While making the trip from our small hometown of West Grove, Pennsylvania to New York City in November of 2009 to attend the Yankees World Series championship parade, my friends and I decided to make a bet. The bet centered around which member of the team's Core Four--composed of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada--would be the last to retire. As we all know, the "Core Four" nickname derived from the fact that these were the only four players to be members of each of the Yankees' five championship teams in 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2009.
On the road to that 2009 title, all four of the seemingly ageless stars made valuable contributions: Jeter was busy being Jeter and batting .344 in the postseason, Posada came up with several key hits in the World Series, Pettitte had series-clinching wins in each of the three series, and Rivera had playoff statistics consisting of five saves and a mere 0.54 ERA.
Back to the bet.
I went the safe route and said that Jeter would last the longest. He was the youngest and was coming off a year in which he hit .334, the fourth best single-season mark of his career. My one friend said Rivera, which also made sense to me. After all, the guy only has one pitch and throws less than 70 innings per season, so playing for even another five or six years didn't seem all that unlikely. The second and final friend, possibly just wanting to play the role of contrarian, went out on a limb and said Andy Pettitte. Andy Pettitte? You mean the Brett Favre of baseball? The guy was always mulling retirement. In my mind, I had already won the meaningless bet, at least over friend number two. Flash forward about a year and a half from that point, and it was indeed Pettitte becoming the first member of the Core Four to call it quits. It was upsetting to see my favorite player of all time announce his retirement, but hey, at least I was right!
Well, at least I thought I was right. On March 16, 2012, Pettitte decided to come out of retirement and inked a one-year deal with the Yankees. He was back and, to be quite honest, he was better than ever. Pettitte started 12 games in the majors during the 2012 season, and finished with an earned run average of 2.87. It was vintage Andy Pettitte.
It's now 2013, and in his eighteenth season, Pettitte has, for the most part, looked like the same old Pettitte. His statistics aren't exactly eye-popping, but he constantly keeps the Yankees in the games that he starts and has again compiled a double-digit win total. While Pettitte was in the midst of throwing seven shutout innings in a 7-1 Yankees win over the Blue Jays on Tuesday night, something hit me: friend number two is going to end up being right in all of this, meaning Andy Pettitte is probably going to be the final man standing from the Core Four.
Rivera has constantly and adamantly stated that this will be his final season, Jeter just seems broken down and is currently making what feels like his eighth comeback attempt, and Posada has been long-retired. But Pettitte? He has quietly hit his stride in August, putting together his best stretch of starts since the beginning of the season, allowing a combined total of just two runs in his last four outings. He suddenly looks 31 and not 41, and could very well last longer in this league than Jeter does.
It's something that might have come as a surprise to the eighth grade me in 2009, but should it have? No, not really, at least not when considering that Pettitte has always been a pitcher that can be counted upon to come through when it matters the most. With just three All-Star appearances and having never been the true ace of a staff, the flashy component certainly isn't there with Pettitte, and it often gets him overlooked – so overlooked to the point that many experts don't think he deserves a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The truth is that few pitchers in the history of the game have ever been able to reach the level of consistency and reliability that Pettitte has sustained during his career. He's a fighter, he's a winner, and, eventually, he should be a Hall of Famer. To me, it's his postseason track record that should pave his path to Cooperstown, but for now, we'll just focus on his regular season accomplishments. According to an article on ESPN.com by Jason Stark, Pettitte is the ONLY starting pitcher to ever have at least 15 winning seasons without having a losing season.
Read that statistic. Read it again. Now go check for yourself, because it's true.
Pettitte has compiled win-loss records of above .500 in 16 of 17 completed seasons, with the one exception coming in 2008, when he went 14-14 for New York. He won over 20 games in two different seasons, won 19 in another, had five other seasons of at least 15 wins, and he has recorded a total of 15 double-digit win seasons. How's that for consistency? If nothing else, he's a consummate winner. In fact, Pettitte has over 100 more wins (256) during his career than he has losses (151), something only 25 other pitchers have been able to do. Of 25 pitchers,18 are already in the Hall, while five others are still waiting for the day that they become eligible. Translation: based on his pure ability to win games, it should be nearly impossible to keep Pettitte out of Cooperstown. Best of all, none of that is even close to the best case that can be made for voting him into the Hall of Fame.
As I touched on previously, it is everything that Andy Pettitte has done during October and even November that truly makes him worthy. Try to think of every great pitcher in baseball history, because whether it's John Smoltz, or Bob Gibson, or Roger Clemens, or whomever – none have as many playoff wins (19) as Pettitte.
On an even more impressive note, he has always seemed to have the knack to save his best outings for the biggest playoff games, something that became a trend way back in 1996. After earning the series-clinching win for New York in the '96 ALCS, it was Pettitte who pitched eight shutout innings to earn the win in the decisive Game 5 of a World Series that had previously been tied at two games apiece. Since then, he has four more World Series wins (including two that clinched championships in 1998 and 2009) and six wins (two that were series-clinching) in different American League Championship series.
Just to be 100 percent clear, it's not as if he has won these games as a result of run support. In addition to that start in Game 5 of the '96 World Series, other Pettitte gems have come in Game 4 of the '98 World Series, Game 4 of the '99 ALCS, Game 3 of the 2000 ALCS, Game 5 of the '01 ALCS, Game 2 of the '03 ALCS, and Game 6 of the '09 ALCS, with each one being just that – a pitching gem.
Try if you want to, but you would be extremely hard-pressed to find a starting pitcher with a playoff resume that matches up to that of Andy Pettitte. The guy is just that good. I don't know if the Yankees will make the playoffs in 2013, and with the rate they're going at right now, it doesn't seem likely. But, with that being said, if they are able to sneak in as the second Wild Card and get a spot in that one game playoff, I know exactly whom I would want on the mound if the Yankees for some reason couldn't use Hiroki Kuroda.
You guessed it: Andy Pettitte. I would surely take my chances with him over the struggling CC Sabathia, and I'll go with Pettitte's experience before I want to see the talented-but-still-young Ivan Nova on the mound in a do or die situation. He might not be the most glamorous and he'll never finish with the statistics of a Cy Young candidate, but Andy Pettitte knows how to get it done. Even when he doesn't have his best stuff, he figures out ways on the fly to put the Yankees in position to win. Remember Game 3 of the 2009 World Series? It was on Halloween night, the first of three straight contests to be held at Citizens Bank Park, and the start time was delayed over an hour because of rain. Pettitte, who would say afterwards that the rain delay had a poor effect on his mental preparation, had a nightmarish start to his outing, allowing three runs in the first two innings. After that, he settled down and surrendered just one run in his final four innings of work. During that time, his Yankee teammates chipped and chipped away at the Philadelphia lead, and New York was eventually ahead 7-4 when Pettitte left the game.
It wasn't pretty and it wasn't a masterpiece, but he was able to do enough things right to earn the win. Those types of performances negatively skew his statistics, but they are also the ones that have really defined Andy Pettitte as a winner. I'll go as far as to say that the Find A Way To Get It Done games are what should cement his spot in Cooperstown, even more so than those gems that I mentioned earlier. Any pitcher can win when he is feeling great, but only the best can consistently come out victorious without their best stuff.
However, my gut feeling on this one says that he won't end up making the Hall of Fame. There just aren't enough voters that seem to share my opinion on the topic, and it really is a shame. It's especially a shame because, as a Yankee fan, it's fair to say that his roles in each of the five championships were just as vital as the roles played by Jeter and Rivera. Does anyone even question the notion that those two legends will make it into the Hall? Of course not, nor should they. Jeter and Rivera will make it on the first-ballot, and they might even be the first two unanimous selections.
For Pettitte, on the other hand, it isn't even close to a sure thing. Hopefully he won't even be eligible for at least another seven or eight years, because I would love to see him continue his career with the Yankees into 2014 and beyond, but he will retire at some point, and he will eventually learn his Cooperstown fate. But just know this, Andy: regardless of the outcome, you're a Hall of Famer in my book.