Mussina is the 9th oldest player in the majors and has pitched 18 seasons, all in the offense-heavy AL East and throughout the height of the PED-era. He has won at least 15 games in a season 11 times (including 6 times while he still played for the O’s), tying him for fourth all-time on the list of pitchers with the most 15+-win seasons.
And yet, at the age of 39, Moose is having arguably his best year ever, making it worth considering what his chances are to achieve two pitching milestones that have to-date eluded him: 1. Winning 20 games in a season (he has two 19-win seasons and three 18-win seasons); and 2. Winning the Cy Young Award (he has registered in the top 6 of Cy Young Award vote-getters 8 times, with a distant 2nd place finish to Pedro Martinez in 1999 being his best showing).
Well he can likely forget about the Cy, as the competition for it in 2008 is more than stiff, especially from Cliff Lee, who not only matches Mussina in wins so far, but is also in the top 3 of virtually every major pitching category including a few on which Mussina does not even break the top 10. Lee ranks 2nd in ERA at 2.58, 1st in win %-age at .882, 3rd in WHIP at 1.080, and 10th in K/9 IP with 7.44. Mussina is 9th in ERA at 3.27 and his win %-age of .625, his WHIP of 1.204, and his K/9 IP of 6.15 don’t land him on the top ten of any of those lists. The only category in which Moose leads Lee (and, in fact, all pitchers) is BB/9 IP with 1.28, but Lee, though in second place, is essentially tied with him at 1.29. Even if Lee falters dramatically and Mussina continues to pitch over the last 7 weeks of the season the way he has to-date, guys like Halladay and Saunders seem to be just as well placed – if not better placed – than Mussina to overtake Lee, who really has to be the favorite at this stage.
But winning 20 games appears much more plausible, especially with every strong outing he puts up. He certainly has a better shot of it this year than he ever has had before. In the seven seasons in which Mussina has logged at least 17 wins, the earliest that he ever won his 15th game was August 15 during what would ultimately be a 19-win season in 1996. This year he got his 15th win on August 7 and will be going for number 16 next Tuesday (August 12) in Minnesota, facing one of the teams against which he has done best this year, compiling a 1.29 ERA over 14 IP in 2 games vs. the Twins. If Mussina remains healthy, and if the Yankees try to keep him on his regular 4-day rest schedule, he will have 10 more starts beginning with the Minnesota game and ending with the final game of the regular season in Boston. If that turns out to be his last shot at 20 wins, the drama will be thick. And if that is the case, Moose will be very happy to not see Manny in the line-up, who this year batted .667 off Moose with a .750 OBP and 2.333 SLG (adding up to an absurd 3.083 OPS), though young Boston hitters like Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia have also had remarkable success against Mussina this year.
But beyond Mussina’s pursuit of personal history-making, if you have not watched him navigate a line-up this year, you are missing a strange and fascinating spectacle. Mussina’s extaordinary variety of pitches combined with exceptional control and a smart approach to hitters all contribute to a kind of mastery over line-ups that is rare, even when compared to the top aces in the league and to those pitchers who are more likely to win the Cy Young Award than is Mussina this year.
Consider this: without exception, the more that a batter faces Josh Beckett, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Scott Kazmir, AJ Burnett, Joe Saunders or (an NL ace of note) Johan Santana in a game, the better that batter tends to do. For several of these stellar pitchers, the opponent’s BA goes up by close to or more than 100 points between their 1st plate appearance and their 3rd and, though I have not had the time to compile stats on other aces, I would suspect the same to be true for virtually (perhaps even literally) all of them. By comparison, the more a batter faces Mussina in a line-up, the worse he does. BA, OBP, and SLG off of Mussina in successive plate appearancs is as follows:
- 1st PA = .310 / .349 / .443
- 2nd PA = .269 / .294 / .416
- 3rd PA (or more) = .232 / .263 / .387
If you haven’t had a chance to see this play out over the course of a game, you are really missing something special. Here’s to hoping Moose can keep doing it to the tune of at least 5 more wins in 2008.