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Yankee Panky #22: The Bull and the Moose

The consensus when the Yankees re-signed Mike Mussina in the winter was that at $23 million for two years, he was a bargain. He was coming off his best season since 2003, was healthy, and for all intents and purposes, would have his best chance at winning a World Series title in New York.

The same was said for re-signing Andy Pettitte. The media downplayed Mussina’s re-signing more than it hyped Pettitte’s return, but in both pitchers — at least, according to the numerous reports that surfaced at the time — the Yankees thought they were getting proven winners, people who had performed at the highest level of pressure in the greatest pressure-cooker environment Major League Baseball has to offer.

My thoughts at the time were thus: I disagreed with both acquisitions, but was more in favor of the Pettitte signing, because (a) I believed he had more left physically, and (b) he would approach this second go-round with even fervor and provide something to the rotation that’s been lacking — leadership. I didn’t come to that theory initially, however. Immediately after the signing was announced, it seemed to me that signing Pettitte was a means of assuaging guilt over what happened in the offseason between the 2003 and ’04 seasons that led to the Carl Pavano/Jaret Wright/Javier Vazquez/Kevin Brown atrocities. I believe that part of why the Yankees allowed Pettitte to leave New York after the 2003 season, despite his 21-win season and victories in Game 2 of each of the team’s three postseason series, was because they believed his left forearm and elbow were fragile. That he made only 15 starts for Houston in 2004 because of elbow problems corroborated the damaged goods theory. I said at the time of Pettitte’s exodus that come 2007, when he’s turning 35 years old and practically done, he’ll be perfect for the Yankees again.

I didn’t question his competitiveness, but I did wonder how he would handle returning to the American League. Pettitte has surprised me in many respects. As Al Leiter alluded on Tuesday’s YES Postgame, Pettitte has a bigger, sharper curveball, and because his velocity isn’t what it once was, he’s mixing his pitches better, using both sides of the plate with more regularity and changing hitters’ eye level. In other words, his patterns are less predictable. Pettitte has been far and away the Yankees best and most consistent starter, and if not for the rickety bullpen in April and May, would have three or four more victories to his credit.

Tuesday’s series opener with the Red Sox was a perfect example of Pettitte’s worth. He hung tough, going pitch for pitch with Dice-K, and gave the Yankees a chance to win. Johnny Damon’s home run, which proved to be the game winner, allowed Pettitte to run his August record to 6-0. In his Yankee career, he is 69-33 in starts following a loss.

Then there’s Mussina. In Baseball Prospectus 2007, Steven Goldman, who wrote the Yankees chapter, had this to say about Mussina in his player analysis for the team: "The Yankees took a good risk in turning Mussina’s one-year option into a discounted two-year extension."

I thought Steve was being generous. Because Mussina was healthy, for the most part — he made 32 starts despite a short DL stint with a groin injury — and he added the splitter, last year was the only year in the last three years he had fewer hits than innings pitched, a WHIP of less than 1.20, at least 15 wins, and an ERA less than 4.00. I thought it was an anomaly. Including the improvements in 2006, his BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) over the last three seasons was .310. That’s not good for any pitcher, let alone one who’s being relied upon as a potential 15-game winner. PECOTA projected a slip back to his ’04 form was projected: 12-9, between 40 and 50 walks, 29 starts, an ERA in the 4.25 range, and a WHIP near 1.30.

I thought the declining velocity — NoMaas.org‘s assessment is stinging yet hilarious — would catch up with him. He’s been more reliant on his off-speed stuff and the assortment of curveballs does not have the same bit as it did even four years ago. Based on three straight seasons of landing on the disabled list with assorted elbow and leg ailments, I didn’t believe he was in good enough shape to handle a 32-start workload. I also thought his finicky nature would wear thin. It seemed like the Yankees signed him because no one else would.

Save for a few standout performances, Mussina’s Yankee career has been good, but generally nondescript. Yes, he was one out away from a perfect game Labor Day weekend in Boston six years ago, and he kept the Yankees alive with a brilliant performance in Game 3 of the DS that same year, and his three innings of relief in Game 7 against Boston in the ’03 ALCS laid the foundation for the comeback. But it appears the negatives outweigh all that. There’s a faction of fans that believe he’s gutless because he won’t buzz opposing hitters to protect his own guys who’ve been hit (see July 7, 2003 vs. Boston), which projects an image that he’s selfish and not a good teammate. If the home plate umpire isn’t giving him the corners, he gives the steely stare as if to say, "Do you know what a strike is? I do." And he’ll keep throwing pitches in the same location to get the ump to cave in a psychological game of cat-and-mouse.

Mussina has always thought himself to be his own pitching coach. He’s a "creature of habit," and is outspoken when certain elements of his routine are altered. He can be stubborn and abrasive, and is prone to shun accountability for his deficiencies. Last Wednesday night in Anaheim, following a sequence that led to Garret Anderson’s RBI double in the disastrous second inning, YES cameras caught Mussina mouthing to Jose Molina, "That’s not what I said. It wasn’t my fault," referencing the pitch sequence.

Who threw the pitch?

To that point, I shot through the archives and stumbled upon a column from Ian O’Connor in USA Today recapping Game 4 of the ’03 ALCS, in which he railed Mussina for not taking responsibility for the loss and minimizing his effect on the result of the series to that point.

"It seems like we do well when I don’t pitch," Mussina said at the time. "We’ll just let the other guys have at it, we’ll win the series and move on."

Mussina’s self-deprecating assessment can be applied to this current spate of distress that had Joe Torre and Ron Guidry visibly at odds in the dugout during Monday’s third straight calamity.

Steve Lombardi, our friend at WasWatching, makes an apt comparison:

"At this stage, Mike Mussina has become to the 2007 New York Yankees what Luis Tiant was to the 1980 Yankees. Moose is an imported star who has reached the end of his effective days. If you told me, at this point, that Mussina would not win another 10 games in the major leagues, I wouldn’t fight you, with tooth and nail, to make you say ‘Take it back.’"

David Justice was more forthright on Monday’s postgame.

"Mike Mussina has been so successful for so long doing it his way," he said. "How do you sell him on committing to something different? It’s a tough sell. … In my opinion, he just doesn’t have it anymore."

Mussina, in his current way, cannot help the Yankees. He is 0-7 this season after Yankees losses, and 2-6 against teams with winning records. In his last two starts, the Yankees have been outscored 34-9.

Monday night, he did not pitch like a man willing to fight for his spot in the rotation. When presented with a challenge, an affront to his position on the team, he did not pitch like someone determined to work through his struggles; he pitched like a complacent man who responded, "Who would they replace me with?" when asked about his tenuous position.

The answer came late Tuesday: Ian Kennedy. Torre announced that Kennedy would take Mussina’s place in the rotation and make his major league debut Saturday versus the Devil Rays.

Reporters relayed Mike Mussina’s message that he "didn’t feel like anything good was going to happen" when he let go of the ball. Clearly, neither does the Yankees’ brain trust.

[OOPS: Monday’s NY Times notebook hinted that Kennedy was an unlikely call-up, even if Mussina had a bad outing. It was probably correct at the time.]

On Tuesday’s postgame, when asked what Kennedy’s promotion means for Mussina, Justice had this to offer:

"You’re asking him to go into the bullpen. That means long man. Mop-up. It’s not about Moose’s feelings right now. It’s about winning ball games and getting into the playoffs."

At least the Yankeees’ hunch on one veteran pitcher was correct. And the assessment of the two pitchers, especially over the past month, has been fair.

Until next week …

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