It is raining, freezing and cold here in the North, but I am heartened as I spend this Saturday afternoon listening to Spring Training broadcasts from Florida. As it turns out, it’s chilly and rainy in Florida, too, which is not really what I want to hear, but, well, there are many things about the reports from Florida that one must accept.
I want to hear, of course, that Mike Mussina is sharp, that he’s looking like the pitcher with the glare in his eye who nearly pitched a perfect game at Fenway Park in 2001. I want the news to be sunny, in other words. But although Mussina’s outing is encouraging (2 2/3 inning, one run on a solo homer, two hits, five strikeouts but two walks), it is riddled with missed calls and/or missed pitches.
This has been an ongoing theme for Mussina in recent years, ever since he lost the edge off his fastball and started to rely more on deception. He’s always had a variety of breaking pitches including a big yakker, the knuckle curve, and every other possible pitch you’ve heard of, but he didn’t need to rely on them until late in his career.
It was at a game at Yankee Stadium last year when I was talking with a colleague of mine who is now a top writer for ESPN. We were in a rain delay and sitting in the press box amusing ourselves by talking baseball. I asked him what he thought about Mussina and the umpires. “His pitches are so good, it’s not only the batters who are fooled,” he said.
So how does a man get past the fact that his pitches are so deceptive that he cannot get them called for strikes? The result of all the called balls is more men on base, longer innings, more pitches thrown per batter, shorter outings, an inflated ERA… the list goes on and on. And if he throws more obvious strikes? Well, you have what we’ve seen, which is Moose giving up more home runs.
The one he gave up today was a windblown flyball that the weather ended up carrying over the wall. Overall, Mussina showed the shtuff that will keep him in the rotation, eating up inning at the back end. He’s no longer an elite pitcher, and you won’t see him turning to a syringe to try to chase induction to the Hall of Fame.
In contrast, we have Kyle Farnsworth. Where Mussina is considered hyperintelligent and a respected eminence griese in the clubhouse who throws with finesse, Farnsworth has been viewed as a troublesome fireballer who is at best something of a blockhead and at worst is a total head case. The truth, of course, is not necessarily what is in the papers, but Farnsworth’s awful stats cannot be denied.
Joe Girardi has a history with Farnsworth, though, as he was a catcher with the Chicago Cubs back when Farnsworth was “good.” Wrigley Field is not exactly a pitchers park, either. Girardi’s first task as new Yankees manager (and upon seeing that the only bullpen help he would be getting this offseason was a new mop-up man in LaTroy Hawkins) was to build up Farnsworth’s confidence. The “I believe in you” message has supposedly been drilled into Farnsworth all spring.
And who is to say that is more or less important than the fact that pitching coach Dave Eiland also rebuilt Farnsworth’s mechanics? Eiland identified a hitch in his delivery that supposedly was the reason his ball was up. Indeed, although Farnsworth’s first pitch of the spring went over the wall for a home run, since then the majority of his pitches have been at the knees, right where they should be.
So, maybe some of the news is sunny after all.
By the way, I head to Tampa on Tuesday for my annual trip and will be reporting daily from there. Tune in to Why I Like Baseball for all the news!
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