Toolshed: Mussina lived up to hype early

Hall of Famer climbed levels at pace rarely seen in today's game

Mike Mussina made 21 starts for Triple-A Rochester before jumping to the Major Leagues. (Frank Franklin II/AP, Rochester Red Wings)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | January 25, 2019 10:00 AM

NEW YORK -- Mike Mussina's time in the Minor Leagues began with a false start.

Fresh off being taken out of Stanford by the Orioles with the 20th overall pick in the 1990 Draft and signing for $250,000 -- roughly the equivalent bonus slot assigned to the 185th pick in the 2018 Draft -- Mussina was sent to Double-A Hagerstown right out of the gate. He was slated to start for the Suns on July 14 against the Williamsport Bills at Bowman Field, nine miles down I-180 West from his hometown of Montoursville, Pennsylvania. A return to central PA couldn't have made for a more storybook beginning. And then the rain came.

"First game I actually pitched, it rained so hard they couldn't get the tarp on the field, so I pitched two innings and so it didn't really count," Mussina said. "So I got two debuts in the Minors, which doesn't happen all the time. You know, they just let me pitch, though, and they tried to teach me a few things, and I talked to some older players, and that's kind of how you do it when you're young."

The rain was the only hitch in his quick ascent to the game's pantheon.

On Tuesday, Mussina was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame after winning 270 games with the Orioles and Yankees, making six All-Star teams and earning six Gold Glove awards. Needing to be named by 75 percent of Baseball Writers Association of America voters to receive induction into Cooperstown, he got 76.7 percent in his sixth time on the ballot, beating the threshold by seven total votes. Mariano Rivera, Edgar Martinez and the late Roy Halladay also hit the mark, joining Today's Game Era Committee electees Lee Smith and Harold Baines in the Class of 2019. 

Mussina, Rivera and Martinez partook in a press conference hosted by the Hall on Wednesday. Mussina, incredibly, is the only one of the three who was once a top prospect. Martinez, who became arguably the greatest designated hitter in the history of the game, was a monster at the plate in the Mariners system, but one who had serious defensive concerns at third base. Rivera, who became legendary as the game's greatest closer with the game's greatest pitch in his cutter, showed promise as a starting pitcher at times, cracking Baseball America's top 10 Yankees prospect list twice, but never making their top 100 list.

Mussina was a different story.

The right-hander had his name called by Baltimore in the 11th round in 1987 when he was coming out of Montoursville High, but he chose college instead. Heading into the 1990 Draft, his stock was somewhat up in the air due to scout concerns about his consistency -- even in the face of his 14-5 record, 3.50 ERA, 111 strikeouts and 35 walks as a junior. His 14 wins remain tied for second in the Cardinal single-season record book, and his 149 innings that spring rank sixth. His 328 1/3 total collegiate innings stand as 10th-most in school history, despite the fact he only made eight starts his sophomore year.

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With his assignment to Hagerstown, Mussina quickly put any worries about consistency to bed. He posted a 1.49 ERA (second-lowest in the Eastern League among pitchers with at least 40 innings) and a 0.97 WHIP while fanning 40 and walking seven in 42 1/3 frames. The O's promoted him to Triple-A Rochester in August. That may be an unthinkable transaction for a recent Draft pick in today's game, but Baltimore figured he had little to prove by sticking around Double-A any longer.

"We had a pretty good line of communication in the Baltimore system at the time," Dick Bosman, Rochester's pitching coach from 1988-1991, said this week. "Tom Brown, the Double-A pitching coach then, called me up and said, 'When you get him up there, you're going to see this guy could be in the Major Leagues right now.' We knew we were going to have to talk to him about pitching selection and controlling the run game and little things like that. But everything else was good with him. He had that quiet confidence in himself, in the way he carried about his business. We worked on controlling runners and setting up hitters, but even then, if anybody was a complete pitcher, it was him."

When Bosman first saw Mussina in the flesh, the things that stood out were the same aspects noted by everyone who later saw the righty during his 18-year Major League career. He had a clean delivery that Bosman called "athletic," no doubt aided by a three-sport background that could have sent him to Vanderbilt for basketball or Penn State for football. His fastball came in at 90 to 93 mph -- numbers that might not pop up in modern scouting reports but worked for the early '90s. He threw not one, but two knuckle-curves -- what Bosman called a four-finger and a one-finger, with the famous spiked curve coming later -- and he could alter them based on the shape and angle he wanted. His changeup also kept most hitters off balance. 

"He was always big on pitching strategy and understanding his strength," Bosman said. "He knew how to attack hitters with what he had at his disposal, which was a lot. He wasn't about to blindly try to plow through the lineup instead of pitching to each batter. The job of pitching coach with him was sitting back, seeing things from afar, talking about maybe throwing this or that a little more. But nine innings might be the best coach anyone could have, and he always wanted to make the most of those nine innings." 

Bosman noted Mussina's trademark dip in the stretch was something he worked on early in his Minor League days.

"When I had MLB Network on the other night and he was talking with [fellow Hall of Famer John] Smoltz about that dip look he'd take to see first base, I thought about [how] he worked on that with us to control runners and identify a lead," said the former pitching coach, who retired in the fall after working as an instructor with the Rays since 2001. "It wasn't hard for him to understand why we wanted him to do this, and he obviously took it from there."

Mussina made two starts for the Red Wings at the tail end of that 1990 season. Replacing Jose Mesa, who'd been recalled to the Orioles, he held the opposition to two earned runs while striking out 15 over 13 1/3 innings. He pitched Game 4 in the Governors' Cup Finals, keeping Rochester close in a 2-1 loss to Columbus before the Red Wings captured the league title in Game 5. It was the only championship of Mussina's time in pro ball, but that early ring, combined with his 1988 College World Series title with Stanford, helped his development.

"Even then, that competitiveness was part of his DNA," Bosman said. "He never ducked the big game. He pitched with nagging injuries here and there. ... He relished that opportunity to be a part of that team and win like we did."

Others took notice. While Mussina was taken 20th overall in the previous Draft, he was ranked the 19th overall prospect by Baseball America before the 1991 season, based on the arsenal he'd shown out of the chute in the Minors. Chipper Jones -- the top pick in the 1990 Draft -- slotted in at No. 49. Ivan Rodriguez (No. 7) was the only fellow future Hall of Famer ranked above Mussina, while Jeff Bagwell (No. 32) and Jim Thome (No. 93) were also Cooperstown-bound players on the list that year.

Mussina lived up to that ranking in his return to the Red Wings for his first full season. He was named the 1991 International League Starting Pitcher of the Year after putting up a 3.09 ERA, a 1.14 WHIP, 107 strikeouts and 31 walks in 122 1/3 innings and was summoned to Comiskey Park for his Major League debut on Aug. 4, 1991 -- when he limited the White Sox to one earned run over 7 2/3 frames. He never returned to the Minors, except for rehab outings.

"I think he was OK when we sent him up," Bosman said. "You could tell he was just biding his time with me. He was still doing things to get better, but he was ready for his chance. Yes, granted there wasn't a hell of a lot of pitching in Baltimore those days, no disrespect, but to get him there and get those opportunities, he was the one who ran with it."

Mussina agreed the rotational weakness in the Baltimore system contributed to his speedy ascent. The Orioles, who lost his first game, 1-0, were 42-60 upon his promotion. Baltimore pitchers ranked dead last in the Major Leagues that season with a 4.59 ERA. Mussina made a total of 12 starts for the O's down the stretch, but with a 2.87 ERA over 87 2/3 frames, he finished the season ranked third among Baltimore hurlers with a 2.2 WAR. At a time when the club could use an ace in the mold of Jim Palmer, Mussina had arrived.

"The team wasn't doing very well when I first signed and when I first got in the Minors, so I got an opportunity relatively early," the newly elected Hall of Famer explained. "They put me out there to pitch and said, 'Listen, you're going to do this until you prove you can't.' My very first year, soon as I got called up, I made 12 starts out of 12 turns. The next Spring Training, they penciled me to be the fourth starter, I think, at the time. ... Because of the opportunity of the situation, I was able to be successful and stay and have 10 good seasons in Baltimore."

But it wasn't the Orioles' struggles alone that allowed Mussina to take over Charm City as quickly as he did. The truth is the right-hander, who graduated Stanford early with an economics degree, was more prepared to move than any of his peers (Rivera and Martinez included) were, and also more so than pitching prospects today are. It's possible Casey Mize, Logan Gilbert or Brady Singer -- the three highest-picked college pitchers in the 2018 Draft -- could climb to the Majors in 2019, but they combined for 13 2/3 innings (all of which came from Mize) in their Draft year. That's a far cry from the 55 2/3 frames Mussina threw right out of college in 1990.

Given the way arms are protected in the modern game, Minor League rocketry like Mussina's might not be seen again.

"It was unique, even then," Bosman said. "One thing I can tell you about guys coming out of college is that it cuts one to two years off their development. Most high-school kids have to develop those things in Rookie ball. But there aren't too many guys that should run through a system as quickly as Mike did. Even Brent Honeywell, he has incredible abilities, but he still needed to go through that process. Mike was unique in that way."

In 1992, Mussina was already receiving Cy Young votes and made the first of his six All-Star teams. He helped the Orioles reach the American League Championship Series in 1996 and 1997 and signed with the Yankees before the 2001 season. He spent eight years in pinstripes, reaching the playoffs seven times (including the World Series in 2001 and 2003), and retired in 2008 after becoming a 20-game winner with a victory in the final outing of his season and his career.

It was a fast road through the Minors for a hurler who became one of the best pitchers of his generation, but Mussina's ascent illustrated what can happen for a top prospect who brings multiple weapons to the table and adapts well to new situations.

"You try to learn whatever you can, let some of the older guys help you, and that's all I tried to do," he said. "I got lucky and got an opportunity at a young age and when they gave me a chance, I did OK and I got to stay in the big leagues. That's pretty much how it happened."

Even so, when Mussina walks across the stage in Cooperstown to enter baseball's famed Hall, his former pitching coach will be thinking of that short time period when the righty was in the Minors.

"I'll still always think back on our time in Rochester," said Bosman, who was Baltimore's Major League pitching coach from 1992-'94. "The development part is still the most rewarding part of a career. Yeah, it's a big deal in the big leagues, and I enjoyed our time there with Camden Yards and [manager Johnny] Oates and that bunch. But it's like bringing up kids. There are the bumps and the bruises and the trials and the tribulations, but it's all worth it to watch them put in the work to become good pitchers. You just hope at the end you can say, 'I'm proud of ya,' and there's no doubt on that one with him."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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