5 Things We Learned about Andy Pettitte's Playoff Race Impact in His Return
As if there was any doubt that he would—and I suppose there was some—Pettitte delivered.
The Yankees' 40-year-old lefty pitched five shutout innings against the Toronto Blue Jays in the first game of a doubleheader, leading the Bombers to a 4-2 win. They went on to sweep the doubleheader, ultimately allowing themselves to maintain their slim half-game lead over the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East.
It became clear a few weeks ago that it wasn't going to be easy for the Yankees to wrap up their third AL East title in the last four years. But now that they have Pettitte back, the Yankees should at least be able to avoid complete disaster.
Here's a look at five things we learned about how Pettitte fits into the Yankees' run towards October.
Note: All stats come from Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
There's Still a Little Rust for Pettitte to Work Off
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The numbers Pettitte accumulated on Wednesday afternoon all say he's back with no strings attached. He pitched five scoreless innings, gave up only four hits and two walks, and struck out three.
What's not to like?
It was a good outing, to be sure, but also well short of perfect. Pettitte pitched well, but he also very much looked like a pitcher who was on the DL for nearly three whole months.
Pettitte's stuff isn't what it used to be to begin with, but some of his pitches looked flatter than usual on Wednesday. His breaking stuff, particularly his slider, wasn't very sharp, and that left him little choice but to toy with hitters using mainly his fastball and cutter, along with a few changeups mixed in.
I'm nitpicking, of course, but I'm not alone here. One talent evaluator told Erik Boland of Newsday that Pettitte's stuff was merely "average." Yet another evaluator went so far as to describe some of Pettitte's stuff as being "sloppy."
Flat stuff wasn't the only problem Pettitte dealt with on Wednesday. Though he only walked two in his five innings, his command was a little off.
In his first nine starts before he was forced onto the DL by a line drive that fractured his left ankle, Pettitte was throwing 66 percent of his pitches for strikes. He also had an uncharacteristically high swinging-strike percentage of 12 percent, which goes to show how well he was keeping hitters off balance.
On Wednesday, Pettitte threw 61 percent of his pitches for strikes, and got only four swings and misses. After the game, he didn't have any problem admitting that his pitches weren't always going where he wanted them.
"Didn't feel like my command was as sharp as I would have liked it to have been,'' he said.
Reasons to panic?
Not really. Pettitte wasn't as sharp as a knife in his first start of the season either. He started picking up steam after that first start was in the books, and it stands to reason he'll do the same now in what's left of the season.
Reestablishing his stuff and finding his command again aren't his only priorities. He also needs to build his stamina.
Joe Girardi Isn't Going to Rush Anything
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Pettitte never was going to throw a complete-game shutout in his return. Expecting him to do so was unreasonable, and he was also going to be on a strict pitch count.
However, Joe Girardi must have at least been tempted to let Pettitte keep going on Wednesday. He had thrown 68 pitches by the time the fifth inning got underway, and he threw just seven pitches in the fifth to bring his pitch count to 75 for the day. If he wanted to, Girardi could have thrown Pettitte back out there for the sixth in hopes that he had another quick inning left in him.
But nope. Girardi lifted Pettitte, ending his day at five innings and 75 pitches.
This tells us that Girardi is not about to take any chances with Pettitte's arm. He knows he's going to need it beyond just the next two weeks.
Pettitte isn't going to be cut loose in his next start either, mind you. The Newsday report referenced in the previous slide said that Girardi's plan is to limit Pettitte to 85 or 90 pitches in his next start, which is slated to come Monday at the Minnesota Twins.
After that, one presumes the training wheels will come off completely, and that Pettitte will be allowed to throw upwards of 100 pitches if he's pitching well.
Keep in mind that the next start Pettitte makes after the one in Minnesota will probably be his last of the regular season. In the event that he gets knocked around early in the game and is lifted well before he hits the 100-pitch plateau, then the Yankees could head into the postseason with no assurances that Pettitte is even capable of handling a heavy workload.
As such, Pettitte still has much to prove. Fortunately for him, things are set up in his favor.
At the Very Least, Pettitte Can Beat Bad Offensive Teams
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There was a time when the Blue Jays were one of the most feared offensive teams in the American League. They scored over 140 runs and tied for the AL lead in homers in May, and they led the AL in runs and finished second in homers in June.
More recently, the Blue Jays haven't been swinging the bats so well. In fact, they may be the worst offensive team in the Junior Circuit right now.
In August, the Jays scored an AL-low 89 runs while hitting an AL-worst .219 as a team. They only hit 26 home runs, two fewer than the eternally powerless Seattle Mariners.
So far in September, the Jays rank 11th in the AL in runs scored and the only team with a worse OPS is the Boston Red Sox.
These numbers go to show that you have to take Pettitte's domination of the Blue Jays on Wednesday for what it's worth. He got the better of a team that's having a terrible time trying to score runs these days.
The real test for Pettitte will come on Monday in Minnesota, as the Twins are a much better offensive team than they get credit for. They rank 12th in baseball in runs scored, and ninth in team batting average. As of the start of play on Thursday, only the Orioles have scored more runs than the Twins in September.
If Pettitte gets knocked around by the Twins, it will be fair to question whether he's really up to the task of beating good offensive teams. If he isn't, that won't exactly be the ideal situation for the Yankees seeing as how they're bound to come up against some solid offensive teams in October if they make it that far.
The good news? After Pettitte faces the Twins, he's slated to make another start against the Blue Jays to wrap up his regular season. If he goes into that start in need of a good confidence-building outing, he should be able to get it.
Then again, where Pettitte is concerned, it's less about what he needs to do for himself and more about what he needs to do for the team.
Pettitte Is Fully Capable of Leading by Example
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One assumes Pettitte knew what the score was when he took the mound on Wednesday. He knew that the Yankees were a mere 8-7 in September, and just 31-30 since the All-Star break.
And rest assured, he knew what his teammates were hoping to see. They wanted to see Andy Pettitte be Andy Pettitte.
We can talk about pitch counts, and we can talk about flat stuff and flat opponents. What nobody can say is that Andy Pettitte didn't look like Andy Pettitte on Wednesday. For the Yankees, it was a sight for sore eyes.
Pettitte said after the game that he knew he had a role to play when he took the mound. It's not enough for him to be a good pitcher. He needs to be a leader as well.
“You hope you’re regarded as one of the leaders of this staff,” Pettitte said, via Bill Madden of the New York Daily News. “That’s what I came back for.”
At this point in their season, the Yankees need as many capable leaders as they can get. Derek Jeter stands out as being the General Washington of the Yankees, but even he couldn't get the Yankees to snap out of their funk all by himself. He hit .348 in 43 games between August 1 and this past Sunday, and in those games the Yankees went just 23-20.
Jeter needed help carrying this team, and that's where Pettitte enters the equation. With Mariano Rivera out of the picture, Pettitte and Jeter are the last remaining remnants of the old great Yankees teams, and right now it's looking like the Bombers can still count on them to lead the way.
And hey, even if you don't want to think too much into all this intangible nonsense, you have to admit that the Yankees now have something they desperately needed.
The Yankees Can Rely on Him
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Think back, if you will, to the month of June, the last month Pettitte was fully healthy.
That month, Yankees starters led the American League with an ERA of 2.62. Hiroki Kuroda had an ERA under 2.00 in six starts. CC Sabathia had a solid ERA of 3.03. Ivan Nova went 3-0 with a 1.26 ERA. Phil Hughes went 4-1 with a 2.67 ERA.
It looked at that point like the Yankees had one of the strongest rotations in the American League. Maybe even the strongest rotation in the American League.
But after Pettitte landed on the DL in late June, things began to fall apart.
Yankees starters posted a 4.12 ERA in July, going a mere 8-8 in the process. They bounced back to the tune of a 3.84 ERA in August, but proceeded to stumble again when the calendar turned to September. To date, Kuroda and Sabathia still have ERAs over 5.00 this month, and David Phelps has a 4.15 ERA and a 1.43 WHIP.
Given the degree to which the Yankees' starting rotation has tumbled back down to earth, there's really no overstating how encouraging Pettitte's start on Wednesday really was. The Yankees sorely needed Pettitte to prove to them that he could be relied on, and he did just that.
He could have the flattest stuff and the worst control of any pitcher in the majors. He could be beating a little league team while being the absolute worst teammate in the world. None of it would matter as long as he's going out there and giving the Yankees quality innings.
For them, all that's important is that their starting rotation is a little less worrisome now that Pettitte's back in action.
If nothing else, that's one more reason for them not to miss out on the postseason.
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