Name: Andy Pettitte
Position: Starter (LHP)
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 40 (born 6/15/1972)
Height: 6’5" Weight: 225 lbs.
Remaining Contract: One year, $12 million, free agent at end of season
2012 statistics: (MLB) 12 starts, 5-4, 75.1 IP, 2.87 ERA, 3.48 FIP, 7.8 H/9, 2.5 BB/9, 8.2 K/9, 68 ERA-, 82 FIP-
Starting pitchers have played a somewhat-curious role in New York Yankees history. While the club has featured several hitters that were among the greatest to ever put on the spikes in Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Derek Jeter, there are comparatively far fewer starters. Hell, they even have two of the best relievers in baseball history in Mariano Rivera and Goose Gossage, but as far as starting pitchers go, it's Whitey Ford, then... Yeah. Sure, there are three other Hall of Fame starters with Yankee hats there in stalwarts Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, Red Ruffing, and Jack Chesbro but although they were terrific pitchers, they are outer-rim Hall of Famers. Advocates of a more exclusive Hall of Fame would not likely include them. Thus, Ford remains the only truly special pitching great the Yankees have ever had. Yet check out that name that's snuck up on the Yankee' all-time pitching leaders list with 14 memorable seasons in the Bronx--a good ol' soft-spoken Texan boy, Andy Pettitte.
Not many would have predicted that Pettitte would become a Hall of Fame candidate when he was drafted in the 22nd round by the Yankees in 1990. He did not crack Baseball America's Top 100 prospects until a few months before his rookie season in '95. That year, he showed fans how he pitched to a 2.56 ERA across four years in the minors by claiming a spot in the injury-laden rotation, filling the southpaw stopper void left by injured ace Jimmy Key. He finished third in American League Rookie of the Year voting behind Marty Cordova and Garret Anderson, but he would go on to have the best career of all three.
After helping the Yankees to their first playoff berth since the days of another fine lefty, Ron Guidry through a 91 ERA-, 3.2 fWAR season, Pettitte took the league by storm in '96. He was the ace of the World Series champions, and he stayed in the rotation for seven more great years until the Yankees bafflingly allowed him to walk away as a free agent without giving much pursuit. As Buster Olney recounted in The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty, while owner George Steinbrenner wined and dined with free agent outfielder Gary Sheffield, he never even Pettitte a call. Steinbrenner often recalled that letting Reggie Jackson go as a free agent in '82 was the worst decision he ever made, he was wrong again. I cannot think of a dumber move this organization has made in my lifetime. The bad free agent contracts were not even as bad as permitting a 31-year-old homegrown workhorse in his prime go for no apparent reason. They tried to swoop in at the last moment with a contract offer higher than the one Pettitte took with the Houston Astros, but Pettitte decided to take the lower offer to pitch closer to home. In that linked article though, Pettitte kept talking about how "interested" the Astros were in him compared to the Yankees' apparent nonchalance (Why yes, I am still bitter.)
Pettitte got hurt in an at-bat during his first start with Houston, and suffered an injury-plagued '04. His next season was perhaps the best of his career though, a 2.39 ERA gem of a campaign wherein he and fellow southerners Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt pitched the 'Stros to their first (and only) World Series appearance in their 44-year history. After another fine season, his contract was up again, and the Yankees finally made amends on their mistake by bringing Pettitte back in '07. Four years later, Pettitte announced his retirement, and it appeared his stellar career was at a close. Last March however, Pettitte shocked us all by announcing he was planning a comeback with the Yankees, ditching his gig as a Spring Training instructor for another round on the mound. It looked like the rotation was full at the time, but once Freddy Garcia's career withered away and Pettitte had made a few minor league starts, he was back in the rotation.
It was amazing to see Pettitte dismiss Father Time so easily last season in his 14 combined starts between the regular season and playoffs. He had apparently not missed a beat despite a year and a half away from the game. A Casey Kotchman line drive to his leg cut the season shorter than he would have liked as he had to rehab from a fracture, forcing him from the team until mid-September. When he did pitch though, it was masterful.
None of Pettitte's pitches (fastball, cutter, curveball, changeup) rated negatively according to FanGraphs' pitch values. Pitch F/X didn't like his four-seam fastball as much, but it did judge his other pitches to be positive, including his two-seam fastball. He still loved pitched at Yankee Stadium, where he made eight of those 14 starts and pitched to a 1.97 ERA. Improbably, he was striking batters out at near-career-high rates despite turning 40 in June. It's important to consider that due to the limited season of 12 starts, Pettitte never really had much of a slump that all pitchers go through at some point during a full season, but it was nonetheless impressive. He rarely hits 90 mph on his fastball anymore, but it doesn't matter; Pettitte's just such a precise pitcher that he can properly locate his pitches and mix them up to get hitters out without overwhelming "stuff." As his above-average 34.2% O-Swing% from last year indicates, even the best of hitters will chase a good enough pitch from Pettitte:
So Pettitte returns for perhaps one last run in the league. He considered returning to retirement after 2012, but ultimately decided to come back again since he felt his season was cheapened by the leg injury. It would be surprising to see Pettitte back out there next year since Mariano Rivera will be riding off into the sunset anyway and Pettitte has either been in or considered retirement almost annually since 2009. He's an interesting Hall of Fame candidate who certainly warrants consideration, and I think one could make the case that he's the second-best starter in Yankees history behind only Ford, a lefty ace who was also somewhat overshadowed by his superstar teammate, Mantle, like Pettitte with Jeter.
Pettitte's eminent departure is a bittersweet topic for another day though--as far as 2013 goes, pitching coach Larry Rothschild said last November that Pettitte might be limited to under 30 starts to reduce his workload. Even though Pettitte understandably wants to work toward his old goals of 200 innings and 20 wins, that would be a lot of innings for someone who has not come close to that total in four years. It probably makes sense to keep him fresh. However, if he does decide at some point that 2013 will be the end, he will be "emptying the tank," as players like to say. Maybe he can come up with one more surprise.
As previously mentioned, Pettitte is sneaking up to even higher places than he already stands on the Yankees' all-time pitching statistic lists. With 65 more strikeouts, he passes Ford for most in team history at over 1,956. Another 51 innings will put him in third place for most innings in team history, passing Mel Stottlemyre and behind only Ford and Ruffing. He's a couple seasons off from other totals like the top totals in wins, WAR, and total inings, and you can thank the brief retirement and the Boss's bumbling in the '03-'04 offseason for that.
The Yankees' offense might be the weakest Pettitte has ever played with, so they will be relying on the soon-to-be 41-year-old to be classic Pettitte. Skepticism about pitchers in their forties is usually warranted, but Pettitte is an exception to this rule. Like Jamie Moyer, who had an admirable season at the even-older age of 45 in '08, Pettitte simply knows how to control a game. I wouldn't bet against him. Long live "The Stare."