On April 29th, 1995, a relatively unknown pitcher named Andy Pettitte was called into the game with the Yankees up 5-1. It was just the third game of the year – baseball began late in 1995 following the strike. His first-ever pitch was a strike to Wally Joyner. He then retired Joyner on a flyout to centerfield. It was the first of 12,987 batters Pettitte would face in the regular season.
I had just turned four when Andy Pettitte made his major-league debut. It would be a few years before I began to watch baseball.
One of the first things that stood out with Pettitte was his windup. Hands over the head, left foot pivot, hands down, right leg up, coil, and fire. It was simple and effective. I did my best to imitate that motion in little league.* And then of course there was the stare. I’ve always wondered whether big-league hitters were ever intimidated by it. I’d like to think they were, since Pettitte’s VORS (Value Over Replacement Stare) was pretty darn good. And as a fan, the stare is wholly ingrained into my memory. The folks at FOX loved to zoom in on it.
*Those Yankee teams from 1999-2003 (the height of my little league prowess) didn’t exactly have the easiest windups to imitate. I’m looking at you, El Duque.
It’s tough to summarize Pettitte’s career using numbers, because he really wasn’t about the numbers. His 240 wins, 3.88 ERA, 2,251 strikeouts, 117 ERA+, and 50.2 career bWAR are certainly nothing to sneeze at, but during his time with the Yankees, he was never supposed to be the ace of the staff, with the exception of 1996 and 1997. In 1998, it was David Cone. From 1999-2003 it was Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina. From 2007-2008, it was Chien-Ming Wang, and in 2009 and 2010 it has been CC Sabathia. Pettitte made only one Opening Day Start, in 1998.
Instead, Pettitte has been a rock in the middle of the rotation, producing solid start after solid start. He started at least 31 games every year from 1996-2003, with the exception of 2002, when he suffered an elbow injury. And not once during that time did he produce an ERA that was below league average.
His finest seasons with the Yankees were probably 1996 (21-8, 3.87 ERA, 5.7 bWAR) and 1997 (18-7, 2.88 ERA, 7.6 bWAR). He finished in the top six in Cy Young voting five times: 1996, 1997, 2000, 2003, and 2005 (with the Astros). He also made three All Star teams (1996, 2001, 2010). He is undoubtedly one of the best Yankee starting pitchers of all time.
And so all of this leads to the inevitable question: is Andy Pettitte a Hall of Famer?
According to Bill James’ Hall of Fame monitor, yes, he is. Pettitte scores a 123, 65th best all time, with the average Hall of Famer scoring around 100. However, Pettitte has a severe (and some would say unfair) advantage in this category, since the monitor awards points for World Series and playoff starts. And if you play 13 years with the Yankees, you’re bound to make some playoff starts.
It should also be noted that the Hall of Fame monitor attempts to assess how likely (and not how deserving) a player is to make the Hall of Fame.
Where Pettitte really separates himself is the postseason. He won one of the most important games in Yankee history, Game 5 of the 1996 World Series. He pitched into the ninth inning and allowed just five hits and three walks. The Yankees won 1-0, narrowly beating John Smoltz, and they wrapped up the series shortly thereafter.
Pettitte holds many playoff records, including wins (19), innings (263), and starts (42). Think about those 42 starts – that’s an extra season and a half worth of high-intensity, no-room-for-error starts. And in nearly all of them* he thrived. In the 27 playoff series that Pettitte pitched in, the Yankees won 20 of them.
*An obvious exception was Game 6 of the 2001 World Series, but I try not to think about that too often.
Here’s the other amazing thing about Pettitte: he never really faded during the back-end of his career:
First 8 seasons (1995-2002): 128-70, 3.93 ERA, 1584 innings, 1.390 WHIP
Last 8 seasons (2003-2010): 112-68, 3.83 ERA, 1471 innings, 1.322 WHIP
He actually got a little better during his later years, even with declining velocity and more injuries. If consistency is the mark of a Hall of Famer, then the case for Pettitte is pretty strong.
But that said, Pettitte isn’t a Hall of Famer according to many conventional stats. His 240 wins is 55th all time. His 3,055.1 innings is 123rd all time. He’s 48th in strikeouts, 60th in games started, and 77th in bWAR. Even his sparkling .635 winning percentage (no doubt aided by a wealth of run support) is just 43rd all time.
Here’s the real kicker: his 3.88 ERA is 720th all time. That’s worse than Barry Zito, Derek Lowe, and Al Leiter. It’s also worse than Vinegar Bend Mizell, Sad Sam Jones, and Egyptian Healy. Yes, those were real players.
Putting it into context, his ERA+ is tied for 163rd all time. Worse than guys like Mark Buehrle and Paul Quantrill (yes, he of the QuanGorMo fame), Dolf Luque, Firpo Marberry, Sadie McMahon (yes, they were real players too). That doesn’t bode well for Pettitte.
I’m not sure if it’s worth hashing the stats out any further. As I said earlier, Pettitte’s career shouldn’t totally be defined by the numbers (though it is interesting to look back and see where he ranks among the all time greats). For me, Pettitte was always the reliable workhorse, the guy to count on to end a losing streak, a pitcher who rose to the occasion during the most important games. I’m not sure if those are quantifiable through numbers, and I’m okay with that.
Andy Pettitte, ol’ #46, was a part of my childhood. From pre-school through college, Pettitte has been a constant with the Yankees (with the exception of 2004-2006, but I don’t blame him for that). I remember how glad I was when he returned in 2007. If there’s one thing I love, it’s when an ex-Yankee returns to the club.*
*With the exception of Sidney Ponson in 2008.
I haven’t had to deal with many Yankee retirements. Bernie never formally retired. Clemens had a huge fall-out with the government. Mike Mussina was quickly forgotten once the Yankees signed CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. Pettitte has always been one of my favorite players. I guess I’m learning that it’s not easy to say goodbye.
Of all the things I could conclude with, perhaps this is the most revealing: it’s been 33 years since the Yankees won a World Series without Pettitte. This makes it especially hard to say goodbye.
And yet we must bid adieu to the first of the Core Four to retire. You will be missed, Andy.
Just eleven days till pitchers and catchers.