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December 16, 2010

Spinning Yarn

Why The Yankees Need Andy Pettitte

by Mike Fast

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Three out of the last four years, the American League pennant winner has emerged from the East Division: Boston in 2007, Tampa Bay in 2008, and New York in 2009.  The Red Sox and the Yankees took home World Series championships in 2007 and 2009.  As the Rays cut payroll this offseason, conventional wisdom has focused again on the battle between the Yankees and the Red Sox.

Boston has added Adrian Gonzalez via trade and Carl Crawford from free agency.  Along with returning players J.D. Drew, David Ortiz, and Jacoby Ellsbury, the Sox lineup leans more left-handed than it did last year.

New York looks for its own improvements to counter those made by the Sox.  The big remaining question for the Yankees, with Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera back in the fold, is how to upgrade the rotation.  Once Cliff Lee signed with the Phillies, the Yankees’ attention turned to Deer Park, Texas, where Andy Pettitte mulls retirement.  A rotation with the veteran left-hander alongside fellow lefty CC Sabathia to neutralize Boston’s lefty lineup is more attractive than other options.

Pettitte has been a key part of five World Series victories with the Yankees.  His career won-loss record stands at an excellent 240-138 and he is 19-10 in the postseason.  If Pettitte does return to the mound in 2011, he will be a key player in the fight for the AL East title.

Pettitte throws five pitch types: a four-seam fastball, sinker, slider, changeup, and curveball.

The detailed pitch tracking data from the PITCHf/x camera systems in major-league ballparks provide interesting information about the pitches Pettitte threw during the 2010 season.

 

Pettitte threw a four-seam fastball at 89 mph, a sinking fastball at just under 89, a circle changeup at 80, and a curveball at 75.

Pettitte’s trademark pitch is his slider.  He threw it at an average speed of 83 mph with good drop and glove-side movement.  This pitch is often referred to popularly as his cutter, but this article refers to the pitch as a slider because the 6-mph separation from his fastball and the 20-inch drop are similar to sliders thrown by other pitchers.  He favored the slider against left-handed batters, using it 31 percent of the time, as opposed to 18 percent to right-handed batters.

The slider was far and away his favorite strikeout pitch.  With two strikes, he threw 62 percent sliders to lefties and 41 percent to righties.  As a result, 37 of his 42 strikeouts of left-handed batters (including the postseason and All-Star Game) came via the slider, as well as 37 of his 70 strikeouts of right-handed batters.  When Pettitte racked up eight strikeouts in four innings against the Red Sox on the final day of the regular season, seven came on the slider.

This chart shows where each of Pettitte’s sliders in 2010 crossed the front of home plate, from the catcher’s viewpoint, along with the result of each pitch.

Pettitte placed the slider down and in to righties and had fairly good success at getting them to swing and miss.  He also occasionally targeted the outside corner, usually for a ball.  He displayed an amazing ability to hit the corner low and away to lefties.  As a result, left-handers whiffed on a lot of sliders that would not have been strikes.

Pettitte and his lefty-killing slider would be a useful weapon for New York against the newly fortified Boston lineup.  Take a look at how Pettitte approached Ortiz in a matchup on last April 7, with two runners on base and a 3-1 lead in the fifth inning.

Pettitte started the at-bat with a slider off the plate for ball one.  Ortiz fouled off another slider low for strike one.  Then Pettitte came back with a fastball in the strike zone, which Ortiz whiffed on for strike two.  With Ortiz in the hole, Pettitte pounded the slider in his favorite location, low and away and out of the zone, hoping to get Ortiz to fish for one.  Ortiz laid off the first two of those pitches, but he bit on the third, missing it for strike three.

It’s very tough for lefties to distinguish Pettitte’s slider from his fastball because the two have very similar trajectories from their vantage point.  Of course, the slider comes in several mph slower, and it drops a foot more than the fastball, so a left-handed batter geared up for the fastball is likely to whiff on the slider, as Ortiz did.

With Lee off the market, Brian Cashman is no doubt hoping that Pettitte longs for at least one more challenge and one more chance at a ring before he rides off into the sunset.  With the AL East division so competitive and the challenge of shutting down Boston’s slugging lefty lineup, Pettitte could be the answer that the Yankees need.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

Related Content:  Andy Pettitte,  Slider

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