Andy Pettitte was a great pitcher. More to the point: he's probably the best starting pitcher the Yankees developed in a long, long time. In the Wild Card Era: the Yankees consistently bought (or traded) for their pitchers. David Cone, Jimmy Key, C.C. Sabathia, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Masahiro Tanaka: all of these pitchers were either signed as a free agent, or acquired via trade. The lone exception: Andy Pettitte.
Since Pettitte spent his entire career on winning teams, he managed to win lots of games and pitched over an entire season's worth of innings in the playoffs. As such his career is littered with big moments, frequently under the lights in October, and always in the spotlight.
Game 5 of the 1996 World Series
The 1996 was only Pettitte's second season, but Andy took to pitching for the Yankees and led the league in wins (the only time Pettitte ever led the league in a major statistical category). The Yankees plowed through their competition largely without incident in the playoffs: winning three of four against Texas in the Division Series, and winning four of five against Baltimore. Atlanta, the reigning World Series champs, proved more difficult. Pettitte was crushed against the Braves in his first start, and took the ball in Game 5 in a rematch against John Smoltz.
We should briefly discuss Smoltz: '96 was Smoltz's best season. He led the league in wins, strikeout rate, and (although few likely knew it at the time) FIP. After the World Series Smoltz would earn his lone Cy Young Award. Smoltz also put together his best postseason in '96 as well: pitching 38 innings and only surrendering 5 runs (good for an ERA under 1). As such: Game 5 was a big game for Pettitte; the Series was tied at two games a piece, and the Yankees wanted to return home with the lead.
Needless to say, Pettitte delivered.
Smoltz started out the game striking out the side, which put pressure on Pettitte. Pettitte responded with two strikeouts of his own; Chipper Jones did take him deep to right, but he lucked out. Through three innings both pitchers worked around minor issues: Smoltz surrendered a single to Cecil Fielder, but got out of it; Pettitte walked Andruw Jones and Marquis Grissom but was unphased. In the 4th the Yankees offense handed Pettitte a lead with a homerun by Fielder, in what would prove the lone run of the game.
Pettitte faced the minimum in the 4th and the 5th. In the 6th: Pettitte gave up back-to-back singles to Smoltz and Grissom, but induced a double play from Chipper Jones. Jeter booted a ball in the 7th, but Pettitte worked around the error, and Pettitte pitched into the 9th. Pettitte gave up a double to the first batter, then handed the ball to John Wettland (this predated what would become the winningest starter-closer combo in history), and Wettland shut the door.
Pettitte's final line: no runs on four strikeouts, giving up three walks and five hits in 8.1 innings pitched. A superb performance, and by Game Score the best in the Series. The Yankees would win Game 6 to close out the Series. Pettitte, while shaky in Game 1, kept the Yankees momentum going to help seal a win. It was not an historic performance, but it was what New York needed.
Game 5 in the 2000 World Series
Pettitte would pitch numerous times in the next several playoffs, but his next great performance came in the 2000 World Series. It was less stressful for New York than in '96: the Mets never really stood a chance, and Pettitte was handed the ball to close the series out. Pettitte responded, again, by doing what New York needed.
Pettitte worked around a Mike Piazza single in the first, and was given a lead in the 2nd by Bernie Williams who homered off Al Leiter. Pettitte struggled in the second: walking Bubba Trammel, and surrendering a single to Jay Payton. A ground out to short moved the runners to scoring position, and then catcher's error scored a run, followed by a weak infield single to plate the second run. Pettitte induced a pop out to get out of the jam. Unfortunately the damage was done.
Pettitte worked a clean 3rd before getting in trouble again in the 4th. Bubba Trammel singled off Pettitte, and then Andy walked Kurt Abbott. Pettitte helped his own cause by picking off Abbott at first, and got Leiter to end the inning. Derek Jeter tied the game in the 6th, and Pettitte managed to hand Mike Stanton a tie game in the 8th inning. Mariano Rivera closed things out to give the Yankees a three-peat, the most recent three peat in MLB history.
June 8, 2013
Pettitte's career bounced around a bit after 2000. Pettitte was superb in 2005, arguably the best season of his career, for Houston. Pettitte returned to New York, won a World Series in 2009, and then announced his retirement. The Yankees managed to coax Pettitte out of retirement several times, and in 2013 (in what would prove Pettitte's final season) Pettitte won his 250th game against Seattle, in Seattle. It was a good game for Pettitte: he went seven innings, striking out six (no walks), and only giving up one run. Surprisingly: Jayson Nix was the offensive hero, plating two of the three Yankee runs on the game.
Characteristically: Mariano Rivera closed out the game, giving Pettitte his 250th win.
Andy Pettitte's regular season statistics scream one thing: compiler. Pettitte only posted a season with a bWAR over 5 three times in his career. Pettitte only finished in the top 10 in pitchers WAR three times in his career. As stated above: Andy Pettitte only ever led the league in a major statistical category once in his career: wins in 1996. Pettitte pitched a long time, but was not a workhorse: he only ever finished in the top 10 in innings pitched twice. Pettitte was not an overpowering pitcher: he only finished in the top 10 in strikeout rate three times, and never higher than 6th. To make matters worse: Pettitte was hardly a control artist either: his 2.8 BB/9 is pedestrian.
Look, the fact of the matter is: Pettitte was rarely the best pitcher in his own rotation let alone his own league, let alone baseball. Here's a run down of the best pitcher in Pettitte's rotation by bWAR:
1995: Jack McDowell 4.0 (Andy 2.9, 2nd)
1996: Andy Pettitte 5.6
1997: Andy Pettitte 8.4
1998: David Wells 4.8 (Andy 2.4, 7th)
1999: David Cone 5.1 (Andy 2.4, 5th)
2000: Roger Clemens 4.6 (Andy 3.6, 2nd)
2001: Mike Mussina 7.1 (Andy 3.5, 3rd)
2002: Mike Mussina 4.5 (Andy 3.2, 4th)
2003: Mike Mussina 6.6 (Andy 3.1, 5th)
2004: Roger Clemens 5.4 (Andy 1.1, 5th)
2005: Roger Clemens 7.8 (Andy 6.8, 2nd)
2006: Roy Oswalt 5.9 (Andy 1.5, 4th)
2007: Chien-Meng Wang 5.0 (Andy 3.8, 2nd)
2008: Mike Mussina 5.1 (Andy 2.2, 4th)
2009: C.C. Sabathia 6.2 (Andy 3.4, 4th)
2010: C.C. Sabathia 4.8 (Andy 2.6, 2nd)
2012: Hiroki Kuroda 5.3 (Andy 2.1, 5th)
2013: Hiroki Kroda 4.0 (Andy 2.3, 5th)
Overall in his career Andy Pettitte was the best pitcher on his team: twice. It's also not like Pettitte finished second to top notch seasons either: there are a lot of solid, but not amazing, seasons Pettitte finished behind. Heck, Pettitte frequently finished behind Mariano Rivera, as a member of the Yankees, in bWAR.
Which isn't to say Pettitte does not have a case. Sam Miller broke it down reasonably in this piece on ESPN. A few relevant quotes:
As it stands now, and as it threatens to stand for a very long time, there are only two Hall of Fame pitchers who were born in the 1970s. It's a very conspicuous drought, and it probably tells us as a lot more about an era of baseball than it does about the actual talent of baseball pitching that the '70s produced.
Miller is right: there is a conspicuous drought of Hall of Fame worthy starting pitchers born in the 1970s and that feels weird. Then again: this is not the first decade bereft of many Hall of Fame starters. I direct those interested to this post by Joe Posnanski looking at Hall of Fame pitchers sorted by birth year. Only three pitchers born in the decade of 1911-1920 were inducted in the Hall of Fame: Bob Feller, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn, and guess what: only two were born in the decade 1951-1960 (Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris). Sometimes: a decade without several good pitchers is just a decade without several good pitchers. While unusual it's hardly historic.
But Miller tries to argue that Pettitte's era was special: that the offensive explosion rattled young pitchers, and made it harder to establish yourself. This, in Miller's eyes, is why there are so few good pitchers born in the 1970s. Most of the pitchers active in Pettitte's time either debuted before Pettitte (Maddux, Smoltz, Glavine, Clemens, Johnson, Schilling and Mussina were born in the 60s) or after him. Thus: Pettitte should not be judged against either the great pitchers from the 60s, or his younger contemporaries.
If we agree that those pitchers...the ones who debuted in 1995 or thereabouts...are Pettitte's true contemporaries, he starts to look really good. Only two pitchers born in the 1970s, Pedro Martinez and Roy Halladay, had more career WAR than he did.
I mean, sure: if we narrow the data set enough any pitcher will look really good. But, let's grant Miller his request and compare Pettitte only to starters born in the 70s: Pettitte ranks 6th in JAWS. Pedro Martinez leads the pack at 71.1, next is Roy Halladay at 57.4, then we got Johan Santana (48.3), Tim Hudson (48.1), Mark Beuhrle (47.4) and Andy Pettitte (47.2). Career WAR obscures what I already explained: Pettitte was not comparatively good at his best. Overall, I think Miller is playing far too much with the numbers.
Miller also discussed Andy Pettitte's impressive postseason resume. As I showed above: Pettitte's prolific postseason efforts is a huge part of his Hall of Fame case. Miller explains better than I:
His [Andy Pettitte's] post season wins probability added is sixth all time.
Miller is absolutely right: Pettitte got a ton of opportunities to produce in the postseason, including the World Series. But I think it must be said: Andy benefited from playing the expanding playoffs. Pettitte's career WPA of 2.9 in the postseason is 5th all time, but it's also far closer to 50th (1.4 WPA away) than 1st (a whopping 8.6 WPA behind Mariano River). Pettitte also got many more chances than nearly every other player on that list. Albert Pujols got the same amount of WPA in half as many games. Curt Schilling got more in about a third. Pettitte's WPA is a product of how many good teams he pitched on, not Pettitte's prowess in the postseason. Pettitte's postseason ERA, SO/BB are almost mirror images of his regular season performance.
I don't mean to sound to harsh on Andy Pettitte: he's a borderline Hall of Fame case. He certainly would not be the worst starter in the Hall of Fame. He owns a case, and it's an interesting one. His case really comes down to how much you value postseason performance, in aggregate, compared to regular season performance. As a believe in Curt Schilling's Hall of Fame case: I am prepared to merit postseason performance in my analysis. The problem here is Pettitte's postseason performance was, as a whole, good enough. It was not amazing, it was not legendary, but it got the job done. That may be the best case for Pettitte: Andy got the job done for longer than any of his contemporaries.