Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Question No. 2: Can Moose Find Consistency?

If the 2006 Yankees are to find the success that has eluded them for all but the first year of this century, they’re going to need more than sheer dominance by Randy Johnson. While he is the key cog in the rotation, the guys pitching behind him will be quite integral parts in the Yankees 5-cylinder engine. The next important man is the guy behind Unit in the rotation is Mr. Stanford himself, Mike Mussina.

Expectations were limitless when Mussina signed with the Yankees for the 2001 season, and although he has been marvelous at times, those moments seem fewer and further between of late. And even when he has pitched gems, they’ve been overshadowed by inconsistency. The Yankees will find it difficult to get ahead of the pack in the AL East if Mussina can’t be a reliable No. 2 starter.

There are two glaring problems with Mussina, and neither of them makes 2006 look bright. First, he’s made a rather lengthy trip to the DL over the past two years due to his pitching elbow. I’ll state it again: I’m not a doctor by any stretch of the imagination (I don’t even have one of those “trust me, I’m a doctor” t-shirts). But I think I’m qualified enough to be concerned over a 37-year-old with a recent history of pitching elbow woes. A 15-day stint on the DL in June might not hurt – it could actually help in that he can rest for a bit. But anything longer or during a more critical time in the season could be all Toronto needs to make a run.

The second issue is his mediocrity over the last two seasons, which just so happen to coincide with his elbow difficulties. In 2004, he posted a 4.59 ERA against an adjusted league average of 4.50 (ERA+ of 98). In 2005, it was his 4.41 against the average of 4.45 (ERA+ of 101). This is a bit troubling, mainly because Moose has posted an ERA+ of over 125 for most of his career – the past two years and 2002 are exceptions.

So in order for Mussina to find his necessary success in 2006, he’s not only going to have to stay healthy, but he’s going to have to pitch better at a more consistent rate. I know that’s a rather pedestrian analysis, but that’s what it ultimately boils down to. How do we analyze Mussina, then?

Let’s start with Mike Mussina by the numbers.

10 – number of starts that lasted seven innings or more (out of 30)
9 – number of no-decisions
8 – number of losses (hey, it’s hard to find something he did 8 times)
7 – number of times he allowed 5 or more earned runs and number of times he didn’t pitch past the fifth and number of games in which he allowed one or zero runs (luck sevens)
6 – average number of innings per start
5 – number of no-decisions lost
4 – number of no-decisions won
3 – number of times pulled before the seventh inning when pitching well because of a high pitch count and the Yanks ended up losing the game
2 – number of no-decisions lost when Mussina had a quality start
1 – number of times he pitched eight or more innings and lost. Also number of playoff wins. Also number of playoff losses.

Okay, time to move onto something a bit more relevant. Mussina has been long characterized as a stubborn fellow, refusing to admit when he’s gassed and often shaking off a catcher’s sign multiple times. He’s a perfectionist in every sense, and while that is admirable in one way, it’s hurtful to the team in another. Take, for instance, his late-season injury in 2005. After three straight quality starts in August, Moose lasted only 4.1 innings, surrendering eight runs in a 9-5 loss to the Blue Jays. Obviously something was wrong, as he had tossed the first three innings rather effortlessly.

Fast-forward five days to his next start against the hapless Mariners. Mussina lasted only three innings, tossing 64 pitches and allowing four runs along the way. It was only after this game that he hit the disabled list, not to return until September 22nd. Had he explored this injury a bit further following the Jays game, he may have spent less time on the sidelines and may have been more effective down the stretch.

This analysis becomes more significant when placed up against the 2004 season. In a mid-June start against San Diego, Moose only lasted three innings before being pulled for injury precaution. He skipped his next start, but wasn’t placed on the DL. In his next four games, Moose allowed 20 runs in 24 innings before finally hitting the DL on July 7th, not to return until August 18th. Once again, it appears that if he had attempted a stringent diagnosis after the San Diego start, he might have reduced the severity of the injury and spent less time on the DL. It also didn’t help that Kevin Brown was on the DL at that point as well (but then again, when isn’t Brown on the DL?).

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Mussina is going to be able to contribute as a No. 2 starter in 2006. A large factor in his effectiveness is going to be his ability to pitch deep into games. This does not bode well, since another year has passed, which means he’ll probably see less zip in his fastball and less fuel in his tank. He may make 30 starts, but he certainly won’t make 35. And even if he does make it out to the mound 30 times, he probably won’t eclipse 200 innings, which is integral for a No. 2 starter.

His only saving grace is that there is plenty of potential behind him in the rotation. Analyses on these fellows will come as we get deeper into the 12 Questions, but just to get it out there, a chance exists that either Wang, Chacon, or Pavano could step into the No. 2 role, thus alleviating Mussina of his $19 million responsibility (funny how the highest paid pitcher in the game can’t even hold down the No. 2 spot in the rotation).