version of the NL’s crafty veteran.
Going forward, nothing suggests that Mussina cannot continue to thrive this way. His command has always been stellar, and he’s a smart pitcher. But he also knows that he could go out on top if he retired today, and no one yet knows what the future holds for Mike Mussina. The Yankees need him to provide that solid presence in the rotation. While Mussina needs baseball anymore is anyone’s guess. But one thing is for sure; Mike Mussina’s 2008 was a very unexpected and very welcome surprise.