To be put in the same company as the great Sandy Koufax is the ultimate compliment for a pitcher. The Hall of Fame lefthander called it a career after going 27-9 for the 1966 Los Angeles Dodgers and has always been the example of an athlete leaving the game at the top, such as running back Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns in football.
Mike Mussina became the first 20-game winner to retire the same year since Koufax after making it official on Thursday. The unlikeliest of candidates to do so, the 39-year-old rebounded after nearly being cut loose by the Yankees after an 11-10, 5.15 ERA season in 2007. Being squeezed out of a rotation spot by three youngsters heading into Spring Training, the man known as ‘Moose’ proved himself as a steady veteran presence and became the most reliable hurler in the Bombers’ rotation over the summer.
Having played behind many great pitchers, Derek Jeter recognized what Mussina meant to an organization like the Yankees. “It was a great pleasure playing against – and even more so – with Mike Mussina since I entered the league in 1995,” the shortstop released in a statement. “He was a true professional both on and off the field. Moose’s accomplishments in the game over the last 18 years represent a Hall of Fame player.”
That is debatable. Mussina leaves the game with 270 wins, tied for 32nd all-time with Burleigh Grimes, himself a Hall of Famer. What will be held against Mussina will be only one 20-win season (20-9 in 2008) and no World Series rings. He also is 19th on the all-time strikeout list with 2,813.
Although he had made up his mind some time ago, Mussina chose to keep his plans a secret until now. “I don’t think there ever was a point where I looked around and said, ‘You know what? I’m going to change my mind,’ “ Mussina told reporters during a conference call. “I just felt so good about the season, the way it was going, and enjoying it and not getting caught up in the bad times.
“It was like the last year of high school,” continued Mussina. “You know it’s going to end, and you just enjoy the ride.”
Mussina joined the Yankees as a free agent in 2001 after spending a decade in Baltimore. One of the top righthanders in the league, Mussina won 19 games in consecutive seasons (1995 and 1996) and in his first three campaigns in the Bronx, had 17, 18 and 17 victories.
One of Mussina’s biggest attributes was his control. In 3,562.2 total innings, he only surrendered 785 walks, and average of 1.98 per nine innings. Finding more quality company, Mussina joins Cy Young (1.11) and Jack Quinn (1.96) as the only pitchers to throw at least 3,000 innings and average less than two bases on balls.
With the loss of Mussina, the Yankees’ pitching staff is even more of a question mark than before. Andy Pettitte is not guaranteed to be back and right now, the only sure things for the starting staff are Chien-Ming Wang (who missed a good portion of the summer with a foot injury) and Joba Chamberlain, who has some durability issues.
Needing to replace the experience of a Mussina will not be easy. The Yankees will throw a ton of money at free agents such as CC Sabathia, A. J. Burnett and Derek Lowe, but Moose – at least the 2008 version – will be sorely missed.