Mussina constantly changed and adapted on the mound
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the seventh story in a 17-part series looking at Mike Mussina’s journey from Montoursville to the National Baseball Hall of Fame)
The statistics he produced throughout his 18-year Major League career often looked similar, but Mike Mussina never did. He was like a chameleon, always changing and always adapting.
Opposing hitters might think they knew what was coming, but in reality they rarely did. Mussina might not have been the most powerful pitcher, but he was a masterful one who built a Hall of Fame career being a pitcher’s pitcher. Look at different parts of his career and one will see Mussina featuring different arsenals. He worked up, down, inside and outside. He kept hitters off-balance and guessing.
Mussina had a golden arm, but also a beautiful mind. Those two working together built a legendary career that ends Sunday at Cooperstown when Mussina is inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
“You never had a comfortable at-bat against him. That’s what these guys used to tell me,” Montoursville graduate and former Major Leaguer Tom O’Malley said. “You never knew what was coming. He’s got that outpitch and guys that have that outpitch, whether it’s a wicked slider, or 100-mile per hour heater or fork ball or knuckle curve, they know they have it and they’re going to use it when they need it in clutch situations.”
Mussina featured a potent blend early in his career, including a four-seam fastball that topped out at 95 miles per hour. He often was throwing in the 91-92 mph range at that point while utilizing his slider, changeup and devastating knuckle curveball. Later in his career he modified the knuckle curve, went to a two-seam fastball and developed a split-finger fastball.
Although he graduated with an economics degree from Stanford, Mussina had a lot of scientist in him. He was constantly experimenting and evolving. Whenever hitters thought they had him figured out, Mussina would show them something else. So often, he was a step ahead.
“They’re good enough that you can’t show the same stuff or the same sequence. You have to mix up the sequence and you have to remember what got them out. You have to know the situation, who’s on base, what inning is it, how many outs are there, who’s up, the No. 3 hitter or 8 hitter? Is he going to use the field or is he going to try to pull?” Mussina said. “There’s so many variables that go into the equation and it just takes experience, really. It’s happening really fast when you’re young and when you get enough seasons under your belt it obviously doesn’t happen so fast. You get a chance to think and figure things out.”
Mussina figured things out well throughout his career, going 270-153. He is one of only 15 pitchers to win more 100 games than he lost and won 15 games 11 times. He suffered just one losing season in 17 full years, finishing among the top five in Cy Young voting five times, appearing in five All-Star Games, winning 20 games in his final season and winning at least 18 games four times.
But Mussina was not Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson. He was never going to simply be able to go out and overpower hitters. He was going to use some speed, some finesse, some knowledge and some variety. Put it all together with a player who fielded his position as well as any in the game (seven Gold Gloves) and who featured a Rocky Balboa-like competitive drive and one has a Hall of Fame pitcher.
“I think the differential in his pitches made him so tough to hit. He could spot his fastball really well and his curveball was up and down and the speed was different and he could throw them all for a strike. His four-seam fastball with late life like he had on it was a tough pitch to hit anyway,” former Toronto Blue Jay and Williamsport Crosscutters manager Pat Borders said. “But he’d drop that curveball and it was different and unusual so it almost made you have to focus on hitting one pitch or the other because you could not hit ’em both. You think, ‘Man, I’d like to call a game with him’ because his pitches are so different.”
An honors student at both Montoursville and Stanford, Mussina always studied his opponents well. As good as his pitches were, he was human. Mussina would have off days where his pitches were not as potent as usual. He could still win, though, because he could make in-game adjustments and out-think the hitter. If he could not locate one pitch, he could go to another. Whatever it took, Mussina would exhaust all options while seeking victory.
“It’s just the way you have to do it. You’re always trying to stay one step ahead of the guy in the box. If you throw a pitch and he fouls it off a certain way you’re like ‘oh man, he was on that one.’ I can’t do that one again. I might be able to throw it again, but I can’t throw it there again or he’ll waffle it,” Mussina said. “You have to read what is happening, you have to see where they’re taking, you have to see where they’re standing in the box, how they foul it off, how they swing and miss. If they rip one foul was that ball in the middle or is he all over the pitch. There’s a lot of stuff being thrown at you all at once and you have to be able to read what is happening and make an educated decision about what the next pitch is going to be.”
By 2001 when he joined the New York Yankees, Mussina was not throwing as hard as he did during his 1991 rookie season, but he remained just as effective. He invented the knuckle curve in high school and kept looking for ways to improve until he retired. Mussina added the splitter with the Yankees, but also modified his style. It kept working and he became just the ninth player in Major League history to win 100 games with two different teams by 2007.
Mussina was a player in constant motion. Never satisfied, he always was looking to improve and to conquer the next challenge. If that meant taking some chances in a game his team comfortably led, so be it. Mussina would pick his spots and if the Orioles or Yankees held a large late lead he might break out something new so he could start mastering that. As one win was all but secure, he already was thinking about trying to win the upcoming games.
If Mussina did not keep experimenting and changing, he would not have lasted as long as he did. Because he constantly was thinking, Mussina ended his career as impressively as he opened it. At 39, Mussina won 20 games in 2008, ending his career on the day’s final season with a super performance at Fenway Park against the Boston Red Sox.
“One of the things that made Moose great even at Stanford was he had the ability to throw any pitch he wanted. Nobody had to tell Mike Mussina what pitch to throw and he was not afraid to shake anyone off,” former Stanford coach Mark Marquess said. “He knew what he wanted to throw that hitter. He studied it and he was very smart. He knew how to set up hitters. He could throw four pitches for a strike as a freshman and that’s unheard of.
“He was the consummate pitcher. That’s why he’s in the Hall of Fame.”
And that is why on Mussina’s best days he could literally flirt with perfection.