March 19, 2012
Signed LHP Andy Pettitte to a minor-league deal worth $2.5 million. [3/16]
Meet a late entrant for the most surprising deal of the offseason. Few forecasted Albert Pujols signing with the Angels or Prince Fielder joining the Tigers, but everyone knew those two players were free agents seeking new jobs. With Pettitte, next to no one knew he had the itch to play again thanks to a non-existent advertising campaign to find a home. Yet here he is, back for a third tour of duty in the Bronx.
Get used to hearing about Pettitte’s 40th birthday party set to take place in mid-June. Pettitte would become the league’s oldest starting pitcher should he succeed in his comeback bid and Jamie Moyer fail in his. The last time we saw Pettitte on a major-league mound came in 2010. Back then, he earned an All-Star bid thanks to a 2.88 earned run average and an 11-2 won-lost record through mid-July. Pettitte suffered a groin injury, missed two months, and returned in time to make five more starts (including two in the postseason) before riding off into the sunset.
Over his most recent three big-league campaigns, Pettitte holds a 4.09 earned run average and a 2.37 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Normally, those numbers would serve as a starting point in a projection, and true, PECOTA forecasts Pettitte to hold a 4.40 earned run average this season. But a year spent on the sidelines raises many questions: how quickly can Pettitte get in shape and recover his stuff, can he get back his stuff, when will the Yankees need him, do the Yankees even need him, and so on. All are legitimate queries. Just know that the Yankees appear to be the team best suited for this situation. Not only is New York’s familiarity and pre-existing relationship with Pettitte unrivaled, but they have six other major-league quality starters at their disposal—and that ignores any minor-league prospects. Brian Cashman may choose to trade one of his more disposal starters—likely Phil Hughes or Freddy Garcia—in the time it takes for Pettitte to regain his sea legs, and the Yankees would still feature enough depth to feel comfortable with or without Pettitte.
Beyond the familiarity with Pettitte and the pre-established depth, the Yankees have another attribute on their side: a history of coaxing solid performances from other geriatric starting pitchers. Cashman took over as general manager in 1998, and since then the Yankees have had 13 pitchers who were at least 35 years old start a game for them. Of those, 10 started 25 or more games for the Yankees. A 77 percent survival rate is impressive given the cutthroat standards held by New York’s media and fan base, and the raw numbers support the idea that the Yankees get solid production out of their older starters—solid enough, even, to compare favorably to the rest of the league:
New York’s edge is not borne from a trade secret, market inefficiency, or anti-aging elixir. No, the explanation is as simple as pointing to the identities of the old pitchers. More often than not, the Yankees’ old starting pitchers are veterans nearing the end of storied careers. Consider that 93.5 percent of the Yankees’ 849 starts were taken by pitchers who either won a Cy Young award or made an All-Star team. In total, the Yankees’ older pitchers won 15 Cy Young awards and made 53 All-Star teams during their careers. This includes Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, David Wells, Kevin Brown, Bartolo Colon, and Pettitte himself. The only two pitchers of the 13 who failed to capture either honor at one point or another were Donovan Osborne and Orlando Hernandez—and the latter lives on in Yankees folklore.
Whether Pettitte’s third and likely final voyage in the Bronx will be as successful as his first two is anyone’s guess. He may reach the majors not through his own doings but because the Yankees’ brass feels it owes him one final standing ovation and roll call. Alternatively, Pettitte might get his stuff back and help the Yankees win another World Series. The beauty for New York is the patience they can employ with this situation. Pettitte will need time to work his way back into game shape, and it could be May or June before that happens, giving the Yankees plenty of time to work through the public relations aspect of this deal.
While success is not a given, no team is as likely to massage a good season from Pettitte as the Yankees are. New York’s experience with Pettitte, rotation depth, and willingness to roll with talented veterans creates the perfect storm for a successful return. If Pettitte crashes, it will not be because he chose a bad situation. And should Pettitte succeed, the question will then become whether he wants to pitch through his 41st birthday and chase 50 career postseason appearances. Would such a decision be any more surprising than this?