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May 14, 2012

Prospectus Hit and Run

A Not-So-Dandy Return

by Jay Jaffe

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On a gorgeous 79-degree Mother's Day at Yankee Stadium—the kind of day fit for a storybook—Andy Pettitte made his return to a major-league mound following an absence of nearly 19 months. Revered by the fans for his contributions to seven pennant-winners and five world champions, the 39-year-old lefty received huge ovations every time his name came over the public address system prior to the game. Pettitte pitched into the seventh inning and left little doubt that he could help the 2012 Yankees, at times showing glimpses of his vintage self, but alas, he could provide no storybook ending to that setup, making a couple of crucial mistakes against a weak-hitting Mariners lineup. Meanwhile, his pinstriped teammates looked as flat as day-old soda against Mariners starter Kevin Millwood, no spring chicken himself at age 37, and the Yankees fell 6-2.

When Pettitte shocked the baseball world in mid-March by announcing his comeback, the Yankees already had six starters—CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, Freddy Garcia, and newly-acquired Michael Pineda—battling for five spots. But during April, it felt as though Pettitte couldn't reach the majors fast enough, as the team's rotation fell into disarray due to injuries and ineffectiveness.

Pineda began the year on the disabled list due to shoulder weakness, and in late April was discovered to have a torn labrum. Hughes and Garcia were both scorched in their April starts, combining for a 10.01 ERA while averaging just 3.7 innings per turn and failing to deliver a single quality start in eight tries. Garcia, who had publicly expressed some exasperation when Pettitte was signed, was so awful that he lost his spot to rookie David Phelps. The situation has stabilized thanks to a roll from Sabathia and a pair of strong starts from Hughes—including one on Saturday that lifted the team to 19-14, a season-high five games over .500—but the unit's 4.78 ERA and 5.76 innings per start ranked 11th in the league coming into Sunday's game, their 39 percent quality start rate 12th, their 1.5 HR/9 13th.

Pettitte made four starts for the Yankees' minor-league affiliates, two for High-A Tampa, one for Double-A Trenton, and another for Triple-A Empire State (displaced from their Scranton/Wilkes-Barre home for an entire season while a new ballpark is built, they are a traveling road show). As he worked his way north from Tampa, he hadn't exactly dominated upper level hitters, yielding 15 hits and nine runs (six earned) in 10 innings over his final two starts while striking out eight and walking three. Still, the stains on his line owed mainly to a .384 BABIP borne of minor-league defense and field conditions and the constant travel—including a detour to Washington D.C. to testify in Roger Clemens' perjury trial—couldn't have helped.

For a comeback start, the Mariners appeared to be an easy draw, for once again they're among the league's most meager offenses. Their .288 OBP ranked dead last in the AL, their .233 batting average 13th, their .368 slugging percentage and 3.69 runs per game both 12th. Five of their nine regulars have OBPs of .280 or lower, though on Sunday both Miguel Olivo and Chone Figgins rode the pine in favor of former Yankee prospect Jesus Montero (working behind the plate for his 13th start of the year) and Casper Wells (playing left field, the nomadic Figgins' regular home after being displaced from third base by Kyle Seager and Alex Liddi). None of Sunday's Mariner starters had an OBP higher than Ichiro Suzuki's .333, and with Seager sitting in favor of Liddi, none had a slugging percentage higher than Montero's .429. Yet they would not be Pettitte's palookas.

Pettitte's first pitch drew yet another huge ovation as leadoff hitter Dustin Ackley fouled it off, but after his second one, the crowd was groaning on his behalf, as Ackley drilled an 84 mph cutter to the right-field wall, requiring Nick Swisher to make a leaping catch that, at the very least, took away an extra-base hit. Pettitte walked Wells on six pitches, but two pitches later, he induced Ichiro to ground into a room service 6-3 double play. The 38-year-old Suzuki has predictably played every single Mariners game thus far, and while his bat has rebounded slightly relative to last year's Vortices of Suck-worthy showing, his .280/.333/.388 line hardly befits a number-three hitter.

With the anxieties of the first inning out of the way, Pettitte settled into a groove, retiring eight of the next nine hitters on a combined 30 pitches, with a walk of Liddi his only blemish. With two outs in the fourth, he walked Montero on six pitches—just the fifth walk of the year for the 22-year-old slugger, against 26 strikeouts—and then left a cutter right in the center of the plate that Smoak smoked over the left-field wall for his fourth home run of the year and a 2-0 lead. The hit lifted Smoak's batting average to an even .200; he had come in batting .195/.246/.280, one of three M’s regulars trapped below the Mendoza Line (Figgins and shortstop Brendan Ryan being the others).

Pettitte's opposite number was faring better. Millwood, who made just nine major-league starts last year for the Rockies after passing through the Yankees and Red Sox’ farm systems, had struggled thus far with the M's. He’d racked up a 5.88 ERA largely due to a .363 BABIP and a swollen 4.0 walk rate; his FIP was just 3.70, and he had delivered two quality starts out of six. He was sharp on Sunday, retiring the first seven Yankees before designated hitter Eric Chavez drilled a double to deep center field with one out in the third inning. Russell Martin followed with a six-pitch walk, and when Derek Jeter battled back from an 0-2 start to a full count after seven pitches, it seemed as though the Yankees might break through. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, however, Jeter slapped a slider to Liddi, who started an around-the-horn double play, ending the threat.

Millwood breezed through the fourth, striking out both Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez, but he found trouble in the fifth when Mark Teixeira reached on a checked-swing infield single that didn't travel much further than a bunt, and then Swisher pounded one off the right-center field wall for an extremely long single—about as different as a pair of one-base hits can be. Raul Ibanez, who had homered in the first two games of the series and had bashed four in four games going back to Tuesday night, walked on four pitches, all high, to load the bases. Chavez was poised to put the Yankees back in the game, but instead he fell behind 0-2 and looked at a 91 mph fastball on the inside corner for strike three. Martin worked a five-pitch walk to force Teixeira home, but once again Jeter grounded into a rally-snuffing double play, this time a slow chopper that met Ryan at the second base bag before he threw to first. The 37-year-old shortstop had come in hitting a robust .376/.422/.546, but his penchant for grounders hasn’t abated; his 68.3 GB% leads the majors and is more than four percentage points higher than last year's majors-leading mark.

The Yankees had cut the lead to 2-1, but Pettitte couldn't hold the line. Ackley led off the sixth with a single over Cano’s head, and then Wells drilled a belt-high 88 mph fastball high off the right field foul pole after it caught a bit too much of the outside edge of the plate. Ichiro grounded out, and then Montero followed with a loud single to right, and Smoak hit a sharp comebacker right through the box, causing the Yankee bullpen to stir. When Liddi smacked a single through the left side to load the bases, Pettitte's day appeared done, but pitching coach Larry Rothschild went to the mound, not manager Joe Girardi. Due up next was Mike Carp, a lefty whom during his short big-league career, has hit same-siders at a .297/.340/.505 clip in 97 PA. Girardi later said that the handedness played a role in his willingness to keep his starter out there, and he won that battle; Carp chopped one right to Teixeira, and after stepping on the first-base bag, he threw home to nail Montero—resplendent in pink cleats, the only ballplayer on either side wearing them as part of the Mother's Day breast cancer awareness promotion—trying to score.

Pettitte came back out for the seventh to face another lefty, Michael Saunders, retiring him on a grounder to Teixeira. Despite trailing 4-1 when he departed in favor of Cory Wade, he got yet another warm ovation from the crowd of 41,631. In all, he threw 94 pitches, 60 for strikes, yielding seven hits, three walks, and four runs while striking out just two in 6 1/3 innings. Only in the sixth inning, when he threw 26 pitches, did he need more than 16 to get through a frame. His fastball velocity grazed 90 mph and was consistently around 88 mph, not far off from his 2010 velocity, considering his relatively unpolished state.

Millwood continued to frustrate the Yankees. Granderson drew a four-pitch walk to lead off the bottom of the sixth, but Rodriguez grounded into the Yankees' third double play of the day on the next pitch, and Cano struck out looking at a slider on the outside corner. Millwood capped his day with his most efficient inning, needing just nine pitches to retire Teixeira, Swisher, and Ibanez in the seventh. In all he threw 90 pitches, 55 for strikes, yielding two singles, a double, and one run while striking out six and walking four. He threw first-pitch strikes to 17 of the 25 hitters he faced (five of which went into play), and because he got ahead consistently, he needed just 3.6 pitches per plate appearance, well off the Bronx Bombers' 3.85 mark this year. He needed more than 13 pitches in an inning just twice, in the third (19) and fifth (15). And unlike his previous start, in which he'd shown up Montero after a signaling snafu, he worked well with the rookie behind the plate.

"After being back there last game, it's one of the reasons we wanted to get him back out there today with Kevin," said Mariners manager Eric Wedge after the game. "I think they did a great job of communicating before the game and they did a nice job working together today."

In removing Millwood, Wedge did the Yankees a favor, as they managed to load the bases with a pair of singles and a walk against a parade of Mariner relievers: righty Tom Wilhelmsen, lefty Lucas Luetge, and righty Steve Delabar. Wilhelmsen did whiff Martin looking at a big curveball in between allowing two singles, and Luetge got Granderson swinging at a slider in the dirt. A fourth reliever, the laugh-inducing lefty Charlie Furbush, came in to face Cano with the bags full and walked him on four pitches to force in another run, but he recovered to fool Teixeira on a low 81 mph slider. Even with his swinging bunt single in the fifth inning, the slugging first baseman is now 12 for his last 71 dating back to April 23, for a .169/.213/.254 line.

The Mariners restored their shrinking lead in the top of the ninth. Wade departed after allowing a leadoff double to Liddi, and second lefty Clay Rapada—pitching because Boone Logan had worked the previous two days—waked both Ryan (who came in hitting an anemic .144/.259/.222) and Ackley with two outs to load the bases. On a comebacker from Wells, Rapada leaped and tipped the ball with the glove, then threw from the ground, late and wildly; the ball skidded into foul territory as two runs scored—an utterly brainless play.

The Yankees compounded that brainlessness in the bottom of the ninth when Swisher led off with a drive into the left-field corner. Down four runs, he nonetheless ran for third base and was gunned down by Wells. The replay showed that he was actually safe, but there was no excuse for making the out under those circumstances. Two more fly balls to left field later, the game was in the books

After the game, Pettitte sat through a 17-minute press conference dissecting his start and the emotions of the day. "I felt good. It was exactly like I thought it was gonna be," he said of his return to the mound. "Maybe the first batter I was a little nervous, just the anxiety or whatever, but it felt great, felt like I never left."

Still, he was torn up about the sixth inning. "The guys gave me a chance to get right back in the game, and I go back out and give up a two-run homer. You just can't do that. I got a little careless with a few pitches and they cost me."

Pettitte’s problem was his execution against righties; Wells, Montero, the switch-hitting Smoak, and Liddi combined to go 5-for-9 with two homers and three walks against him (Ryan was 0-for-2).

"I wasn't able to do some of the things to the right-handed hitters that I've got to be able to do to be successful, and that's locate my four-seamer in to them," he said. "I left balls over the plate. If y'all have followed and listened to some of what I've been doing in the minor-league starts, I've been having trouble doing that, with getting the ball into right-handed hitters… That was the one thing I took away from the last game, everything was terrible except I was able to locate some balls in, in Triple-A. When I'm not able to do that, my cutter's not as effective, so I wasn't able to get any swings on my cutter today."

Indeed, Pettitte threw 20 cutters and got just one swing-and-miss on the third inning strikeout to Ackley. However, parsing this from the PITCHf/x data isn't easy because, according to Dan Brooks of BrooksBaseball.net, the MLBAM Gameday classification algorithm to identify his pitches was way off; it identified the bulk of his four-seam fastballs as cutters, and the bulk of his cutters as sliders (this is why Brooks and his cohorts manually review each pitch for their pitcher cards). As Brooks patiently explained to me, the cluster of pitches in the 80-84 mph range on the left of the graph below are his cutters, only four of which were identified as such:

Of those 20 pitches, seven were called balls, three were called strikes, six were fouled off, and three were put into play:

Eleven of those 20 were to righties, eight of them in two-strike counts, none of them resulting in outs:

That's going to make for a rough day at the office. "I was throwing my cutter down and in, and I couldn't get anybody to swing over it as far as the righties," said Pettitte. "But that's why you still have a curveball, you still have a changeup you can go to, and actually Russell [Martin] wanted to go to them a few times and I shook off. Don't know why, but I wish I would have pitched differently in that one inning. The [Smoak] home run was a cutter, and just a bad mindset… I tried to throw one in the zone there, and that's a bad idea, especially to Smoak right there, because that's kind of his nitro zone. Just a horrible pitch."

Pettitte chastised himself for the other home run as well: "I just got careless to Wells. I can't say I didn't mean to do it, I got real aggressive on the outside corner, I thought that I could strike him out looking right there, and he ran into it. I got a ball that was up. I can't say that I was trying to paint down and away. I thought that I might be able to freeze him out there with a fastball, but it probably came back to the plate just a little bit too much. Just a couple of mental mistakes that I shouldn't have made, that cost me the ballgame."

Still, both Pettitte and Girardi sounded confident that the pitcher could help the Yankees, that he was already comfortable in his return, and that he would gain strength with more repetitions. As unsatisfied as the pitcher may have been with the day's outcome, he was well aware the last word wouldn't be written in mid-May: "I feel like I'll be able to say if this was a success or not in October, you know?"

---

Thanks to Dan Brooks for his help with the PITCHf/x data.

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

1 comment has been left for this article.

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