You wouldn't know it due to all the well-deserved adulation directed toward Mariano Rivera these days, but one of the New York Yankees' all-time greatest pitchers is possibly just a few innings away from the end of a remarkable career.
Andy Pettitte, with 255 career wins, five world championships and eight pennants (seven AL, one NL), may take the mound at Yankee Stadium for the final time Sunday. If so, Pettitte will finish third on the Yankees list of career wins and likely tie with Whitey Ford for the most games started in franchise history.
He’s the all-time strikeout leader in franchise history.
Anything less than a retired number and a day of his own to honor his career in New York—in the same way Rivera will be venerated this Sunday—would be an insult to one of the best players ever to wear the pinstripes.
What comes to mind for you when you think of Pettitte now? How will you remember him?
Foremost, Pettitte has been a big-game pitcher. He has pitched more innings than any other man in postseason history: 276 and two-third innings. That tally accounts for well over a full season of work for a MLB pitcher and has for some time now.
Pettitte has been a pitcher that you absolutely could count on. "Consistency" is a noun that comes to mind when thinking of the tall, sturdy Texas native, with the beaming stare under the midnight blue cap tucked midway down his forehead and glove raised to his face where only his eyes appear to the hitter.
Then, in a flash, a devastating cutter bends down on a diagonal plane toward or away from the hitter, out of sight of a wooden bat. That’s Pettitte.
There is, however, a myth about Pettitte—that he was always great in big playoff games—which, of course, is not the truth. He was rocked in the 1997 American League Division Series, lousy in Game 6 of the 2001 World Series and knocked around in Game 3 of the 1999 Fall Classic.
But to focus only on those flaws is shortsighted in the same way focusing on Rivera's blown saves in the postseason would be. You'd be ignoring the dozens of enormous games Pettitte persevered through and served as the Yankees rock for, enabling them to win year after year.
Many will remember Pettitte gutting out a gritty performance in Game 6 of the 2009 World Series, on short rest nonetheless, to earn his second victory of the series and seal the Yankees 27th World Series title.
In most years, Pettitte always seemed to be the Game 2 starter you could lean on for a win; a veteran, an experienced pitcher who never shied away from big moments, all while permeating a confidence and calmness that fit in so perfectly with the Yankees’ ethos.
Perhaps you have some great Pettitte memories. I'll never forget lying on the living room floor of my parents' apartment on Long Island, barely moving (out of fear and superstition), watching him pitch one of the great all-time postseason games: Game 5 of the 1996 World Series.
It was an eight and one-third inning gem, outdueling another possible future Hall of Famer, John Smoltz, for a key victory.
Are all of Pettitte's accolades enough for the Hall of Fame? Probably not five years from now (if this is his last year), but I'd like to believe he will eventually get in. Looking at the value metrics, Pettitte currently sits at a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 60.2.
To the uninitiated, that means he's had a very good, if not great, career and is likely right on the borderline of Hall of Fame worthiness. Pettitte has never been the best pitcher in the game, though in only his second full season, he nearly won the AL Cy Young award, finishing second to Pat Hentgen.
Perhaps for some sports writers, who are the folks who decide Hall of Fame immortality, his admittance of HGH usage may very well be hard to overlook. The sad reality is that it's fair to believe many ball players did use HGH and other performance-enhancing drugs.
That doesn't excuse him from the crime, so to speak, but I do think time will do an awful lot to eliminate doubt and heal those wounds.
What should be taken into consideration—and weighed more heavily with Pettitte—is his status as the all-time leader in postseason wins. That should be a difference maker. The skeptics will point out that not every player gets the opportunity to play in the postseason. Playing for the Yankees sure helps, they’ll say.
True, it does.
Buying into that argument, however, would be falling prey to the fallacy of unknown outcomes—the “what if’s." Let's look at the facts: Pettitte did pitch more postseason innings than any other player in history. He did win more games in the playoffs than any other pitcher.
He repeatedly took advantage of his opportunities by pitching the Yankees to enormous wins, grinding out starts and giving his team a chance to win much more often than not. Sure, he had the opportunity that others did not—and he darn well made the most of it.
There's a lot of merit in that, and it should be factored into his Hall of Fame candidacy.
Pettitte is certainly not getting the retrospect the great Rivera is receiving during these waning days of the 2013 season. In fairness, he hasn’t announced any plans to retire—yet. But there’s a prevailing thought around the Yankees that this could be it for No. 46.
He deserves a kind nod by the baseball community and Yankees fans for his service.
One thing I always find amazing about the rich, unparalleled history of the Yankees is that no Yankees starting pitchers are considered among the top 10 or even top 20 of all time. A few all-time greats, like Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina and Phil Niekro, had brief pass-throughs.
Pitchers with very respectable careers, like Tommy John and David Cone, had very good seasons in the Bronx. Incredibly enough, Hall of Famers Ford and Lefty Gomez (who both pitched their whole careers for the Yankees*), don't stack up as high in baseball history as you might think, at least relative to the WAR metric.
Who's one man who ranks comfortably (by WAR) above each of those all-time greats? You guessed it: Pettitte.
Pettitte, along with Derek Jeter and Rivera, made his MLB debut in 1995, when we were quite a bit younger than we are now. I was just a kid finishing up eighth grade, unaware that the Yankees were about to embark on one of the greatest runs in baseball history.
It's unbelievable to put that in perspective, at least for my own life. Maybe it is for yours as well. Soak in these final days. You're watching two of the best Yankees pitchers of all time. Rivera is headed to the Hall of Fame.
Maybe someday Pettitte will join him in Cooperstown.
*Lefty Gomez pitched all of 4.2 innings out of a 2,503 innings career for the Washington Senators.
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