In the world of sports media, few headlines generate more interest than comeback stories.
Michael Jordan stunned fans with his “I’m back” fax in 1995. Mario Lemieux returned to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2000, three years after being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Brett Favre engaged in a months-long legal saga leading up to his 2008 return to the gridiron. All captured national attention and drew significant interest.
The Yankees are no strangers to comeback attempts. Who could forget when Roger Clemens announced he was returning from George Steinbrenner’s box in 2007? Or, on the weird baseball side of things, when Luis Sojo came out of retirement after hitting a home run in the 2003 Old Timers’ Day game? Given the club’s rich history and tradition, notable comebacks are expected.
One, however, stands out as more satisfying than the rest. That claim belongs to Andy Pettitte, who on this day in 2012, announced he would return to the Yankees. While his comeback may not match the level of fame as Jordan or Favre, its importance shouldn’t be overlooked. Teams can draw lessons from Pettitte’s return, particularly in the area of rotation depth and diversity.
Before diving into the analysis, however, it makes sense to appreciate the unfolding story from a fan’s perspective. We begin with good old-fashioned narrative history.
March 16th, 2012 began like any other day at George M. Steinbrenner Field. The Yankees and Nationals were scheduled for an afternoon game. Bryce Harper made the starting lineup, which provided excitement, but everything else seemed normal. After two weeks worth of Grapefruit League play, spring training routines grew monotonous.
That’s when Jack Curry opened Twitter and sent the baseball world into a frenzy of clicks and speculation.
The Yankees have signed Andy Pettitte to a 1-year minor league deal worth $2.5 million. The team is thrilled to have 240-game winner back.— Jack Curry (@JackCurryYES) March 16, 2012
Being relatively new to Twitter in 2012, this was my first experience with the trademark Curry Bomb. There were no rumors, no inklings, and no hypotheticals. Just Jack Curry on Twitter, announcing a done deal. I distinctly recall looking at my phone and breaking out into an excited laughter. This is better than Christmas, I thought.
The game against the Nationals became an afterthought. Andy Pettitte, the staff ace of the dynasty era, was back. There were no guarantees that he would look like his old self, but the prospect of one more stare-down from the mound made me excited.
After the initial adrenaline rush wore off, questions began to surface. How did this happen? For how long were the sides in negotiation? Why now? As the day unfolded, Pettitte and the Yankees’ management cleared up the confusion.
“It’s Andy Pettitte; if he wants to come back, we say yes,” a Yankees source told Joel Sherman.
The comeback, however, wasn’t that easy. During a press conference on the YES Network, General Manager Brian Cashman indicated that he tried to lure Pettitte out of retirement in December 2011 with a substantial contract offer, in the $10 – $12 million range. Pettitte declined, citing ambivalence towards a return, and Cashman used that money elsewhere. He landed both Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda to shore up the rotation.
Pettitte resumed throwing and arrived to spring training as a guest instructor. He caught the itch to play again and mentioned as much to Cashman. Pettitte didn’t care about the money. He couldn’t shake the urge and would play for whatever the team gave him.
That resulted in a top-secret bullpen session at dawn. Under the eyes of Cashman, Joe Girardi, and Larry Rothschild, Pettitte pitched to prove he had something left in the tank. He aced the test and a deal came together quickly.
It took nearly two months for Pettitte to appear in a game. He went through his own version of spring training. When he made his debut on May 13th, he looked decent, albeit rusty. He gave up four runs in 6.1 innings. In a sense, this was what I expected from Pettitte’s reunion tour. He was a 39-year-old pitcher, a year removed from baseball.
Pettitte proved me wrong five days later, as he out-dueled Bronson Arroryo and the Cincinnati Reds. He tossed eight innings of shutout ball, striking out nine and walking just one. I distinctly remember watching this game in awe. He looked like vintage Pettitte, as if the clocks turned back to 1996.
Was it a flash in the pan? Pettitte answered with a resounding no. Through June 27th, he pitched to a 3.22 ERA. He even broke Bryce Harper! Unfortunately a Casey Kotchman line drive broke Pettitte’s leg, sidelining him for two months. He returned in time to finish the year with a 2.87 ERA (3.48 FIP), and made a couple of postseason starts to boot.
After a primer on the details, it’s fair to ask what lesson does the Pettitte comeback teach? At the macro-level, his return serves as a case study for building a deep and diverse rotation. This message rings especially true when considering the roster construction of the 2017 Yankees.
It’s hard to believe, but at the time of the Pettitte signing, people questioned where he would fit in the rotation. The Yankees had to trade AJ Burnett to make room for Kuroda and Pineda. CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, and Ivan Nova were all seen as locks for a starting job. Freddy Garcia was hanging around, too.
As the season began and injuries mounted, it became clear that Pettitte wasn’t just counted on to return, but to carry the staff as well. Mike Bauman of MLB.com noted that his return was now a “necessity, not a luxury” for the Yankees.
Ironically, Pettitte went down with a lengthy injury himself. After bringing the southpaw out of retirement, Garcia and David Phelps combined to make 28 starts. That was a team that went on to win the AL East. The lesson here is that when a team thinks that their roster is complete, they should add another starting pitcher. The Yankees have two question marks at the back of their rotation. The team might regret not shoring up the staff with another starter.
Pettitte’s comeback also highlights the importance of having a staff with diverse pitching repertories. Known as a “crafty lefty,” Pettitte worked with an arsenal of various pitches he could throw at differing speeds.
Pettitte’s style paired well with the hard-throwing Sabathia and deceptive Kuroda. That combination gave opposing teams three very different looks and kept batters off balance.
This philosophy has shifted of late. The return of Pineda and acquisition of Nathan Eovaldi indicated that the club relied on good stuff, bad command pitchers. Both flashed promise, even moments of dominance, but never any sustained level of success. Luis Severino could very well join that club too if he doesn’t locate his fastball better and develop a changeup.
Hope does exist, as Masahiro Tanaka is effectively a six-pitch pitcher. Pettitte has also worked with Sabathia to develop a cutter and pitch with diminished stuff. There may not be much more the front office can do now with rosters essentially set. Looking ahead, shifting away from a one-dimensional pitching philosophy and embracing different styles might be the smart avenue to pursue.
When the Yankees signed Pettitte in 2012, it was tough to imagine any reasonable expectations. The same was true for fans. What once looked like a brief detour down memory lane turned into an impressive two-year reprieve in pinstripes. It left a lasting impression with a number of lessons on how to construct a starting rotation.
It’s entirely possible that we’ll never see quite as exciting of an afternoon as a fan favorite, borderline Hall of Famer, coming out of retirement. On the five-year anniversary, it seems fitting to appreciate the thrill it brought.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference, charts courtesy of Brooks Baseball.