Andy Pettitte's decision to return to the game after a full season off has been met with mixed response. Some fans are extremely excited to bring the five-time champion back into the fold and believe he will contribute, while others feel that his comeback is short-sighted and will negatively impact one of their many talented young arms (Pineda/Nova/Hughes/Phelps/Warren/Mitchell). No one really knows what to expect from Pettitte. Not many players have left the game completely healthy like Pettitte did in 2010 and attempted to come back.
A decade ago however, one former Yankee made a similar attempt at age 40, and the results of his efforts should assure fans that nothing is guaranteed, regardless of a player's past success. That player's name was David Cone, and his return to the game was aborted after only a few games. Ideally, Pettitte's 2012 will be nothing like Cone's 2003, but Cone's experience should be analyzed to reveal some insight toward Pettitte's future.
David Cone was one of the best pitchers in baseball in his heyday. He had a Cy Young Award, a perfect game, five World Series rings and All-Star appearances, and over 2,500 strikeouts and 55 pitching WAR to his credit, but he endured a nightmare 2000 season with the Yankees (6.91 ERA, 5.44 FIP in 29 starts). It ended up being his last year in pinstripes. He signed with the Red Sox for the '01 season and had a nice recovery, starting 25 games and pitching to a 4.31 ERA and 4.46 FIP, a 2.0 fWAR season. Cone was still capable of spinning gems like his outing against the Yankees when Mike Mussina narrowly missed a perfect game--he struck out eight and allowed only one unearned run in over eight and a third innings. He was a serviceable starter at the back end of the Boston rotation, and he could have parlayed his '01 season into another contract for '02, but he chose to sit out the season. Cone did not pitch, and he somewhat distanced himself from baseball, save for a few broadcasting appearances.
Cone was still away from baseball during the '02-'03 offseason when the New York Mets pursued his services. They were looking for someone to pitch in the back of their rotation, and Cone's friends, Mets pitchers Al Leiter and John Franco, challenged him to come back. He decided to give it a shot and the Mets signed him to a $500,000 minor-league contract in February. Not much was expected from Cone after a year away from the game, but because he had a reputation for "knowing how to pitch," people like Franco expected Cone to recapture his '01 form.
Cone impressed the Mets enough in Spring Training to be named the number five starter for the regular season. The storylines were ready--the former New York star was making a comeback with his old club to put a proper coda on his career. Unfortunately, the season did not go as planned. Cone only made four starts and a relief appearance before getting injured. In those five games, he did not look sharp. Cone managed to win his debut with a five-inning shutout effort against the (dearly departed) Montreal Expos, but his next three starts were disastrous. He allowed 12 runs in 11 innings, walking eight batters and surrendering three homers. In that third start, his inflamed left hip, which gave him problems for years, forced him to leave after two innings. Cone could not recover from the injury, and though he was able to make a final appearance in late May out of the bullpen, he ended the experiment two days after his last game. The stresses of the game were just too much for his arthritic hip to bear.
David Cone and Andy Pettitte are two different pitchers, so it is hard to really state with any certainty that Pettitte risks ending his career like Cone did. However, it should say something that even though Cone had a healthy and productive '01, his age and the year away from the game made it difficult for his body to properly sustain itself for another major league season. Comeback efforts like those of Bartolo Colon and Chris Capuano in the past couple years do not quite compare with Cone and Pettitte's situations. They had at least been attempting recovery from injuries and were trying to stay in shape with professional clubs. Cone and Pettitte were completely away for a year, and if they did stay in shape during their years off, they did so without major league supervision. Cone's difficulties with physical fitness in 2003 do not forebode any good omens for Pettitte in 2012. Thus, fans need to exercise significant caution before expecting too much from Pettitte this year. He was still great in 2010, but that does not mean everything will be fine now. That groin injury that caused him to miss two months that season could easily reemerge and cause problems, just as Cone's hip did. Older players are simply more injury-prone, and Pettitte is no different from any other pitcher turning 40 this year. Buyer beware.