One of the criticisms of the approach immortalized in Moneyball is that what the Oakland Athletics actually did to succeed in the early 2000s had little to do with underappreciated players like Jeremy Giambi or Scott Hatteberg and everything to do with Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito. Those three pitchers, who in 2002 combined for nearly 675 innings of 3.05 ERA baseball, are given surprisingly little time in the book. This despite the A's leading the American League in ERA, and were a close second in total runs allowed, while scoring a just-above-league-average number of runs per game. "Moneyball" the critics say, "is little more than the long-known truth that great teams start with great starting pitching".
Anybody who's taken it upon themselves to follow the Baltimore Orioles and their quest for relevancy knows exactly how true that critique is. Andy MacPhail, the de facto General Manager of the Orioles, has tried to rebuild the struggling franchise around that exact brand of Moneyball. He has preached patience while the O's tried to develop their own championship-caliber rotation of homegrown and cheap arms.
That the MacPhail-led effort seems to be stalling out right now goes to show exactly why good starting pitching is so valuable in this game. In the next couple of years, the O's are probably staring at yet another serious rebuilding effort instead of the pennant races they imagined, and the difference is 100% the failed development of the so-called "cavalry". It was all supposed to begin with the starting pitching. Nothing is more important, and therefore nothing is more difficult to find, especially for a bad team in the toughest division in baseball.
Which is how I arrived at my answer to the question "Who is the most under-appreciated Oriole ever?". Not "the" answer, but certainly mine. This is a guy that was exactly the perfect player for the Orioles, an elite starting pitcher to build around. This is a guy who gave the Orioles a discount on his first trip through free agency and then got lowballed until he walked away from the team, leaving the Orioles desperately searching for someone just like him for the next decade plus (and counting). In my sports watching lifetime, I've never seen a bigger mistake made, and I've never hated a guy more for leaving via free agency.
I'm talking about Mike Mussina, of course.
Fact: Mussina was better than Jim Palmer. He gave up fewer baserunners, struck out more batters, and had a lower ERA relative to the rest of baseball than Palmer. Moose was the best pitcher the Orioles ever had, and we should engaged in that endless argument forever: Moose or Cakes? But of course we aren't, because Mussina went to the New York Yankees after the 2000 season. That basically demolished his entire Baltimore career in a lot of eyes.
I count myself among those who felt scorned, if not personally sleighted. For the longest time I was driven by absolute hatred of Mussina. When I moved to New York State for college in 2004, I would watch his starts on YES just to root against him. He betrayed me, and I would have happy delusions of him laying awake at night regretting that choice, or of me getting some kind of personal revenge in person.
You might remember the one guy who came to Camden Yards for a Yankees game carrying a sign reading something to the effect of "Hey Mike, eight years later you're still a traitor! How's the ring fit?". That wasn't me, but it might as well have been. I ate that sign up. I wanted to buy that guy a beer in the worst way. I wanted to punch Mike Mussina in the face in the worst way.
That I ever let hatred control me like that is embarrassing. And I think the way Mussina has been ostracized by so many O's fans, and by the Orioles themselves, is more embarrassing. This is the guy who started Cal's record-breaking game. This is the guy who inspired the "Cito Sucks!" t-shirts. This is Mike Mussina, the best pitcher the Orioles ever had. We've forgotten that, because we're angry. Angry at the Yankees, angry at the unfairness of sharing a division with them, angry at the way the Orioles have been mismanaged – and that starts with the mismanagement that drove Moose out of town.
And the mismanagement that has kept Moose noticeably absent from any and all Orioles alumni activities since his retirement. And that has failed to develop another pitcher like him since, well, him.
Someday Mike Mussina will come back to Camden Yards and the Orioles will show the man the appreciation he deserves. I hope it's soon. In the meantime, I'll be fantasizing about getting a chance to shake his hand and let him know that I'm glad that he is, was, and always will be, one of the very best Baltimore Orioles ever.