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Rethinking Andy Pettitte’s Hall of Fame Case 

Rethinking Andy Pettitte’s Hall of Fame Case

By Lincoln Mitchell

***

Sometimes baseball narratives emerge that are incongruent with memory. Memories are imperfect and numbers rarely lie, so when that happens it is good to review the record. For me, the emerging consensus that Andy Pettitte was a great post-season pitcher is an example of this. I was fortunate enough to watch those great Yankees teams from 1996-2009, as well as Pettitte’s Astros in 2005. For much of the great lefty’s years with the Yankees it seemed like every time I went to Yankee Stadium, Pettitte was the starting pitcher, so have a pretty good sense of who he was.

The credential that is most frequently used to support this notion is that Pettitte holds the record for most post-season wins. Those 19 wins are kind of impressive, but are more a reflection of Pettitte being on so many good teams during the overlap of the extended playoff era and of the last years of the starting pitchers going deep into games era. Nonetheless, 19-11 with a 3.83 ERA in 276.2 innings is a substantial post-season resume.

I wanted to take a closer look so I went through each of Pettitte’s starts and put them in one of four categories. Tier 1 starts were defined as dominant and required Pettitte to pitch seven or more innings while giving up two or fewer runs. Tier 2 were quality starts. Because this was post-season I expanded this definition to include any game where Pettitte went seven or more innings and gave up three or four runs, or five or six innings with three or fewer runs. Tier 3 included mediocre starts of three to six innings with fewer with four or five runs. Tier 4 were games where Pettitte didn’t have it and lasted fewer than three innings or gave up six or more runs.

Seventeen of Pettitte’ starts were tier one starts, fourteen were tier two, seven tier three and six tier four. Those numbers indicate that Pettitte was indeed an impact pitcher in about 40% of his post-season starts However, those six tier four starts are a reminder that he was not always sharp in the postseason and may have cost the Yankees a series or two by pitching so poorly. On balance, Pettitte was essentially the same good but not great post-season pitcher that he was in the regular season.

This is relevant because Pettitte is on the Hall of Fame ballot again this year and is drawing a fair amount of positive attention. The Hall of Fame has not always been good to Yankees. There are three players from the great teams of the late 1970s, Thurman Munson, Willie Randolph and Graig Nettles, for example, that received very few Hall of Fame votes, but who probably belong there. While Yankees fans may feel that their favorite players have been treated poorly by Hall of Fame voters, Pettitte may not be the best player on whom to hang that argument.

Pettitte’s case is intriguing because the role of starting pitchers has changed so much in the last few decades. Nonetheless, I am hesitant to advocate too strongly for his Hall of Fame candidacy. One starting place for understanding this is the 1981 World Series when two Yankees pitchers, who combined to start half of the games for the Bombers represent intriguing Hall of Fame cases. In game two Tommy John allowed three baserunners and no runs in seven innings. Four games later, John had given up one run in four innings before being lifted for a pinch-hitter, Bobby Murcer. That decision was costly as the bullpen went on to hand the game and the World Series to the Dodgers.

Tommy John and Andy Pettitte were very comparable pitchers. Both were, over the course of their careers good pitchers for a long time. John pitched an amazing 4,700 innings with an ERA+ of 111. Pettitte was more effective with an ERA+ of 117, but about in 1, 400 fewer innings. Their WARs, according to Baseball Reference are comparable 61.6 for John 60.2 for Pettitte. John was never a great pitcher. His highest single season WAR was 5.6 , while Pettitte’s 8.4 WAR in 1997 reflects a higher peak. However, while Pettitte, mostly because of the teams for which he played gets extra points for his post-season resume, it should be recognized that John was a much better post-season pitcher, going 6-3 with a 2.65 ERA in only 88 innings. Pettitte had more opportunities, but John’s numbers are stronger. Pettitte pitched in a higher offense environment, but John pitched when there were fewer rounds and thus generally better post-season competition.

Lastly, Tommy John is an enormously important figure in baseball history because of the surgery that bears his name and revolutionized the game. You cannot tell the story of baseball in the last half century without discussing Tommy John. That can be said about very few other players-and Andy Pettitte is not one of those players.

Ron Guidry started two of those World Series games, but he is a very different candidate than Pettitte or John. Guidry had a much shorter career, but a higher peak. Neither John nor Pettitte had a season comparable to Guidry’s great 1978 season when he accumulated 9.6 WAR. This is where the story gets more complicated. The other pitcher who the Yankees threw in game four of that 1981 World Series had a 9.5 WAR season in 1977, but came in third in the NL Cy Young voting that year as Tommy John finished second and Steve Carlton first. In 1977, Reuschel went 20-10 with a 2.79 ERA in 252 innings. Those good numbers are a lot better than they look because Reuschel did that for a .500 club that played half its games at Wrigley Field. That was the best season in a very long and very good career.

Very few people remember Rick Reuschel’s 1977 season, or Rick Reuschel in general. Known by his teammates as Big Daddy because of he was a bit on the portly side, Reuschel was one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball history. His 214-191 record is part of the reason for this, but Reuschel spent most of his career pitching for bad Cubs teams. In nineteen seasons, his team only made it to the post-season three times, the first when he was already 32 years old. However, during those 19 seasons, he accumulated 69.5 WAR with a 114 ERA+ in 3,548 innings. He was the ace of many bad Cubs teams as well as the 1989 pennant winning Giants. Unlike John and Pettitte, Reuschel was not a good post-season pitcher, but he pitched a brilliant game five of the NLCS in 1989 to help bring San Francisco its first pennant in 27 years

By most measures, Reuschel was a better pitcher than Andy Pettitte. That may seem unimaginable to Yankees fans, particularly younger ones, but the numbers, particularly the advanced metrics are pretty compelling. Reuschel received two votes the one time he was on the ballot and is never considered in Hall of Fame conversations. According to the JAWS method which seeks to evaluate Hall of Fame candidates based on both career and peak value, John ranks 85th among pitchers, Pettitte 91st and Reuschel 49th.

I am not sure if Pettitte is a Hall of Famer, but seeing better pitchers completely ignored does not exactly bolster Pettitte’s case. Additionally, while Yankees fans don’t like to talk about Pettitte’s PED issues, they are still part of his story. Nobody ever accused Reuschel of using steroids, although I am pretty sure I saw him smoking a cigarette between innings a few times at Candlestick Park.

In general, modern players are underrepresented by the Hall of Fame, but those from the 1970s-1980s era are particularly underrepresented. There are five Yankees from that period, John, Reuschel, Munson, Randolph and Nettles who have better Hall of Fame cases than Pettitte. We should consider that when thinking about Pettitte and the Hall of Fame.

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