>Was Andy Pettitte Better Than His Numbers?

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By Bill

Everybody knows by now that Andy Pettitte — you remember, the guy that used PEDs just like everybody else but it’s totally OK because he seems like a nice guy? — announced yesterday that he would retire rather than returning to the Yankees for 2011. The question that immediately comes up, then, is: is Andy Pettitte a Hall of Famer?

Aaaand…that’s not what this post is about, not really. My answer, based on his career (regular-season) numbers and accomplishments as they stand, is no, and not particularly close. If you ignore the wins (as all reasonable people do), there’s nothing about his record that really looks anything at all like a Hall of Famer. He had one great year (1997), a couple other really good ones, and about twelve more in which, by and large, he was just a touch above average. His career bWAR is 50.2, better than a handful of weaker HOF starting pitchers but less good than Kevin Appier, Brett Saberhagen, Chuck Finley, Dave Stieb, David Cone and Jerry Koosman. By ERA+, Pettitte’s 116 is pretty nice, but just 31st among non-Hall of Famers with between 2500 and 3500 innings pitched (Pettitte threw 3055), and doesn’t compare very well at all to no-chance guys like Billy Pierce, Stieb, Carl Mays, or Kevin Brown, among others. I don’t think there’s any reasonable argument, not based on the absurd fiction of pitcher “wins,” that puts Pettitte all that close to the Hall of Fame based on the stats you’ll find at Baseball-Reference or FanGraphs.

But the question, I guess, is: is Pettitte somehow better than his raw numbers? There are two arguments I’ve heard hinted at today that kind of suggest that he was, and I’ll deal with them separately here:

1. His postseason performance.
Pettitte is — and you’ll hear a lot of this starting in about five years — the all-time “winningest” pitcher in postseason history. With 19, he’s four ahead of number two, John Smoltz. He’s also #3 in losses, though, with 10. He leads in postseason innings pitched by almost 60, and he’s near the top in strikeouts.

So…what? The first eight pitchers on the wins list all played during the Wildcard era, which Pettitte can thank for pretty much all of that. He played for the best team in the era with, by far, the longest postseasons, so he got to pitch a lot. In terms of performance, he was basically the same pitcher he was the rest of the time, with a 3.88 regular season ERA and a 3.83 postseason one, in a little more than a full season’s worth of innings. And that’s notable — he’s facing much tougher competition overall, so just maintaining the same performance in the postseason is pretty impressive — but it’s really not enough, to me, to turn a Kevin Appier type into a Hall of Famer. And his performance has been better in the LDS and LCS (3.63 ERA in both) than in the World Series (4.06), suggesting maybe that it’s not so much that he’s maintained his performance against tougher competition as that the expanded playoffs have diluted the competition.

I’m for giving extra credit for great and memorable performances and all that, but Pettitte’s aren’t great or memorable so much as voluminous. None but the staunchest Yankee fan has a postseason memory in his or her head that gets filed under “The Pettitte Game” (or several). His best World Series game score, 76, is tied for the 156th best game in World Series history.

And voluminous, by itself, is certainly worth something. But even if you give him, say, two extra average Pettitte seasons’ credit for his postseason work, that pretty much puts him on a level with Koosman. Your mileage may vary, but I just can’t see how it gets him there.

2. The Yankees’ atrocious defense.
Well, this is an interesting one. Earlier today, the brilliant Dave Cameron (in response to an ERA+-based tweet downplaying Pettitte’s greatness by the also-brilliant Sky Kalkman) tweeted: “Can’t ignore defense. Yanks had atrocious defensive teams for most of his career.” Meaning: Pettitte’s ERA, even adjusting for park and era with ERA+, doesn’t tell the whole story, because the Yankees’ defense was giving up a whole lot of runs Pettitte wouldn’t have with a better defense.

There’s really no satisfactory and/or conclusive way to determine whether this is true. Or, at least, I can tell you up front that I’m certainly not going to be able to determine whether it’s true. But let’s look at all (er, most of) the different ways I know of looking at it, and see what they tell us:

WAR: the wins above replacement formulae used for pitchers by Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference both attempt to remove defense from the equation, in entirely different ways; FanGraphs’ is based on fielding independent pitching (FIP), which considers only the things we know a pitcher can at least sort of control (walks, strikeouts, and home runs), while Baseball-Reference applies an adjustment to the pitcher’s runs allowed based on how his teams rated (in all their games, not just the pitcher’s) in their most advanced defensive stat, total zone. The two methods come out quite disparately for Pettitte; as I said, he’s at 50.2 on Baseball-Reference, which is 28th among pitchers not currently in the Hall. Chuck Finley pitched 142 more career innings with an almost identical ERA+, and ended up with 55.0 bWAR, so there’s not much evidence that bWAR is giving Pettitte a lot of extra credit for his awful defenses.

Fangraphs gives Pettitte a bunch more wins (66.9), and while their WAR numbers seem a bit higher in general (I’ll assume without checking that their idea of what defines a “replacement player” is more pessimistic), Pettitte certainly fares well there compared to his peers. Still well short of the more clear-cut Hall of Famers he’ll inevitably get compared to (Smoltz, Schilling and Mussina), and, for that matter, well short of the one-and-done Kevin Brown, but at least he moves ahead of Saberhagen, Finley, Appier et al. If only slightly.

FIP: figures heavily into fWAR, as mentioned above, but I thought it was worth a closer look. Pettitte’s career FIP is 3.75, compared to his career 3.88 ERA. He’s allowed a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .309, where the average is usually right around .300 (often a tick below, .298 or so). Over a career as long as his, these are significant differences, both, and may suggest that the Yankees’ defenses really hampered him. But (a) I’m not sure it’s enough to make him a Hall of Famer. If his ERA drops by 13 points but everything else stays the same, is he really going to compare that much better to Smoltz, Mussina or Schilling? Or Brown? Also, (b) Jay Jaffe suggested on Twitter that there was evidence that Pettitte was giving up considerably more hits than he should have been expected to, given his teams’ BABIP rates, so it may not have all been defense. That’s all above my pay grade, but it’s definitely worth monitoring the new and improved BP today to see what they’ve turned up there.

Defensive Efficiency A team’s defensive efficiency rating (DER) is kept by Baseball Prospectus and elsewhere and is basically a slightly adjusted version of the reverse of BABIP, and tells you the percentage of balls in play that a team was able to turn into outs. It’s crude and will be impacted by park factors, but looking for patterns over a whole mess of years like this might tell us something.

Here’s where Pettitte’s teams finished in DER in their respective leagues, 1995-2010: 2, 11, 8, 1, 2, 4, 9, 11, 13, 13, 1, 3, 5, 12, 3, 2. The average there is 6.25, almost exactly in the middle of the pack, with more seasons in the top half of the league than the bottom half. That doesn’t necessarily tell us anything, but it’s certainly not evidence that Pettitte’s defenses were especially bad. Or if they were, a lot of them were getting pretty lucky at having the ball hit to them, which (for Pettitte’s purposes) is about the same thing.

UZR: the most controversial baseball stat in the world goes back only to 2002. Here are how Pettitte’s teams fared over that period: 13, 13, 6, 4, 1, 11, 11, 7, 7. And that’s ugly. The three pretty good numbers in the middle, of course, are the Astros, and the others are the Yankees. I think with that type of consistency, it’s probably safe to say that the 2000s Yankees have been really bad defensive teams.

Totally subjective nonsense. None of this really leads to an easy conclusion, so what does it all look like? I think those mid-to-late nineties Yankees, even considering the mediocre-at-best-ity of their shortstop, were pretty solid defensive teams. Bernie Williams was an excellent CF in Pettitte’s early years, then faded pretty quickly to average, but didn’t get much below that until 2000 and beyond. Boggs was fine at third, Brosius was excellent. Mattingly and Martinez did yeoman’s work at first. Guys like Paul O’Neill and Chad Curtis did well in the outfield corners. Second base and short were an adventure, but they were strong enough everywhere else to make up for it.

Then in the 2000s, they started slipping pretty quickly. They had most of the same pieces, but those pieces all got older, and then additions like Alfonso Soriano, Jason Giambi and Alex Rodriguez (who, then, would still have been fine at short, but has never really taken to third) certainly didn’t help matters. I doubt it’s a coincidence that three of Pettitte’s best years, by FIP, came in 2001, 2002 and 2003, and that his ERA topped his FIP in those years by 97, 37 and 67 points.

Then the Astros were mostly fine, and then the current generation of Yankees was, mostly, a disaster (though Teixeira and Gardner have helped turn things around just a bit, along with an apparent defensive improvement by Robinson Cano).

So what? There are probably a few other things I could do — comparing Pettitte’s ERA-FIP to other pitchers on the same teams seems worthwhile — but this has gone on long enough. Does any of this tell us anything?

In all, I don’t think there’s any question that Pettitte has pitched in front of worse defenses than most pitchers during his time have had to. But how much worse is an open question. The biggest gap we can plausibly come up with seems to be that 13-point difference between his ERA and FIP, but again, is that really enough to get him there? And while the Yankee defenses look bad, their DERs, by and large, are not, suggesting that where they couldn’t be good, they got lucky — Pettitte may well have benefited from his share of that.

In all, it’s impossible for me to believe that Pettitte’s defenses were so bad that they adjust his performance from where his common full-season stat lines are right now up to a Hall of Fame level. The sticking point, for me, is that I don’t think you can make an adjustment that adjusts his positioning among his contemporaries — he’s in line behind, at least, Clemens, Maddux, Johnson, Martinez, Glavine, Smoltz, Mussina, Schilling, and Brown, even if adjustments for defense put him well ahead of the likes of Cone or Appier. And while I don’t believe in punishing a great player for happening to play at the same time as a slew of even greater ones, (a) it does seem to tell you something that there were all these great pitchers head and shoulders above the crowd during Pettitte’s time, and that he wasn’t near the same level; and (b) it might be a different matter if not for the fact that Pettitte doesn’t stack up all that well historically, either. He’s not a great pitcher who got overshadowed by even greater ones; he looks to me like a good-to-very-good pitcher who got totally justifiably overshadowed by great ones. And the postseason stats help, of course…just not much.

Pettitte’s had an excellent career and given Yankees (and Astros) fans a lot of great memories. And some new way of looking at things could come along, and my mind could be changed sometime in the next five years (it’s happened before). I just don’t see enough here, with what we know now, to make a Hall of Famer, even giving him the benefit of the doubt on everything that might possibly have been working against him. I do think he’ll get in, eventually; I’m just pretty well convinced (for now) that he doesn’t belong.

Bill

About Bill

Bill is an employment lawyer and baseball geek. Also a comedy geek, and just a geek generally.

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