Resurgence of Andy Pettitte pivotal to Yankees' playoff hopes

Tom Szczerbowski

The oldest starting pitcher in the majors might not be as superb as he once was, but Pettitte's recent rebound from a mostly-awful return from the DL has returned his season to respectability.

When Andy Pettitte announced that he would return for the 2013 season, fans reacted with cautious optimism. Sure, Pettitte was turning 41 and would be the oldest starter in baseball, but he had pitched so well last year with a 2.93 ERA in 14 starts (limited by a freak injury) between the regular season and playoffs after his retirement comeback that there was cause for hope. The season began well for Pettitte in April, as he carried a 2.22 ERA through four starts and despite one awful game against the Astros, he had a still-solid 3.83 ERA at the end of play on May 16th. A trapezius muscle strain cut that last start short after 4 2/3 innings though, and Pettitte spent a couple weeks on the disabled list recovering from the injury.

Pettitte was simply not the same pitcher upon his return from the DL. His Game Score of 71 against the Mariners on June 8th was his only such mark of at least 60 over the next two and a half months. From June 3rd through August 11th, Pettitte was awful, and it's a minor miracle that the Yankees went 6-7 in his starts given his 5.14 ERA, 11.9 H/9, average Game Score of 44, and .321/.352/.458 triple slash against. He wasn't giving the Yankees effective pitching or even bullpen relief, as he averaged fewer than six innings per start. His ERA ballooned to 4.62 and his weighted ERA- for the season hovered in the 110s, a mark far higher than any of Pettitte's other 17 seasons.

The combined disappointments of Pettitte, CC Sabathia, and Phil Hughes made it appear unlikely that the Yankees could even attempt a playoff run. Although Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova were superb, the Yankees needed at least one of the aforementioned struggling starters to recover if they wanted to get back into the playoff hunt. They could not realistically expect Kuroda and Nova to consistently carry the weight of exceeded pressure of winning all their starts.

The Yankees began a crucial series in Boston on August 16th, and they sent Pettitte out to face the difficult Red Sox offense. Staked to an early lead, Pettitte turned in a fine performance, limiting the Red Sox to six hits, one walk, and three unearned runs over 6 2/3 innings, a Game Score of 60. He has faced the Blue Jays in his last two starts, and while they have not had slugger Jose Bautista, they have had legitimate threats in Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Reyes, league-average producers Brett Lawrie and Mark DeRosa, and Pettite's nemesis Rajai Davis. Over the two outings, Pettitte threw 13 innings of one-run ball, the one run coming on a lone J.P. Arencibia solo homer.

The efforts of his previous three starts have lowered his ERA to a more respectable 4.05 mark and his ERA- to a league-average 98. Using Baseball-Reference's ERA+ and Play Index to compare Pettitte to his fellow age-41 starters across history, he now ranks in the middle of the 66 pitchers. He relies on his vast array of pitches to beat hitters since he longer has the same velocity he had when he was younger. Although his fastball and changeup have mostly failed him this year, he is generating success from his reliable curveball and cutter, both of which are positively rated by FanGraphs and PITCH F/X.

Essentially, Pettitte is rebounding in a way that Hughes could only dream about. It's still too soon to say that Pettitte is completely reliable since he's still only made four good starts out of his last 14 games, but Pettitte at least appears to be back on the right track. They need reliable starting pitching going down the stretch if they want to make a legitimate run at the Wild Card. His important upcoming potential starts against the Orioles (if Joe Girardi decides to skip Hughes on Sunday and start Pettitte on normal rest) and Red Sox do not seem quite as foreboding as they once did. Perhaps it's folly to think that a 41-year-old could possibly beat those great offenses, but thankfully, Pettitte has recovered to provide some cause for hope in what could be his last chance at playoff glory.

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