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Tough to score on Pettitte

9/9/2010

Andy Pettitte turned 38 two weeks ago but is still somehow defying Father Time, off to arguably the finest start of his 16-season major-league career. His 2.48 ERA and 9-2 record are both the best marks of his career through 14 starts, and he appears to be a lock to make just his third career All-Star appearance.

Pettitte is obviously doing a lot of things right this year, with a 2.48 ERA that is the fourth-lowest among AL pitchers. One important reason for his success has been his ability to shut down the opponent when pitching with runners on base.

With the bases empty, Pettitte has allowed a batting average of .261, which ranks just 45th out of 67 AL starters who have faced at least 75 batters in that situation. But with runners on base, hitters are batting just .188 against him, which is the lowest rate in the league.

So how has Pettitte been able to pitch so much better from the stretch and consistently get out of potential jams this season?

Pettitte’s peripheral stats – his strikeouts and walks – are actually worse when pitching with runners on base compared to with the bases empty. He has struck out 15 percent of batters with runners on base, compared to 21 percent with nobody on, and his walk percentage of 10.1 percent with baserunners is nearly double the 5.5 percent with the bases empty.

Andy Pettitte, This Season

According to Inside Edge, he’s also generating fewer swings-and-misses (17 percent with runners on, 19 percent with bases empty) and batters are putting the ball in play more often (48 percent with runners on, 46 percent with bases empty).

So how exactly has Pettitte been able to strand 81.4 percent of his baserunners, which is the second-highest left-on-base percentage in the American League. If we take a closer look at what’s happening to the balls he’s allowed in play with runners on base, we start to see some interesting things.

According to Inside Edge, with the bases empty, Pettitte’s batting average allowed on balls in play (BABIP) is .314, which matches his overall career mark; however, with runners on, his BABIP is a mere .198.

You could argue then that Pettitte has been extremely “lucky” with men on base, as its been shown that pitchers have little control over their BABIP. But Pettitte is doing one thing really well – whether its sustainable or not - that has allowed him to maintain such a low BABIP with runners on base so far this season: According to Inside Edge, with nobody on, 15% of Pettitte’s flyballs allowed were popped up to the infield; with runners on base, his infield fly percentage more than doubles to 36%.

Andy Pettitte, This Season

There is no better example of his ability to induce harmless popups with runners on base than his start on June 5th vs. Toronto. In that game, with the bases empty, Pettitte allowed five hits in 18 at-bats (.278). But he held the Blue Jays hitless in nine at-bats with runners on base, and of those nine outs, four of them were infield flies!

If Pettitte can continue to maintain his success in shutting down the opponent when pitching with runners on base, getting batters to hit harmless popups and weak grounders, the 38-year-old southpaw could be in line for his first career Cy Young Award.

Tune into Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN at 8 ET as the Yankees and Dodgers face-off in the rubber game of their Interleague series.