February 4, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
Dandy Andy Bows Out
Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you know that Andy Pettitte gave word of his retirement on Thursday, and unless that rock was hiding under another rock, you probably know that this has been a likelihood ever since the television cameras found a moist-eyed Pettitte watching the late innings of Game Six of the ALCS, knowing that he wouldn't get another shot to put the Yankees on his broad shoulders and lift them into another World Series. The shame of it is that Pettitte had pitched so well in 2010, cruising through the first half (11-2, 2.70 ERA) like he never had in his 15-year career, at least until the fateful July day when he departed with a groin strain that cost him two full months. If that didn't hasten his decision to retire, it certainly lessened his will to put his body through the wringer one more time.
I've discussed Pettitte's Hall of Fame case in brief elsewhere, but I'm happy to elaborate here. For as much sentiment as I bring to this particular case—there's no pitcher whom I've seen throw more innings, or for whom I've cheered more often, or about whom I've written more words—I must admit that objectively, it's a stretch.
Pettitte finishes his career with a gaudy 240-138 record, but he can thank outstanding run support for much of that, 5.5 runs per game according to Baseball-Reference's methodology. His 3.88 ERA would be the highest of any pitcher in the Hall of Fame, and while adjusting for the scoring levels of the era gives him an ERA+ of 117, one click shy of the just-elected Bert Blyleven's 118, Blyleven did so with 63 percent more innings, and notched 64 percent more strikeouts. Similarly, Gaylord Perry, Dennis Eckersley, Phil Niekro, Steve Carlton, and Fergie Jenkins are all in the 115-117 range, but all except for Eck (due to a mid-career switch to the pen) had at least 47 percent more innings than Pettitte, along with much higher win totals. Perry, Niekro and Carlton had well over 300 wins, Blyleven 288, Jenkins 284. Additionally, Pettitte has just three All-Star appearances and one top-three finish (but four top-five finishes) in the Cy Young voting, both low totals for a Cooperstown candidate.
Turning to the JAWS case, the most recent numbers following Blyleven's election put the starting pitcher standard at 70.8 career WARP, 47.7 peak WARP, and a 59.2 JAWS.Pettitte finishes with 58.1 career WARP, 30.8 peak WARP and 44.5 JAWS, well off the mark. As I wrote the day after what turned out to be his final start, when his strong effort was negated by Cliff Lee's brilliance, he has as thick an October resume as you'll find, but it's still not enough:
[Pettitte's] case rests primarily on the willingness of the voters to grant him an enormous amount of credit for his postseason work. Reaching the three-tiered playoffs 13 times in his 16-year career has given him an inordinate number of opportunities that weren’t available to the players who preceded him, and he’s made enough hay with them to hold a suite of postseason record for pitchers via a 19-10 won-loss record, 42 starts and 263 innings en route to eight trips to the World Series and five rings won. At the same time, his 3.83 October ERA isn’t exactly Gibsonesque, and he’s taken his share of lumps, totaling seven disaster starts (more runs allowed than innings pitched), none more devastating than his 2001 Game Six World Series debacle, where everybody outside the Yankees dugout figured out he was tipping his pitches, and the Diamondbacks pummeled him for six runs in two-plus innings to force the fateful Game Seven.
As I noted back then, one obvious comp for Pettitte on the Cooperstown front is Jack Morris, whose 254-186 record and 3.90 ERA look superficially similar to that of Dandy Andy. But Morris was working in a lower-scoring era; his ERA+ was just 105, and because of that, his JAWS (36.2/27.3/31.8) falls way short not only of the standards but ofPettitte's numbers. Morris had a halo effect around his post-season numbers (7-4, 3.80 ERA) as well, with his 10-inning Game Seven effort in 1991 selectively remembered, while his pummelings were conveniently forgotten. (You won't hear the BBWAA's less refined voters saying much about his 0-3 record and 7.43 ERA in four postseason starts for Toronto in 1992. Pitched to the score, my ass.)
Furthermore, Pettitte's JAWS score falls short of other stalwart starters of recent vintage who wore pinstripes for at least part of their careers, including Mike Mussina(74.0/41.1/57.6), Kevin Brown (65.3/44.8/55.1), David Cone (53.9/38.2/46.1), and Dwight Gooden (51.9/37.6/44.8), though not David Wells (45.0/25.8/35.4). Pettitte was more valuable over the course of his career than some, but had a lower peak than most of them due to his high ERA and lower strikeout rate.
Another potential comparison, this one offered by readers in the immediate wake of Pettitte's retirement, is to Tom Glavine. On the surface it makes some sense: venerable lefty who was a major part of a dynasty, not quite an ace, but with a long October resumé. Like Pettitte, Glavine was exactly 102 wins above .500, and his 118 ERA+ fits the picture too. Beyond that, there are major differences. Glavine tossed 44 percent more innings than Pettitte, and went 305-203 for his career, putting him in the elite 300 Win Club, and as far as Cooperstown goes it must be acknowledged that it took 14 years for the voters to come around on Blyleven, and 20 since they voted in Jenkins, the last non-300 winning starter. Again with the wins, Glavine won 20 games five times in a season, compared to two for Pettitte, which shouldn't really matter but still does, at least to voters of a certain age.
With 10 All-Star appearances and two Cy Youngs, Glavine has got Pettitte beaten on the subjective honors front, and handily. On the other hand, Pettitte has got the edge onGlavine when it comes to the postseason, with the latter going 14-16 with a 3.30 ERA and just the one world championship and four pennants, compared to five and eight. As for JAWS, it's 81.4/40.3/60.9 for Glavine—his peak is below the standard, but his career far enough above to get him over the line.
What's interesting when you compare the two southpaws is that Pettitte was more of a strikeout pitcher despite spending most of his career in the AL, where he didn't have the advantage of facing other pitchers. He struck out 6.6 per nine, and was at 7.1 for the final decade of his career. Glavine struck out just 5.3 per nine, and spent four of his last six years in the low-to-mid fours. Pettitte had slightly better control (2.8 walks per nine, compared to 3.1) giving him a significant advantage in K/BB even after washing away the unintentional passes, 2.44 to 1.92.
Where the two pitchers differ most is in their results on balls in play. Considering the pitchers with at least 3,000 innings since 1977, a cutoff chosen to incorporate Morris' entire career as well:
Glavine winds up in the middle of the pack, Pettitte dead last, and an outlier to boot. Some of that had to do with their respective leagues and time frames; the weighted average for the NL during Glavine's career was .294, while for Pettitte (who spent 13 years in the AL, three in the NL) it was .300. Those figures don't correct for ballpark or the quality of the defenders behind each pitcher, but we've got a tool for that, Delta-H, which can be found on the Davenport Translation cards (which are undergoing a facelift and haven't been unveiled yet, but if you know how to look). Glavine had a delta on hits allowed of -54, meaning that based on the rate of his team's conversion of balls in play into outs over the course of his career, he still came out with 54 fewer hits allowed than you'd expect. By that same token, Pettitte allowed 149 hits more than you'd expect given his teams' BABIP rates. Thank you, Derek Jeter.
While subject to environmental factors as well as the two pitchers' styles, since Pettitte got ground balls a bit more often than Glavine, those BABIPs aren't just flukes that can be waved off at the level of innings we're dealing with. A better supported Pettitte would have saved himself a considerable number of hits and runs, trimming that ERA and likely adding some wins (and even innings) to his ledger, but Pettitte didn't quite have the stuff to dominate. He was a Clydesdale, not a Thoroughbred, and toparaphrase Billy Martin, no matter how much you beat that Clydesdale, he's not going to turn into a Thoroughbred when it comes to the Hall of Fame.
That's without considering the impact that Pettitte's admission of having used human growth hormone will have on the voters. Though he's never drawn the public ire the way that big sluggers such as Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Rafael Palmeiro did once their transgressions were exposed, the fact remains that both McGwire and Palmeiro have been left off of the overwhelming majority of Hall of Fame ballots despite numbers which are otherwise Hall-worthy. Pettitte, with less than Hall-worthy numbers, certainly can't expect much charity there, even after the voters' treatments of Bonds and Roger Clemens—at whose trial Pettitte will apparently be testifying this summer instead of wearing pinstripes — provide more clues as to the eventual fates of PED-connected candidates. We'll see how that all plays out in five years.
Clydesdale though he may have been, Pettitte was an exemplar of his breed, and ultimately worth every heart-in-throat moment he provided. On a sweltering hot July afternoon, without his best stuff he might look like Granny Gooden, navigating a lineup with all the grace of an elderly woman on an icy staircase. On a frigid October night, with the brim of his cap pulled low and a season on the line, he was the coolest of customers. Over his last 17 post-season starts, from the 2003 postseason onward, he went 9-3 with a 2.93 ERA and 13 quality starts, with two of those losses coming in shutouts.
Pettitte fell one out short of another quality start in the 2009 World Series clincher, where he pitched on three days' rest, giving him the distinction of delivering the knockout blow in all three rounds of a single postseason. In a nutshell, that was Andy Pettitte: grinding it out when he didn't have enough to dominate, leaving every last ounce of effort out there on the mound, for himself, his teammates, and his fans. Whether or not he makes it to Cooperstown, he'll be greatly missed.