I have to say: up until yesterday, I was still convinced Andy Pettitte was coming back for 2011. Maybe he would start a little late, but he’d come back. He was very effective last year when healthy, so it didn’t seem crazy to cut back on his workload – but retire? Nah. He’d at least pull a Clemens and come back for part of the season.
Well, obviously Pettitte has retired and he leaves behind the legacy of being probably the best Yankee starter of the past 3 decades, if not longer. I don’t mean over a single season, as David Wells, David Cone, Roger Clemens, El Duque, CC Sabathia, etc, would all have something to say about that (although Pettitte’s 1997 was pretty damn good). But for continued success in a Yankee uniform, it’s hard to top Pettitte.
If you’re a “big hall” kind of guy, Pettitte has a pretty good chance at the Hall of Fame. His narrative is a good one: he was one of the faces of the most successful baseball team of the ’90s and ’00s; he has 5 World Series rings and has a number of good postseason moments; he was a reliable workhorse of a pitcher, rarely missing time and always pitching well overall (only 1 season below 100 ERA+).
I certainly understand that narrative, but I wonder if it will be enough. This year, Kevin Brown did not garner enough votes to even stay on the ballot, though he was pretty clearly a better pitcher than Pettitte (his career WAR is higher and his peak is better). He was not on as successful of teams, but how much should that really be worth?
What we start to see here is, once again, differences between narrative and performance. For all the reasons I’ve mentioned above, Pettitte has a certain storyline attached to him. Baseball and stories go hand-in-hand. It’s the writers who even get to decide the awards at the end of the year. That begs us to put narrative in the equation when we think about a player – and I’m not necessarily saying we should ignore it. Baseball is entertainment and there are myriad factors that go into that.
So Kevin Brown might have been a better pitcher, statistically, than Andy Pettitte, but he was kind of a jerk, and was pretty terrible his last couple seasons (when he was older than Pettitte is now), and he doesn’t have 5 World Series rings (though he does have 1 and was the best pitcher on a team that got to another WS). How much should all of that really matter though?
To keep this Yankee-related, let’s consider Mike Mussina, widely considered another borderline HOF candidate. Like Brown, his career statistics are superior to those of Pettitte. Yet, he does not have a World Series ring. Should Marino Rivera throwing away a slick ball in Arizona in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series factor into Mussina’s HOF chances? It’s hard to really make a case that it should.
More to the point perhaps, is Pettitte’s recognition as a “big-game pitcher.” I mean, I’ve called him “Big Game Andy” before and I know I’m not the only one. There are no such nicknames for Mussina that would associate him with “clutchiness.” For the most part, I largely never had a big problem with that. Here’s the thing: Mussina was almost definitely the superior postseason pitcher. Yes, Moose had a few mediocre starts his last few playoff runs, but on the whole, he was consistently very good and often dominant. His ERA, WHIP, K/9, and pretty much every other relavant stat is better than Pettitte’s.
Mussina even had a signature “clutch” moment, coming in with no outs to strand the bases loaded and throw 3 innings of shutout ball in Game 7 of the ALCS against the Red Sox – probably the most memorable Yankee non-World Series win (certainly of my lifetime). If you look through his postseason gamelog, Mussina has a number of quality starts in big spots, while Pettitte definitely has some clunkers (Game 6, 2001 WS for one).
But Pettitte had the stare over the glove, the “aw-shucks” southern cowboy accent, and the crazy pickoff move. Let’s face it: he was bad-ass. Mike Mussina went to Stanford and liked crossword puzzles.
There is nothing wrong with liking Pettitte’s persona. It’s fun to cheer for players. The question is, should we allow that aesthetic value to impact the way we evaluate a player? I say no, yet I can understand other opinions. Sure, postseason accomplishments are almost entirely circumstantial, but so is life, in a sense. As anyone who has read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers can tell you, success is when hard work and talent meets opportunity. Pettitte had lots of opportunities and that shouldn’t be held against him; I’m just not sure how much that should count in his favor, either.
For the record – as a Yankee fan, I’d be happy to see Pettitte in the Hall of Fame. He was a great pitcher and I thoroughly enjoyed watching him. I’m not, however, entirely convinced he deserves it more than others who have been denied. Luckily for Pettitte though, I’m pretty sure there are many more people in this world who care about his HOF chances than he does himself.