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Is Andy Pettitte a HOFer? Not quite

9/20/2013

Elsewhere on this site, my friend Wally Matthews tells us he'd love to get mixed up in a good, old-fashioned Hall of Fame debate on the candidacy of Andy Pettitte -- but he can't.

Because of PEDs. Which render the whole conversation moot.

Well, I'll tell you what, Wally. I think we should have that debate anyway -- because as much as I respect and admire Andy Pettitte and all he's done, here's my take:

He's almost, but not quite, a Hall of Famer.

But that not-quite has zilch to do with PEDs. Zilch.

When I think about the career of Andy Pettitte, I think first of the most important quality in sports -- dependability.

When Joe Torre, Joe Girardi, Jimy Williams, Phil Garner and Buck Showalter sent this man to the mound in a game that mattered, they knew they could trust him. They knew no moment would be too big for him. They knew he'd find a way, somehow, to give them a chance to win.

But that doesn't make him a Hall of Famer.

I think, too, of Andy Pettitte's durability. Only nine left-handed pitchers in the expansion era started more games than he started (519). Only eight started at least 20 games in more different seasons than he did (16). And none of them could say what he can say -- that he never had a losing season, over this many seasons. Not one.

But that durability doesn't make him a Hall of Famer, either.

And obviously, I think of the special presence Andy Pettitte brought to October. No pitcher who ever lived made more postseason starts than he did (44), or won more postseason games than he did (19). He won the clinching game in six postseason series, including the clincher in all three rounds of the Yankees' last run to the Canyon of Heroes, in 2009. And that's a very special claim to fame.

But those October numbers, in and of themselves, don't make him a Hall of Famer, either.

Not. Quite.

Before we get into why not, let me repeat something I've said and written many times: It's never an insult to say any player was not quite a Hall of Famer.

Andy Pettitte was a really good pitcher for a really long time. He was a tremendous teammate, even a beloved teammate. And he deserves every standing ovation that's showered on him over the next week and a half.

But does he deserve a plaque in Cooperstown, even if we keep the PED discussion out of this? There will be voters who believe he does. But I'm not one of them.

True, we've elected other pitchers who fit that description: Really good for a really long time. I'll admit I've voted for Don Sutton. I've voted for Phil Niekro. I've cast a vote for other pitchers who probably match that definition in some people's minds, but never got elected.

But there are issues with Pettitte's candidacy that, as I look at him today, would stop me from voting for him.

I always look first, in any candidate, for some period of domination. But in Pettitte's case, here's what we find:

  • Only one top-three Cy Young finish.

  • Only five seasons -- out of 18 -- in which his ERA was under 3.50.

  • Just three All-Star teams.

  • Only two seasons -- again, out of 18 -- in which he finished in the top 10 in his league in WHIP.

  • A strikeout ratio of just 6.6 per nine innings, which would rank 152nd among all pitchers who worked at least 1,000 innings in the expansion era -- right behind Wayne Twitchell and Bruce Chen.

  • A 3.86 career ERA, which would be the highest of any pitcher in the Hall.

  • An adjusted ERA+ of 117, which ranks 180th all-time – behind a group that includes Mark Buehrle, C.J. Wilson and Carlos Zambrano.

On the other hand, we're talking about a guy with a .627 winning percentage, the ninth best of any left-hander in the expansion era. I get that.

We're talking about one of 26 pitchers in history who are 100 games or more over .500 (103, in Pettitte's case).

We're talking about a guy who pitched and won some massively important October baseball games, for a team where anything less than winning was unacceptable (although his career postseason ERA, of 3.81, doesn't spell d-o-m-i-n-a-t-i-o-n, either).

But is all that enough? I'll say this one more time: Not. Quite.

If you consult the rankings of starting pitchers, according to Jay Jaffe's awesome JAWS system, you'll find he places Pettitte as the 86th-best starting pitcher in history. True, 12 Hall of Famers rank behind him. But the group ahead of him includes Kevin Appier, Rick Reuschel and Chuck Finley.

Part of those computations involve a look at Pettitte's seven best seasons, as determined by his total wins above replacement in those seasons. But it turns out he sits at No. 165 on that list, tied with Tom Candiotti and Jack Taylor.

Now I don't minimize longevity. It's an underrated part of any candidate's qualifications. But even Pettitte's cumulative wins above replacement (60.2) rank him 60th all-time. For what it's worth, that's well behind Mike Mussina (83.0), Reuschel (70.0) and even Kevin Brown (68.3).

But I'm also a voter who doesn't believe in any magic numbers, in using any one stat or system, to determine how I vote and which players I vote for. So it's true, I vote for Jack Morris …

Whose career ERA (3.90) is higher than Pettitte's … whose JAWS ranking (159) is far worse than Pettitte's … who finished in the top three of only two Cy Young elections (one more than Pettitte).

But in part because of Morris' most underappreciated credentials -- his willingness to embrace acehood by taking the ball AND NEVER GIVING IT UP -- he outranks Pettitte in areas like these:

  • Top 10 finishes in WHIP: Morris 5, Pettitte 2

  • Top 10 finishes in wins above replacement: Morris 5, Pettitte 3

  • Top 10 finishes in innings pitched: Morris 9, Pettitte 2

  • Top 10 finishes in strikeouts: Morris 8, Pettitte 4

  • Top 10 finishes in complete games: Morris 10, Pettitte 4

  • Top 10 finishes in shutouts: Morris 8, Pettitte 4

Even though I vote for Morris, I've never tried to claim he's a slam-dunk Hall of Famer. He just happens to be a guy who resides slightly north of my personal line that divides players who make my cut and those who don't quite.

And Andy Pettitte sits just on the other side of that line.

Which means, to me, that as I stack him up against the other left-handed starters of his generation, he was no Randy Johnson. He wasn't Johan Santana at his peak. He wasn't CC Sabathia at his peak. And again, that's no insult.

What Andy Pettitte was, was one of my favorite pitchers to watch, and to deal with -- a total pro, a winner, a guy I'd have loved to play with or manage.

But you know what he wasn't? A Hall of Famer.

Not. Quite.