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June 5, 2010

One-Hoppers

Pettitte on the Ritz

by Ben Lindbergh

For a Yankees fan prone to emotional attachment, the mere mention of Andy Pettitte might trigger an involuntary internal highlight reel of low-cap-brimmed, dimpled-chinned heroics (without a hypodermic needle or a banned substance in sight). In the presence of nearly anyone else, invoking the lefty’s name is liable to provoke a yawn. You know how Baseball Reference uses bold text to denote league-leading rates and totals? If that doesn’t sound familiar, check out Pedro Martinez’s page—it looks like a blindfolded guy with a moving cursor whaled on Ctrl+B for a while. Now look at Andy Pettitte’s—not a whole lot of black ink to see there, either literally or figuratively

Pettitte’s never won a Cy Young award, only twice been named an All-Star, and winnered his way to the 20-victory plateau only once. I realize that I'm running the risk of sounding like Jon Heyman on the subject of Burt Blyleven, but in this case, that dismissive tone might be appropriate, since Pettitte is more or less the pitcher Heyman believes Blyleven to be. I’ll stop well short of calling him a compiler, but as a starter, his most salient skill may well be the most mundane of all: starting, which he’s done more than any other AL pitcher in three separate seasons. Oh, and his .3 HR/9 in 1997 led the league, so to paraphrase Carl Spackler, he’s got that goin’ for him, which is nice.

In most years, Pettitte can be penciled in to post an ERA in the range of 10-20% below average, in fairly unspectacular fashion. When coupled with his durability, that makes him an immensely valuable commodity, to be sure, and by virtue of the teams to which he’s belonged (he’s never pitched for a team that finished at or below .500, and pitched only once for a squad that won fewer than 89 games), Pettitte has set himself up nicely for a Morris-like Hall of Fame campaign—hell, he even has the “Most Wins in an Arbitrarily-Defined Decade” (in his case, the 2000s) title to his name. Not to mention that he’s within striking distance of boasting the most wins in Yankees history, which is good for more aura than you can shake a mystique at.

However, at the age of 38, Pettitte has suddenly become a good deal more interesting; through 73 innings, the lefty has posted a miniscule 2.47 ERA, the 4th-lowest figure in the AL (trailing only Great Pretenders David Price and Clay Buchholz, as well as perennial ERA title contender Doug Fister). Lost in the Yankees’ 14-inning loss in Toronto yesterday was another fine Pettitte outing: the southpaw allowed two runs in 7 2/3 IP, walking three and striking out 10 (only the 13th time that his single-game strikeout tally had broken into double figures).

So what gives? Pettitte hasn’t added any life to his fastball, learned to throw a cutter (he already threw one), or, to my knowledge, consulted Tom Seaver on the secret to maintaining a BABIP in the .260s. His strikeout, walk, and home run rates are right in line with his career rates, culminating in a 4.12 SIERA and a 3.99 xFIP—nice rebounds from last year, but figures that he’s bested as recently as 2008. If anything, he’s been more hittable than ever, earning the lowest swinging strike rate and the highest contact rate of his career. Pettitte’s been the beneficiary of a .262 BABIP and an 84.9% strand rate; he may have garnered a reputation for “pitching out of trouble,” but his 71.5% career LOB% is a dead ringer for league average. ZiPS isn’t fooled, projecting him for a 4.50 ERA the rest of the way. Essentially, Pettitte is who we thought he was; if you want to crown him, you know what to do, but if you can prize only one pinstriped pitcher on the prowl, you’re better off looking elsewhere.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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