JAWS and the 2019 Hall of Fame Ballot: Andy Pettitte

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2019 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

As much as Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte was a pillar of the Joe Torre-era Yankees dynasty. The tall Texan lefty played such a vital role on 13 pinstriped playoff teams and seven pennant winners — plus another trip to the World Series during his three-year run Houston — that he holds several major postseason records. In fact, no pitcher ever started more potential series clinchers, both in the World Series and the postseason as a whole.

For as important as Pettitte was to the “Core Four” (Williams always gets the short end of the stick on that one) that anchored five championships from 1996 to 2009, he seldom made a case as one of the game’s top pitchers. High win totals driven by excellent offensive support helped him finish in the top five of his leagues’ Cy Young voting four times, but only three times did he place among the top 10 in ERA or WAR, and he never ranked higher than sixth in strikeouts. He made just three All-Star teams.

Indeed, Pettitte was more plow horse than racehorse. A sinker- and cutter-driven groundballer whose pickoff move was legendary, he was a championship-level innings-eater, a grinder (his word) rather than a dominator, a pitcher whose strong work ethic, mental preparation, and focus — visually exemplified by his peering in for the sign from the catcher with eyes barely visible underneath the brim of his cap — compensated for his lack of dazzling stuff. Ten times he made at least 32 starts, a mark that’s tied for seventh in the post-1994 strike era. His total of 10 200-inning seasons is tied for fourth in that same span, and his 12 seasons of qualifying for the ERA title with an ERA+ of 100 or better is tied for second. He had his ups and downs in the postseason, but only once during his 18-year career (2004, when he underwent season-ending elbow surgery) was he unavailable to pitch once his team made the playoffs.

On a ballot with two multi-Cy Young winners (Roger Clemens and Roy Halladay) as well as two other starters (Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling) who were better at preventing runs and racking up strikeouts — and also had plenty of postseason success — Pettitte would appear to be a long shot for Cooperstown. And that’s before factoring in his 2007 inclusion in the Mitchell Report for having used human growth hormone to recover from an elbow injury. Thanks to his championship rings and his high win total, he’ll probably receive enough support to persist on the ballot nonetheless.

About those wins: Regular readers know that I generally avoid dwelling upon pitcher win totals, because in this increasingly specialized era, they owe as much to adequate offensive, defensive, and bullpen support as they do to a pitcher’s own performance. While one needn’t know how many wins Pettitte amassed in a season or a career to appreciate his true value, those totals have affected the popular perception of his career.

2019 BBWAA Candidate: Andy Pettitte
Pitcher Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Andy Pettitte 60.2 34.1 47.2
Avg. HOF SP 73.9 50.3 62.1
W-L SO ERA ERA+
256-153 2,448 3.85 117
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Pettitte was born on June 15, 1972 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His father Tom, a police sergeant, built a mound in the family’s back yard, and began teaching his son by using a library book that showed how Nolan Ryan gripped his pitches. When Andy was eight, the family moved to Deer Park, Texas, a suburb of Houston, where Tom coached Andy’s teams right up until high school. Pettitte stood over six feet tall by his junior year at Deer Park High School, with a fastball in the low 80s and an advanced feel for mixing his pitches. By the time he was a senior, he stood 6-foot-5, but was pudgy enough to play center and nose tackle on the football team.

Though Louisiana State University was among the schools that offered Pettitte a scholarship, the Yankees drafted him in the 22nd round in 1990. He did not sign, instead choosing to attend San Jacinto Junior College for a year, where he played for future Rice University coach Wayne Graham, who called him “a left-handed Roger Clemens.” The comparison resonated, for not only had Pettitte grown up idolizing Clemens, but Graham had coached the right-hander at San Jacinto in 1981. Graham helped transform Pettitte into a legitimate pitching prospect with a 91-93 mph fastball and better conditioning. The Yankees retained his rights up until a week before the 1991 draft, and ultimately landed him for an $80,000 bonus just before the signing deadline.

Pettitte split his first professional season (1991) between the Yankees’ Gulf Coast and New York-Penn League affiliates; at the latter stop, he crossed paths with Posada, also 19 years old and still primarily a second baseman. The pair spent 1992 together at A-level Greensobro of the South Atlantic League, where they were eventually joined by an 18-year-old Jeter, the Yankees’ 1992 first-round pick. At Greensboro, Pettitte posted a 2.20 ERA and 7.0 strikeouts per nine, and in each of his next two minor league seasons, he kept his ERAs near or below 3.00; he spent most of 1993 at Hi-A Prince William, with a taste of Double-A Albany-Colonie, where he returned for the start of 1994 before heading to Triple-A Columbus, where he posted a 2.98 ERA and a modest 5.7 strikeouts per nine.

In the spring of 1995, Pettitte placed 49th on Baseball America‘s Top 100 prospects list, but lost the fifth starter battle to Sterling Hitchcock and was sent to the bullpen; he made five relief appearances, briefly returned to Columbus, and joined the Yankees’ rotation when Jimmy Key suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery. He enjoyed a very solid rookie campaign, going 12-9 with a 4.17 ERA (111 ERA+) and 4.01 FIP in 175 innings en route to 2.9 WAR, helping the Yankees make the playoffs for the first time since 1981. Manager Buck Showalter gave him the ball to start Game 2 of the Division Series against the Mariners; Pettitte allowed two runs through six innings before being touched up for two more in the seventh, including the go-ahead run. The Yankees won the game in 15 innings but ultimately the lost series. The 23-year-old southpaw finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, which was won by the Twins’ Marty Cordova.

Pettitte produced one of the biggest seasons of his career in 1996: 34 starts, 221 innings, a 3.87 ERA (129 ERA+) and an AL-high 21 wins, the last thanks to a robust 5.6 runs per game of offensive support. His 5.8 WAR ranked eighth in the AL. He did all of this while rotation-mate David Cone missed four months due to an aneurysm in his arm, Key served two DL stints, and Kenny Rogers scuffled. Pettitte made his first All-Star team and finished a very close second in the AL Cy Young race behind the Blue Jays’ Pat Hentgen, but not before helping the Yankees to their first championship in 18 years. After allowing four runs apiece in his Division and League Championship Series starts (both of which the Yankees won, 5-4) — he delivered eight strong innings on three days’ rest in the ALCS Game 5 clincher against the Orioles. The Braves pounded him for seven runs in 2.1 innings in the World Series opener, but Pettitte rebounded to pitch 8.1 innings of five-hit shutout ball opposite 1996 NL Cy Young winner John Smoltz, a performance that in 2015 he called “the best game of my career.” The Yankees eked out a 1-0 victory and took a three-games-to-two series lead; they would win in six games.

Though he won “only” 18 games, Pettitte actually had a better season in 1997, when he made a league-high 35 starts and threw a career-high 240.1 innings with a 2.88 ERA (156 ERA+, both good for fourth in the league) and just seven homers allowed (a league-best 0.3 per nine). His 8.4 WAR ranked second in the league behind the Cy Young-winning Clemens, but he finished just fifth in the voting. He was lousy in the postseason, getting rocked for 11 runs in 11.2 innings by the Indians in his Division Series starts, both losses. It would be five years before the Yankees took such an early vacation in October again.

In three major league seasons, Pettitte had established himself as one of the game’s top starters, thanks in part to his development of a nasty cut fastball. His 16.9 WAR for the period ranked sixth in the majors from 1995-1997 behind only Greg Maddux, Clemens, Kevin Brown, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez. He’d done it while pitching through a sore elbow, dating back to a three-inning relief stint in Baltimore on May 1, 1997, a day after getting torched for nine runs in one-plus inning. But whether it was his elbow or his over-reliance on his sinker-cutter combo at the expense of his curve and changeup, his performance took a significant step back even as the fate of the Yankees improved. From 1998-2000, while the Yankees won three straight championships, Pettitte averaged 32 starts and 204 innings, albeit with a 4.42 ERA (105 ERA+) and just a 1.53 strikeout-to-walk ratio, down from 2.21 for the three years prior. He was still good enough to average 2.8 WAR in that span, but the Yankees pondered trading him as he grew more expensive.

In July 1999, as the trade deadline loomed, the Yankees and Phillies neared a deal that would send Pettitte (then carrying a 5.65 ERA) to Philadelphia in exchange for three prospects including pitcher Adam Eaton and outfielder Reggie Taylor. In an organizational clash, Torre, pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, and general manager Brian Cashman won out over owner George Steinbrenner and his cabal of Tampa-based advisors, who wanted to turn the rotation spot over to the immortal Ed Yarnall. Pettitte stayed, began working out with Clemens (who had been acquired in the spring) and allowed just three runs over his next four starts totaling 31 innings. That winter, he signed a three-year, $25.5 million extension with an $11.5 million club option for 2003.

As uneven as the 1998-2000 seasons were for Pettitte, he did place fourth in the AL Cy Young voting with the best of those years (2000: 19-9, 4.35 ERA, 3.6 WAR). During that stretch, he delivered eight quality postseason starts out of 11 with a combined 3.26 ERA; the Yankees went 10-1 in those starts, rallying to win even when he took early exits in Game 3 of the 1999 World Series against the Braves and Game 5 of the 2000 Division Series against the A’s. He threw seven shutout innings in Game 4 of the 1998 World Series against the Padres, helping the team complete a sweep, and made good starts in Games 1 and 5 in the 2000 “Subway Series” against the Mets. He left the latter tied at 2-2 through seven innings; the Yankees plated two runs in the ninth and Rivera closed it out for the team’s third straight championship.

The work with Clemens began to rub off on Pettitte. In 2001, his fastball showed more zip, he worked inside more often, posted career-best strikeout and walk rates (7.4 and 1.8 per nine), brought his ERA below 4.00 (3.99) with a FIP nearly a run lower (3.02), and made his second All-Star team. He pitched well in his first three postseason starts agains the A’s and Mariners, allowing just five runs in 20.2 innings, and hung with the Diamondbacks’ Johnson for six innings in his World Series Game 2 start, entering the seventh trailing 1-0 before serving up a three-run homer to Matt Williams.

After losing the first two games in Arizona, the Yankees won three straight in New York to position themselves for their fourth straight title. Pettitte again took the ball opposite Johnson but was pummeled for six runs in two-plus innings; on ESPN Radio’s international broadcast, analyst Rick Sutcliffe noticed that he was tipping his pitches by double-pumping on every fastball from the stretch. The Yankees didn’t discover the problem until it was too late; they lost both Game 6 and — thanks to a two-run rally against Rivera — Game 7 as well.

While elbow, back, and groin injuries sent Pettitte to the DL every year from 1999 through 2001, the 2002 season brought his first major injury, a bout of tendonitis that sidelined him for two months, from mid-April to mid-June. Limited to 22 starts, he nonetheless went 13-5 with a 3.27 ERA (135 ERA+ in 134.2 innings), and while he lasted just three innings in his lone postseason start against the Angels, the Yankees picked up his option that winter. Pettitte rewarded them with another strong, workhorse season, though his 21-8 record and 7.8 strikeouts per nine were flashier than the other numbers (4.02 ERA, 110 ERA+, 3.1 WAR, his fourth straight season between 3.1 and 3.6). In the best October showing of his career, he posted a 2.10 ERA in five starts, allowing more than two runs just once. He whiffed a postseason career high 10 Twins in his Division Series start, and came within one out of a shutout in Game 2 of the World Series before the Marlins plated an unearned run. Though he allowed just two runs (one earned) in seven innings in Game 6, Josh Beckett shut out the Yankees on five hits, giving the upstart Marlins a championship.

In December 2003, Pettitte shocked the baseball world by returning home to Texas. He did so by bypassing a three-year, $39 million offer from the Yankees in favor of a heavily backloaded, three-year, $31.5 million deal with the Astros. “He wanted to go home to Houston,” said Steinbrenner. “And I admire him for wanting to be with his family. He couldn’t do that in New York. He was a great competitor for me.”

Soon joined in Houston by Clemens, whom he’d coaxed out of retirement, Pettitte made just 15 starts in 2004 due to forearm woes that culminated in season-ending surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon. He returned better than ever in 2005, going 17-9 with a career-best 2.39 ERA (177 ERA+, with both marks second in the NL behind Clemens) and 6.8 WAR (fourth in the league). During one stretch in June and July, he allowed no more than one earned run in eight straight starts. His postseason performance wasn’t great (4.26 ERA in 25.1 IP), as he wound up on the losing end three times while making four quality starts. The Astros, in their first World Series appearance, were swept by the White Sox.

Pettitte made a league-high 35 starts in his final year in Houston, but battled elbow tendonitis, and his ERA ballooned to 4.20 (106 ERA), with his WAR dipping to 1.5. He had other problems as well. In October 2006, the Los Angeles Times published a report citing an affidavit from former Yankees pitcher Jason Grimsley, who alleged that both Pettitte and Clemens had used performance-enhancing drugs, and that he himself had obtained amphetamines, anabolic steroids, and human growth hormone from Brian McNamee, a former Yankees trainer who maintained a close working relationship with both pitchers. Pettitte vehemently denied the allegations, saying, “I’ve never used any drugs to enhance my performance on the baseball field before.”

In December, the 34-year-old lefty agreed to return to the Yankees on a one-year, $16 million deal with a $16 million player option for 2008. On September 19, near the end of a typical season (15-9, 4.05 ERA, 5.9 K/9, 3.8 WAR), he beat the Orioles with a seven-inning, one-run performance to claim the 200th victory of his career. His 6.1 shutout innings against the Indians in Game 2 of the Division Series went for naught when Joba Chamberlain was devoured by a horde of midges.

Feeling the pull of family and mulling retirement, Pettitte declined his player option, mainly to allow the team to free up a roster spot while he deliberated. On December 3, he agreed to return at that same salary, but nine days later, his name was among the 89 included in the Mitchell Report. Two days later, he admitted to injecting HGH obtained through McNamee to recover from his 2002 elbow injury. “In 2002 I was injured. I had heard that human growth hormone could promote faster healing for my elbow,” he said in a statement released to the Associated Press. “I felt an obligation to get back to my team as soon as possible. For this reason, and only this reason, for two days I tried human growth hormone. Though it was not against baseball rules, I was not comfortable with what I was doing, so I stopped.”

Pettitte’s name remained in the headlines when Clemens appeared before Congress to challenge the findings pertaining to him in the report in February 2008. Pettitte said in a statement that Clemens had told him of using HGH nearly 10 years earlier, and that McNamee had told him that Clemens used steroids in 2003 or 2004. Clemens claimed Pettitte “misremembered.”

On the field, Pettitte scuffled. While his 4.54 ERA was not a career worst, his 97 ERA+ was; it was the only time in his 18-year career that he allowed runs at a worse-than-average clip (his 3.71 FIP, his best in three years, told a different story). The Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since the 1994 players’ strike, which triggered a major spending spree; $420 million worth of commitments brought CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira to the Bronx. Pettitte, working on an incentive-laden one-year deal, served as a solid number three starter behind the two newcomers, rebounding to a 4.16 ERA and 3.4 WAR, then turned in one of his most memorable postseason runs. Though his overall 3.52 ERA in five starts totaling 30.2 innings wasn’t remarkable, he joined the 2004 Red Sox’s Derek Lowe by winning three clinching games in a single postseason, over the Twins (Division Series), Angels (ALCS) and Phillies (World Series).

Though he made the AL All-Star team on the strength of an 11-2, 2.70 ERA first half, Pettitte’s 2010 was abbreviated by a groin strain that sidelined him for two months and limited him to just one September start longer than four innings. Nonetheless, he turned in a pair of seven-inning, two-run starts in the Yankees’ Division Series Game 2 victory over the Twins and their ALCS Game 3 defeat by the Rangers. Again deliberating on the retirement question, he pulled the plug in early February, just before pitchers and catchers reported.

Though he sat out all of 2011, Pettitte could not stay retired. In March 2012, the 39-year-old southpaw quietly agreed to return to the Yankees — who had, in essence, left the light on for him — on a $2.5 million deal. He returned to the majors on May 13, and pitched as well as ever (3.22 ERA, 9.1 K/9) until a one-hopper off the bat of the Indians’ Casey Kotchman fractured his left fibula. After missing nearly three months, he made a three-start September tuneup followed by a pair of good postseason starts totaling five runs allowed in 13.2 innings. Alas, he wound up on the short end both times, and the Yankees bowed to the Tigers in the ALCS.

Still hankering for more, Pettitte returned for his age-41 season, and for the first time since 2009 made 30 starts, finishing with a 3.74 ERA and 2.2 WAR in 185.1 innings. Unlike Rivera, who received a grand farewell tour that culminated with Jeter and Pettitte pulling him from his final appearance, Pettitte didn’t announce his intentions until September 20, 2013. He threw seven innings of two-run ball against the Giants in his final Yankee Stadium start two days later, and then a complete-game five-hitter against the Astros in Houston, his home away from home, on September 28.

From a Hall of Fame standpoint, Pettitte’s claim rests on a high win total, very good run prevention after adjusting for his park and league, and a strong postseason resumé, all of which are worth a closer look. First, the wins. Pettitte’s total of 256 ranks 42nd all-time, and is higher than 31 of the 63 enshrined starters, including 2018 Modern Baseball Era Committee honoree Jack Morris. However, 256 wins does not guarantee a spot in the Hall; there are nine pitchers with more on the outside looking in, including Clemens (354) and Mussina (270), both with stronger qualifications than Pettitte, as well as a pair of pitchers who spent more than a quarter-century in the majors, Tommy John (284) and Jim Kaat (283).

Wins, of course, are the product not just of a pitcher’s skill at run prevention but also of the support he receives from his offense, his defense, and his bullpen. In Pettitte’s case, prior to his original retirement he received offensive support that was about 10 percent better than the park-adjusted league average. That’s according to research done for the Baseball Prospectus book Extra Innings by Colin Wyers and myself in the fall of 2011, with said support for all starters defined simply as the runs scored on the day (or night) the starter pitched, and therefore available via game logs back into the 19th century. Wyers and I found just 12 Hall of Fame starters with better support, led by Chief Bender (117).

Pettitte was less well-supported by his defenses, in that he had a .312 career batting average on balls in play where the MLB average was .298; his FIP (3.74) is thus lower than his ERA (3.85). Bullpen support? Pettitte and Rivera — the best ever at his job — combined to set a record for teaming up, with Rivera saving 72 of Pettitte’s wins, far beyond the 57 wins of Oakland’s Bob WelchDennis Eckersley combo.

Pettitte’s career ERA would be the second-highest in the Hall, in front of only Morris, but the adjustments for park and league are everything in this case. Pettitte has a 117-105 edge in ERA+. His 117 ERA+ matches that of Hall of Famers Gaylord Perry and Vic Willis, and it’s two points better than Jim Bunning, Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, Fergie Jenkins, and Eppa Rixey, but those two groups are tied for 41st and 43rd among the 63 enshrined starters. What’s more, all but Willis and Bunning threw at least 1,000 more innings than Pettitte.

Postseason-wise, the frequency of the Yankees’ participation in the three-tiered playoff format whose introduction coincided with the start of Pettitte’s career helped him set records for starts (44), innings (276.2) and wins (19, against 11 losses); meanwhile, he’s second in strikeouts (183). While Pettitte certainly hit some high notes within that large body of work while helping the Yankees win five championships, he also had some duds, including seven starts with five or more runs allowed, only one of which went longer than five innings. His 3.81 postseason ERA is a ringer for his regular season mark; his 4.06 World Series ERA in 13 World Series starts (the second-highest total behind Whitey Ford’s 22) slightly worse; he’s tied for seventh in World Series strikeouts (56) and eighth in innings (77.2) and wins (five). His ERA in his record 12 potential postseason series clinchers: 3.95 (the Yankees won eight); in four potential World Series clinchers: 3.68 (the Yankees won three). Cool stuff, but he was more like the second coming of Andy Pettitte than Madison Bumgarner or Curt Schilling.

In terms of WAR, Pettitte’s career total of 60.3 is 13.1 WAR short of the standard at the position. He’s tied with Hall of Famer Stan Coveleski for 63rd — 21 spots lower than his win total, remember — behind 41 of the other 62 enshrined starters. Among those elected by the BBWAA, only Ford (56.9) threw at least 3,000 innings, where Dazzy Vance (60.1) and Bob Lemon (48.2) fell just short, with Sandy Koufax (49.0) short of 2,500 and Dizzy Dean (45.6) short of 2,000. That’s not a great argument in Pettitte’s favor. Nor is the fact that his 34.1 peak score ranks just 168th, 0.1 ahead of Don Sutton, whose peak is the lowest among BBWAA honorees. His 47.2 JAWS ranks 90th, ahead of only Ford (45.8), Dean (44.6), Lemon (43.5) and Herb Pennock (40.5) among BBWAA honorees. Of the currently active starters whose progress towards Cooperstown I’ve been monitoring, he’s behind Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander, Sabathia, and Max Scherzer; he’s ahead of Felix Hernandez thanks to career WAR, but the King has the higher peak (38.6).

Thus, based upon both traditional and advanced metrics, Pettitte would represent a rather weak choice for the Hall of Fame — and I say that as somebody who had a considerable emotional investment in his career as a fan and would like nothing more than to find a rationale for electing him. I don’t see one, and that’s even while consigning his Mitchell Report-related transgressions to the “Wild West” era of the game’s drug problems, where if MLB couldn’t punish him, I don’t think voters should do so either.

Given all of that as well as the presence of four starters with stronger cases on the ballot, it won’t be easy for Pettitte to garner support, though through the first 49 published ballots at the @NotMrTibbs Ballot Tracker, he’s already received eight votes (16.3%), it does seem as though his candidacy will persist. And while he’s probably not a fit for Cooperstown, flags fly forever, and he’ll always be fondly remembered in the Bronx.

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Mike NMN
Member
Mike NMN

The HGH hurt his image, but he always reminded me of Yankee starters in the 1950s–tough, smart, durable pitchers who benefitted from strong teams but were good in their own right. Really, not a great pitcher, and really not quite HOF-worthy (PEDS aside) but no GM would have kicked himself for drafting him.

Cave Dameron
Member
Cave Dameron

If a GM knew that this was the type of career they would get out of a draft pick, they would make that every time unless there’s a generational talent ahead of him.

lilpudge
Member
lilpudge

Honestly, it would still be a tough call. The Nats drafted consecutive “generational talents” in Harper and Strasburg, and I’m not positive the team wouldn’t be better off if they swapped out one of those guys for a hypothetical Pettite clone.

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

If you told me that, guaranteed, I could have a starting pitcher who would put up well over 20 fWAR in his first six seasons I would draft him over anyone else. That’s comparable to many of the best #1 overall picks in recent memory such as Price, Cole, and Strasburg. In this century, that level of production from #1 picks is basically better than everyone except Mauer and Harper, and it allows you to skip the chances of drafting a Mickey Moniak, Delmon Young, Matt Bush, etc.

Yeah, I take that pretty much every time.