Despite great career, don’t expect Andy Pettitte to wind up in Cooperstown
Mariano Rivera isn’t the only Yankees pitcher headed into the final days of his career. On Thursday morning, Andy Pettitte announced his retirement at the end of the season, bringing to a close a terrific 18-year career that has already seen him travel down this road once before. Rivera, though, won’t be joined by his longtime teammate at the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in 2019.
In this, his 18th and final season in the majors, Pettitte has been subject to the usual infirmities of a 41-year-old pitcher, but has nonetheless delivered a 3.93 ERA in 28 starts. Even so, it’s clear that the Yankees squad of whom he’s been a pillar for 15 of those 18 seasons is about to undergo drastic changes. New York will almost certainly miss the playoffs for just the second time since the 1994 strike, and Rivera will then follow fellow homegrown icons Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada into retirement, all while Derek Jeter limps toward the sunset himself. That quintet anchored the Yankees’ 1996-2003 run, and minus Williams (who left after 2006) the “Core Four” helped the team to another championship in 2009. Those peers, and those days, are dwindling, which is no doubt a factor in Pettitte’s decision to walk away.
Born in Baton Rouge, La., but raised in Deer Park, Texas, Pettitte was chosen by New York in the 22nd round in 1990 as a “draft and follow” pick, meaning that the Yankees had until the day before the following year’s draft — by which time he would have a year of junior college seasoning under his belt — to make up their mind about signing him. They did, and he arrived on the major league scene as a 23-year-old lefty in 1995, in time to help the team emerge from a 13-season absence from the playoffs. He went 12-9 with a 4.17 ERA (111 ERA+ in that high-scoring era) in 175 innings while helping the Yankees win the AL wild card, good enough for third in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting (the long-forgotten Marty Cordova won).
With the arrival of grizzled manager Joe Torre and rookie shortstop Jeter the following year, the Yankees embarked upon their first dynasty in two decades, and Pettitte was a huge part of it. He went 21-8 with a 3.87 ERA in 1996, earning All-Star honors and finishing a very close second to Pat Hentgen in the AL Cy Young balloting. He made five postseason starts en route to New York’s first title in 18 years; after being chased in the third inning of Game 1 of the World Series against the Braves, he redeemed himself in Game 5 with 8 1/3 shutout innings opposite John Smoltz in a series-turning 1-0 win.
Though even better during the regular season the next year, with a 2.88 ERA (156 ERA+) in a career-high 240 1/3 innings, he settled into Torre’s rotation as more of a durable innings-eater than a front-liner. From 1998 through 2003, he averaged 193 innings a year and posted a 4.14 ERA (110 ERA+), a span that had its highs (three consecutive world championships, five pennants, another All-Star appearance) and lows (a 4.70 ERA and near-trade to the Phillies in 1999, a thrashing in Game 6 of the 2001 World Series as he tipped his pitches to Arizona, and a two-month DL stint for elbow tendonitis in 2002). After a big 2003 season (21-8, 4.02 ERA) plus a 2.10 ERA in four stellar postseason starts out of five, he left the Yankees via free agency, signing a three-year, $31.5 million deal with the Astros — a move that would induce teammate, friend and fellow Texas native Roger Clemens to change his mind about retirement and follow along a month later.
Family pressure and New York’s wariness of Pettitte’s elbow problems were both said to have played a role in his departure from the Bronx, and indeed, his elbow gave way in 2004, limiting him to 15 starts and requiring him to undergo season-ending surgery for a torn flexor tendon. He rebounded with a 17-9 record and a career-best 2.39 ERA in 222 1/3 innings in 2005, and helped the star-studded Astros — with Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman and Craig Biggio — to their first World Series, though they were swept by the White Sox.
After one more year in Houston, Pettitte returned to the Yankees via a one-year, $16 million deal and wound up sticking around for four seasons. He was basically the same durable workhorse as before he left, at least for the first three years, averaging 205 innings with a 4.25 ERA (106 ERA+). Alas, he became embroiled in scandal in December 2007, when the Mitchell Report identified him as a player who had purchased and used human growth hormone, which was not yet outlawed by the game but would be in 2005. While an apologetic Pettitte owned up to using HGH to recover from his 2002 elbow injury and largely escaped public vilification, he became further ensnared due to his connections to Clemens, with whom he shared personal trainer Brian McNamee. Clemens, who was also named in the Mitchell Report, vehemently denied his connections to PEDs and went to Congress to clear his name, which resulted in perjury and obstruction charges and a legal circus that didn’t end until his acquittal on all six counts last June (but is now ramping up again, this time on McNamee’s behalf).
After the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since the strike in 2008, Pettitte joined free agent signings CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett in carrying them to another world championship in 2009; in fact, he started and won the clinching game in all three rounds of the postseason, the last on three days’ rest. Though he pitched well enough to make the All-Star team for the third time in 2010, a groin strain limited him to 21 starts, and New York was eliminated in the ALCS. Shots of a moist-eyed Pettitte in the dugout during the late innings of the Yankees’ final loss hinted at his retirement, which he finally made official in early February, just before pitchers and catchers were to report.
Pettitte sat out the 2011 season, but in March of 2012, he shocked the baseball world by announcing a comeback with the Yankees at a meager $2.5 million salary. He rejoined the team in mid-May and showed stellar form before a comebacker fractured his fibula and sidelined him for nearly three months. After finishing the year with a 2.87 ERA in 12 starts, the 40-year-old southpaw agreed last November to one more go-round this year. He’s shown his age, having battled back and trapezius problems, the latter of which sent him to the DL for 17 days in May and June, but he’s pitched to a 3.06 ERA over his last 11 starts.
While his performance has been solid enough to justify a return next year at age 42, Pettitte cited both physical and mental fatigue as his main reason for hanging up his spikes again. From his statement announcing his decision to retire:
“I’ve reached the point where I know that I’ve left everything I have out there on that field. The time is right. I’ve exhausted myself, mentally and physically, and that’s exactly how I want to leave this game.”
With at most two starts remaining, Pettitte nears the finish line with a gaudy 255-152 record, a 3.86 ERA (117 ERA+) and 2,437 strikeouts in exactly 3,300 regular season innings. As for his chances at reaching Cooperstown, the old-school set can make the case that he’s one of 13 post-1900 pitchers with at least 200 wins, a career winning percentage of .600 and a record more than 100 games above .500. The list of pitchers to do that includes seven Hall of Famers, four contemporary 300-game winners (including Clemens) headed there someday and former teammate Mike Mussina, who has a strong case himself.
That won’t be enough to get Pettitte a bronze plaque. The Baseball Writers Association of America has voted in just one starting pitcher with less than 300 wins in the past 22 years (Bert Blyleven), and while several others either on the ballot or headed there soon — Curt Schilling, Mussina, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz — could change that, all were much better at run prevention than Dandy Andy.
In fact, Pettitte’s 3.86 ERA would be the highest of any pitcher in the Hall of Fame, surpassing Red Ruffing’s 3.80. It’s true that he played in a high-offense era, and his 117 ERA+ is in the neighborhood of enshrinees Blyleven, Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins, Phil Niekro and Gaylord Perry (all 115 to 118), but each pitcher in that group threw at least 47 percent more innings than Pettitte and struck out at least 30 percent more hitters (in a lower strikeout era) while compiling many more wins along the way.
Furthermore, Pettitte’s three All-Star appearances and one top-three finish (but four top-five finishes) in the Cy Young voting are low totals for a Cooperstown candidate. His case rests primarily on the willingness of the voters to grant him an enormous amount of credit for his postseason work. Reaching the three-tiered playoffs 14 times in his 18-year career has given him opportunities that weren’t available to the players who preceded him, enabling him to secure a suite of postseason records via a 19-11 won-loss mark, 44 starts and 276 2/3 innings. At the same time, his 3.81 October ERA isn’t exactly Gibsonesque, and he’s taken his share of lumps, totaling seven disaster starts (more runs allowed than innings pitched), none more devastating than the aforementioned pitch-tipping debacle in the 2001 World Series.
Pettitte’s Hall of Fame case bears a striking resemblance to that of polarizing candidate Jack Morris (254-186, 3.90 ERA, 105 ERA+, 7-4, 3.80 ERA in the postseason, no Cys, a high of 67.7 percent in 14 years on the ballot). My JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) system, which is built to evaluate Hall of Fame candidates by comparing them to those already enshrined via advanced metrics, doesn’t look upon either pitcher very favorably. The average enshrined starter accumulated 72.6 career Wins Above Replacement and 50.2 at his peak (his best seven seasons) for a JAWS of 61.4, the average of those two numbers. Morris (44.1/32.8/38.4) is nowhere close to the average on any of those three fronts and ranks 160th among starting pitchers in the latter. Pettitte, better at run prevention relative to his surroundings, ranks 87th with stronger numbers (60.2/34.1/47.1) that are still far below average relative to Hall of Famers. Certainly, there are some whom he outdoes, including a Yankee mainstay of an earlier era who racked up a host of postseason records himself, Whitey Ford (57.4/.34.7/46.0).
Ultimately, that’s not enough to justify voting for him — particularly amid what’s bound to be a crowded ballot — without opening the doors to admit valuable pitchers with lower win totals such as Tim Hudson (57.0/38.4/47.7), Johan Santana (51.4/44.8/48.1), Orel Hershiser (56.8/40.4/48.6) and David Cone (62.5/43.5/53.0), the latter two of whom barely got passing glances on the BBWAA ballot even with considerable postseason heroics of their own.
All of that is without considering the PED connection. While Pettitte’s never been vilified in the same way as Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Barry Bonds or Clemens, the voters have thus far made a point of resisting even much more qualified candidates who were only alleged to have connections to the drugs (see Bagwell and Mike Piazza).
Thus, it’s difficult to envision Pettitte gaining entry to the Hall of Fame. That doesn’t mean that he hasn’t put together an outstanding and memorable career as part of a great run of nearly two decades. He has, and he’ll be remembered with particular fondness in New York.