Go ahead and put another feather in Andy Pettitte's cap.
In the fifth inning of his start against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field on Monday night, Pettitte fanned Justin Morneau with a fastball to pick up the 1,958th strikeout of his career in pinstripes.
That's kind of a big deal. Whitey Ford can vouch, for he is now second on the New York Yankees' all-time strikeout list.
This time a couple years ago, Pettitte was retired. Now here we are dealing with yet another ANDY PETTITTE DID SOMETHING situation. And whenever one of these situations arises, I invariably find myself pondering what it means.
The last time this happened was when Pettitte notched the 250th win of his career against the Seattle Mariners on June 8 at Safeco Field. The question at hand was what it meant for his Hall of Fame candidacy.
Now there's a different question at hand: With that strikeout of Morneau, did Pettitte cement himself as the greatest Yankees pitcher ever?
This one is similar to the Hall of Fame question in one respect: It's a tough one. Tough enough to make me want to punch rigid objects rather than venture to answer it.
But I did anyway and came up with a different answer than I did for the Hall of Fame quandary. My answer to that one was along the lines of "Just about." My answer to this question is "Not quite."
I'll say this much about Pettitte: Though he only now managed to pass Ford on the Yankees' all-time strikeout list, he was already the superior strikeout artist.
Ford accumulated his strikeouts because he pitched a ton of innings. He logged 3,170.1 frames in pinstripes, more than any other Yankees pitcher. His career K/9 ended up at 5.6, a "meh" figure by today's standards.
Pettitte went into Monday night's outing with a respectable career K/9 of 6.7 and a 6.5 K/9 as a Yankee. For some perspective, the best Ford ever did in a single season was a 6.6 K/9 in 1961—which wasn't exactly the most notable personal high achieved by a Yankees player that season.
Pettitte, however, isn't even close to being the best strikeout artist in Yankees history. Among hurlers with at least 1,000 innings pitched in pinstripes, he ranks eighth in K/9 behind Roger Clemens, Mariano Rivera, current teammate CC Sabathia and Al Downing, among others.
This takes us to the rub. When it comes to Pettitte's place among Yankees hurlers, the phrase "ranks behind" has too many applications.
ERA? Pettitte's ERA as a Yankee is 3.96, which ranks behind a staggering 31 other hurlers with at least 1,000 innings in pinstripes.
ERA+? Pettitte fares better there, as his 115 ERA+ in pinstripes is a much better reflection of his reliability than his ERA. But even his solid ERA+ is only good enough to tie him for 14th among Yankees hurlers. Among others, he ranks behind Red Ruffing and Bob Shawkey.
Quality start percentage? As a Yankee, Pettitte's is 56.5 percent. That's pretty good, but it's another thing that's only good enough to tie him for 14th among Yankees hurlers. He ranks behind Vic Raschi and Ralph Terry.
Average game score? In pinstripes, Pettitte's average game score is only 51.1. That ranks behind 15 other Yankees, including Mike Mussina and Eddie Lopat.
WAR? Pettitte's 49.6 career WAR is easily the best thing he has going for him, as it puts him high up there among Yankees hurlers. But only high enough for third. Pettitte ranks behind both Rivera and Ford in WAR and is only a couple points better than Ron Guidry.
There are plenty more super-fun-happy stats to choose from on Baseball-Reference's Play Index, but you get the idea. In relation to his pinstriped peers, Pettitte really only reigns supreme in strikeouts.
This speaks to the problem one runs into when trying to put Pettitte's career in any sort of big-picture perspective. He's had a terrific run, but it's been built far more on consistency and longevity than dominance.
Maybe that sounds like a slight. It's not supposed to be one, as longevity and consistency are tricks that very few pitchers are able to master. Pettitte's mastered them very well, especially for a left-hander. That's why I'm willing to back his candidacy for the Hall of Fame. He's accomplished enough in my book.
There is, however, a difference between "accomplished" and "great." Pettitte's a living reminder of that, as he's undoubtedly more accomplished than great. He's clearly not greater than all other Yankees pitchers who have come and gone, and he's not even more accomplished in pinstripes than a fair number of them.
So who's the best hurler in Yankees history?
Another wanna-punch-rigid-objects tough one. Matters would be much easier if the Yankees had a Sandy Koufax, a Bob Gibson, a Greg Maddux or even a Justin Verlander in their history. But they don't, as it just so happens the majority of the great players who have donned pinstripes over the years made their livings at the plate rather than one the mound.
But the most dominant Yankees pitcher? That's Rivera. No questions asked.
As for the best starter they've ever had? I'll grant it's up for debate, but it's a lot easier to give the edge to Ford than it is to give it to Pettitte.
Pettitte may have Ford beaten in strikeouts and strikeout rate, but Ford tops the Yankee ranks in innings, average game score, ERA+ and is fifth in ERA. None of the four starters ahead of them started even as many as 300 games in pinstripes. Ford started 438.
But hey, at least Pettitte has the all-time Yankees strikeout mark going for him. And given all he's done for the organization, all this chatter is probably academic anyway.
He may not be the "best" in the history of the Yankees, but Pettitte really doesn't need to be in order to be treasured like he deserves.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
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