Andy Pettitte retirement: Is he a Hall of Fame pitcher?

Nick Laham

Will Andy Pettitte's outstanding career eventually get him into the Hall of Fame? Should it?

I'll be upfront about my state of mind as I'm writing this. On the day Andy Pettitte announced his pending retirement to the world, which he'd apparently been set on privately for some time, I'm feeling nostalgic for the championships of the late 90's and the ‘four aces' days of the early 2000's. I'm focused on Pettitte's greatest performances - game five of the '96 World Series and game six in '09 on three days' rest. I'm not thinking so much about Arizona in '01 or Cleveland in '97 or the way Andy walked away in the nuclear winter of 2003. Bewildered in my Pettitte-powered euphoria, I'm going to do my best to make a solid argument that the second best pitcher in Yankees history should someday be enshrined in Cooperstown.

It's fair to say that on the surface, Andy Pettitte's career numbers are good, but not great. His 3.86 ERA and 3.74 FIP are underwhelming, at least by Hall-of-Fame standards, his 2.37 K:BB rate is solid, but non-stellar and his 255-152 won-loss record is heavily fueled by a Yankee offense that was great for him much more often than not. But being really good over as long a stretch of time as Pettitte has is something not that many pitchers have accomplished. His 67.8 fWAR ranks 33rd all time, topping several Hall-of-Famers like Don Drysdale, Tim Keefe, Ted Lyons and even Yankee legend Whitey Ford. There are only four pitchers ahead of him who are currently eligible for the Hall and aren't in. Pettitte's ERA- of 86 is just 76th in history, but that's good enough for a tie with Phil Niekro, and it beats Ferguson Jenkins, Jim Bunning, Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton.

Pettitte stacks up reasonably well against his contemporaries, despite pitching in an era that produced at least six clear-cut Hall-of-Fame-level pitchers and three or four more borderline candidates. Over the past 25 seasons, among pitchers who've thrown 2,500 innings or more, he's ninth in fWAR and eleventh in xFIP at 3.71. Once Tom Glavine gets voted into the Hall thanks solely to his 324 victories, Andy's case will be stronger. The two lefties are even in ERA-, and Pettitte's well ahead in FIP - 3.74 to 3.95 - K-rate - 6.65 to 5.32 - and fWAR - Glavine finished at 63.9. Andy also navigated the big-bat weighted, tiny ballpark-speckled American League East for fifteen out of his eighteen major league seasons while Glavine cooled his heels in the relatively soft National League East.

Pettitte's postseason accomplishments will work in his favor when weighed by Hall-of-Fame voters. He hasn't been dominant in October like John Smoltz or Curt Schilling, but he is the all-time playoff leader in wins and innings pitched. Yes, he's had more opportunities, but it's harder to maintain greatness when you're throwing deep into the fall virtually every year. The fact that Pettitte's postseason numbers - 3.81 ERA/1.30 WHIP - pretty much mirror his regular season marks is impressive, considering he faced better lineups in pressure-packed situations.

Unfortunately it's impossible to discuss Pettitte's Hall-of-Fame candidacy without mentioning that he's an admitted user of human growth hormone, which lots him with a group of supposedly tainted players who haven't had much success with BBWAA voters so far. Roger Clemens led the confirmed PED crowd with just 36.7 percent of last year's vote and Mike Piazza, against whom there's no actual evidence, was kept out anyway. Hopefully the no cheaters in Cooperstown high horse will be a short-lived ride, though, and crotchety old writers will eventually step down from their moral pedestals. Maybe someone already in the Hall will get busted or come clean, forcing the voters to let everyone else in, or maybe time will simply place the steroid era in better perspective.

Pettitte's Hall-of-Fame candidacy will amount to a question of whether very good is good enough. It's a riddle that's been pondered many-a-time before and produced very different conclusions. There are lesser pitchers who have gotten in and will get in and better pitchers on the outside looking in. Voting often takes on a weird dynamic depending on who's on the ballot in what year. Bert Blyleven's the seventh most valuable pitcher of all-time according to fWAR and fifth in strikeouts, and it took him fourteen years to finally get inducted, while Jack Morris, who Pettitte blows away in most every conceivable stat, nearly snuck in last time around with 67.7 percent of the vote.

The odds aren't great for Andy Pettitte, Hall-of-Famer. He'll more than likely end up like Morris and Tommy John and Jim Kaat and many others, receiving enough support to stay in contention year after year but too little to actually get over the hump. If he ever does get in, it certainly won't be a travesty, but deep down, I and probably most other Yankee fans realize that he doesn't quite deserve it. But hey - If they ever actually build that fabled Hall-of-Very-Good, I absolutely plan on being there for Andy's induction.

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