A few days ago, Steve Lombardi labeled Mike Mussina "old, unreliable and pedestrian." With the Yankees' rotation in shambles, starting pitching is clearly the priority this offseason. It follows, then, that the first thing the Yankees have to figure out is what to do with their impending free agent starters: Mussina and Jaret Wright.
We're not going to bother with discussing Wright. Even if he returns, he's the fifth starter and how many teams go with the same fifth starter all year long anyway?
Mussina, on the other hand, is vital to this team's success. Last year, the Yankees had only two starters who were even remotely reliable: Mussina and Chien-Ming Wang. It would be a disaster to let one of them go.
That we're even discussing this is foolish. Consider Mussina's AL rankings in 2006:
ERA: 3.51 (4th)
FIP: 3.56 (5th)
xFIP: 3.95 (7th)
ERA+: 126 (4th)
K/G: 8.2 (6th)
BB/G: 1.7 (4th)
K:BB: 4.9 (2nd)
By any measure, Mussina was clearly one of the best pitchers in the league last year. Calling him "pedestrian" is patently ridiculous.
But wait, you say. What about 2004 and 2005? Well, what about them? Yes, his ERAs those years were 4.59 and 4.41. But ERA is hardly a perfect tool, and it's been shown that FIP is a better predictor of future ERA. Quick summary:
Pitchers who underperformed their FIP:
2004 ERA: 5.29
2004 FIP: 4.61
2005 ERA: 4.58
Pitchers who overperformed their FIP:
2004 ERA: 3.93
2004 FIP: 4.75
2005 ERA: 4.88
It should be obvious that FIP is much more useful than ERA. Mussina's FIP in 2004 and 2005: 4.03 each year.
His K:BB ratio the last three years: 3.3, 3.0, 4.9. Think 2006 is a fluke? Fine. But 3 strikeouts for every walk is still outstanding. In fact, Mussina's K:BB ratio hasn't been below 3 since 1996. And in his worst year (1994) he was still a staggering 46% better than average. The dude can still pitch.
A simple Marcel projection using Mussina's FIP would place his 2007 ERA at ~3.80. That would again make him the best pitcher on the Yankees.
But he'll be 38! Bollocks that. Pitchers don't follow any sort of aging pattern. According to Dan Szymborski, who has studied pitchers' aging patterns, "there's no real aging "curve" with pitchers until the strikeout rates start eroding too quickly or the pitcher gets injured. But this happens at young ages, too - pitchers in the late 20s with scary drops in K rate age just as poorly as those in the late 30s with similar drops in K rate."
Mussina's K-rate is, in fact, improving, by 15% in 2006. That goes along with a 29% drop in his already excellent walk rate.
Bottom line: there is no reason to expect Mussina to fall off a cliff. He is a very good bet to post another sub-4 ERA while throwing around 200 innings. In addition, he pretty much became Philip Hughes's mentor last spring. And when your best starter is also your Future's teacher...well, re-signing him is a no-brainer.