Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Rocky and Bullwinkle

What can you say about Mike Mussina? Now, he’s one of those pitchers who is always referred to in terms of his age, as much as his ability. You know what I’m talking about. Anytime a story is written about Moose, it begins “37-year old Mike Mussina….”

Like his fellow baseball senior citizens Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, and Greg Maddux, Mussina has learned to keep hitters off balance with a little different approach. Maddux has always been a control pitcher that painted the corners brilliantly, but the others used a mix of off speed stuff with blistering heat in their salad days. As father time encroaches on these pitchers’ careers they are adapting and succeeding. What does it tell us?

It tells us that pitching is not about your live arm, or your leg drive, or your tough looks. Pitching is about keeping batters off balance, and you do that by outthinking them. You do that by employing superior control and technique. If you can also throw it by a guy, you go to the Hall of Fame. Mussina has always been able to control his pitches. He’s always been able to outthink the opposition, his Stanford education being a favorite topic among YES announcers. Moose has employed outstanding technique in mastering a number of pitches, including his time tested “nose to toes” curve ball.

What’s different this year is Mussina’s willingness to forgo the days of the power fastball, in favor of the slow-slower-slowest approach that has kept guys like Jamie Moyer in baseball beyond the age of 40. Mussina still has the stuff he needs to dominate on any given night, but he’s used his noodle to adjust to the cards that his body has dealt him at 37. The curveball still bites. The fastball still has some pop when he needs it, but whatever he throws, he’s sure that it is going to keep his opponent off balance. That’s the key. David Cone knew it. Maddux knows it. Even Roger Clemens, with his fastball still at its thunderous best, knows it…hence the sub-2.00 ERA last year and the $10 million contract waiting for him for a half season, plus playoffs.

Eventually, Mussina will have a rocky start, but to this point he has opened the season with five consecutive quality starts and an ERA at 2.46 on the year. We haven’t seen a stretch of consistent brilliance like this from Moose for some time, and it bodes well for Yankee hopes on the season if he can continue to fool batters the way he has so far. Today’s performance was a model of his wisdom and competitive edge, as he dominated the Devil Rays over 6 innings of baseball, the Yankees winning 9-1. I hope the guys behind him in the rotation are watching and learning, for where their talent can’t take them, perhaps their approach will win out.

The other side of the winning equation for the Yankees on Tuesday was the resurgent Jason Giambi, once again in the DH slot. Giambi isn't referred to in terms of age, but rather allegations. Barry Bonds gets syringes thrown at him, while Giambi only has to endure the jeers and signage that greet him in opposing ballparks.

There are those that gave "Giambino" up for dead during the stretch between July 2003 and July of 2005. There are those who decided the Giambi train was derailing and that he had sold his soul by succumbing to temptation along with other prominent figures of the late-90's. Giambi probably even lost faith at some point along the way. The thing is, performance enhancing drugs give you an edge in building muscle. They give you an edge in recovering from hard labor. Performance enhancing drugs have never given players the ability to see the ball better, or time their swing perfectly. They have never been credited with making a ballplayer out of a hack. Giambi has never been a hack.

After July 4th of last season, Giambi hit 27 home runs in 230 at bats, which amounts to one in every 8.5 times up. In the time between July 2003 and July 2005, Giambi hit 36 home runs in 709 at bats, which is a home run every 19.7 times up. What's more, the power wasn't the big problem. Before the 2003 season, the lowest batting average Giambi had ever produced in the Big Leagues was .291 during his first full year. He had become the AL MVP by hitting at a .300+ clip while walking more than Steven Tyler. During his worst stretch, Giambi lost the Hall of Fame home run stroke and managed a .227 average to boot.

This year, we are seeing the Oakland Giambi that we paid for several years ago. Not only has he added 7 home runs to the 27 he hit after Independence Day last year, but he's also hitting .347 in April. Including his hot streak to end last season he is now hitting .298(83/279) to go with his 34 home runs. Let's hope he keeps it up and removes the doubt that some of us built in our minds about the remaining career of this true Rocky. Myself included.

Now if only we could get Mr. Peabody and Sherman to turn back the clock on Bernie...