Friday, May 14, 2004

Is the Moose Losing Juice?

Mike Mussina has been one of the most consistent pitchers of this era, or any other era for that matter.

Since 1995 he’s ranged between 243.1 and 203.1 innings pitched. With the exception of one season, his ERA has been between 3.20 and 4.05 during that same span. He’s made it an art form to win somewhere in the vicinity of 15 to 19 games, but never crack the 20-win barrier. He walks the same number of batters every year, strikes out about the same number of hitters, and gives up a similar number of hits per nine innings pitched every season.

We've come to expect a certain level of performance from Mike Mussina. A level that never blows you away, never garners him a Cy Young, but looks something like this:

33 starts, 17-8, 3.55 ERA, 220 IP, 210 H, 45 BB, 190 K

That's a typical Mike Mussina season: very solid. And the true appreciation of what he is as a pitcher comes from realizing that he has this type of season year after year after year.

However, after more than a decade of amazing consistency and success, 2004 has offered something new for Mike Mussina. A level of performance that not only differs from his body of work, but is a drastic decline in quality to this point in the season.

I’ve watched significant parts of nearly all of his nine starts this season, and I continue to be amazed by how many base hits he’s giving up. And it's not all bleeters and bloopers. There has been a seemingly endless stream of hard hit balls that are rifling their way through the Yankee infield, or bounding along towards the outfield walls.

Here are his hits per nine innings during his first three years as a Yankee:


As I’m sure you can figure from me pointing out his consistency, this number hasn’t wavered much over his career. Coming into this season, he's given up 8.4 hits per 9 innings. His worst figure for a full season came in what was statistically his worst year overall, 1996. That season he pitched to a career high 4.81 ERA and gave up hits at a 9.76 clip per 9 IP. Oddly enough that was also the year he logged his high for number of innings thrown in one season (243.1). He also benefited for pitching on very good offensive team and went 19-11.

Despite getting the win tonight against the Mariners (a team that is nestled at the bottom of the American League offensively), Mussina continued the ineffective pitching that’s been the trademark of his season so far.


6 IP, 11 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 1 BB, 0 K

For the season:

55.1 IP, 75 H, 17 BB, 32 K, 5.20 ERA

His Hits per 9 rate (H/9) has jumped to an alarming 12.3. He’s giving up four more hits per nine innings than a year ago. Granted, pitching behind this Yankee defense isn’t going to help any pitcher’s H/9 ratio, but Mussina’s number is less attributable to his shortstop’s range or first baseman’s clumsy feet, than it is to the fact that he’s not fooling anybody and is simply getting racked around.

And the story doesn't end with the number of hits he's giving up. His BB/9 is up about 1 per nine innings from 2003, and his strikeout rate has dropped considerably: 8.2 in ’03 to 5.2 in nine starts this year.

What does all this mean?

Maybe nothing (it is still May), maybe quite a bit. Mussina is 35 after all, and maybe he has lost a little bit off his fastball, maybe has lost some crispness on that heretofore befuddling knucklecurve.

He pitches for good enough an offense that he should be able to rack up a fair number of wins just by showing up (like tonight).

However, if Mike Mussina is going to have a season in which he ends up closer to 10 wins than his usual 17 or 18, the Yankees aren’t going to be running away from anybody, especially the Red Sox.

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