Wednesday, August 5, 2009

In Appreciation Of Andy Pettitte

Last night's eighth and ninth innings featured huge home runs by the Yankee bats and a bit of a high wire act from the previously untouchable bullpen duo of Phil Hughes and Mariano Rivera. But prior to Johnny Damon launching his third career HR against Roy Halladay, it was a classic pitcher's duel.

After allowing two quick runs in the first, Roy Halladay started pitching like the best pitcher in the AL again, shutting the Yanks down until the eighth inning. But Andy Pettitte, enjoying a second half renaissance that's the polar opposite of his 2008 second half, was more than up to the task. He's not the horse that can go the distance anymore, but when he handed the ball to Phil Hughes with two outs in the seventh, Pettitte had done all that could have been asked of him and more.

As I drove to work Monday morning, I was thinking of Andy Pettitte. Why, I'm not quite sure. I mean I think about baseball constantly it seems, but why Pettitte popped into my mind at that point I don't know. What occured to me about Pettitte is that he is now in his fifteenth Major League season. I was conscious of the fact that he debuted in 1995, but it never quite dawned on me just how long ago that was.

I can remember Pettitte coming up through the system. I probably first heard of him on Yankees Magazine or something. When the 1994 strike hit, I did my best to satisfy my baseball jones by keeping up with the Yankees' minor leaguers through the now-defunct Baseball Weekly. I remember being impressed with his stats on his way to a 14-4, 2.86 ERA season split between AA and AAA. I remember arguing with my father as to whether the name was pronounced "PET-it" or "peh-TEE-tee". (I was right).

When Pettitte arrived in New York the next spring, he immediately reminded me of Ron Guidry: a homegrown, Louisiana-born lefty, his #46 reminiscient of Guidry's #49. Like Gator, Pettitte kicked off his career working out of the pen, before transitioning to the rotation early in his rookie year. Like Guidry, Pettitte had immense success early in his career. Louisiana Lightning turned in his remarkable 25-3 1.78 year in his second full season, winning the Cy Young Award. Pettitte went 21-8 in his second season, finishing second in Cy Young voting. Both pitchers made post-season appearances in their first two seasons, and both quickly established themselves as big time playoff performers.

Perhaps my comparison is a bit strained. Pettitte is a big workhorse at 6'5" 235, Guidry was a slight 5'11" 162, athletic enough to be routinely used as a pinch runner and occassional centerfielder. Guidry was a classic fastball/slider guy, Pettitte has used an arsenal of fastballs and curveballs and cutters and sinkers. But at the time I began following the Yanks, though he was a shadow of his former self, Louisiana Lightning was the gold standard by which modern Yankee pitchers were judged. He was the Yankee Captain. He was the franchise's greatest pitcher since Whitey Ford. He was the man who turned in the historic 1978 season, who had the famous 18 strikeout game against the Angels, who picked up the win in the Bucky Dent game.

I guess what struck me as I drove to work Monday is that Pettitte's career, and even his Yankee career, has now lasted longer than Guidry's. Guidry seemed to me like an ancient relic of another time, the last link to Bronx Zoo years and the 1977-78 championship teams, when he announced his retirement in July 1989. Twenty years after that, Pettitte is the greatest Yankee starter since Ford, and sits in Guidry's company in several categories on the all-time Yankee leader board. And perhaps that says as much about me getting older as it does about Pettitte's career being older than I realized.

Andy Pettitte has had an underappreciated career. Beloved by the fan base but quiet and yeoman-like in his work, he's been perpetually overshadowed, whether it be by more colorful aces in David Cone and David Wells, the Legend of Roger Clemens, or high profile international free agents Orlando Hernandez and Hideki Irabu.

Four times in his Yankee career he's finished in the top six in Cy Young voting, yet his best finishes (2nd in '96 and 4th in '00) were built on the strength of his win totals, while his best Yankee seasons in terms of ERA+ were '97 (5th in voting) and '02 (DNF). While playing in Houston, his teammate Roger Clemens won the 2004 Cy Young and finished 8th in the MVP voting by going 18-4 with a 146 ERA+ and 1.16 WHIP. The next year Pettitte went 17-9 with a 177 ERA+ and 1.03 WHIP and finished 5th in the Cy Young and 24th in the MVP voting.

Pettitte has also been undervalued by the Yankees organization. As The Yankee Years detailed, he was nearly dealt at the 1999 trade deadline and departed as a free agent after the 2003 season when the Yankees mustered only a half-hearted effort to retain him. Even this past offseason, as the Yankees (rightly) took a hard line on their negotiations with Pettitte, the situation took on a slight air of inappreciativeness.

Pettitte has flirted with retirement in each of the last three offseasons. I imagine this year will bring much of the same. But my gut tells me this is Andy's last hurrah, so I'm going to try sit back and enjoy it as much as I can. I've never been particularly fond of pitchers, their occassional and often unpredictable playing making it difficult to grow attached to them. But if I can put aside strict statistical analysis for a moment, Pettitte is exactly the type of pitcher I love to watch: not necessarily dominant, but a guy who attacks hitters, doesn't nibble, doesn't pitch afraid, doesn't complain, and one who seemingly always takes the ball, always answers the bell, and has a knack for coming up big on the big stage. He's had his rough patches this year and has been vocal in his criticism of the new Stadium. But he's also been on a tear since the All-Star break, outdueling the League's best pitcher last night and posting a 2.36 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, and 29:7 K:BB over 26.2 IP in his last four starts. That's vintage Pettitte, and given Joba's inning limit and the fifth starter situation that sort of performance from Pettitte will be much needed down the stretch.

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