For me, the question of “Is (insert player name) a Hall of Famer?” is answered with approximate equal distribution into one of three categories: Yes, no, and I’m not sure. I’m not sure usually means “Let me spend 15-30 minutes on Baseball Reference and Fangraphs with 12 tabs open and I’ll get back to you”.
I always had Andy Pettitte in the “no” category, until recently when someone for whom I have a ton of respect said he would vote “yes” on Pettitte if he had a vote. I still had Pettitte in the “no” column, but I went ahead and opened those tabs anyway. (When smart people disagree with me, it gets my attention…)
If you’re taking the position that Pettitte is a Hall of Famer, you’re basing your case on three items: Wins, ERA, and post-season performance. 256 wins and a 3.85 ERA, because of the era in which he pitched are impressive, and postseason performance is weighted differently among us mortals. I don’t give it too much credence – to me, it’s a small sample size and cherry picking rolled into one argument – but for today’s discussion, let’s admit it for the record.
Let’s start with the obvious contextual caveat that win totals are greatly influenced by the teams for which you played and E.R.A. isn’t that far behind wins in that regard – the eight guys with gloves behind the pitcher have a huge impact on a pitcher’s E.R.A.
And here are the teams that Andy Pettitte pitched for: In 18 seasons, Pettitte’s teams averaged 94 wins per season. Out of those 18 seasons, his teams won 95 or more games 9 times and he was never on a sub .500 team. It’s not an exaggeration to say that every season in which he pitched, Pettitte fronted a good team half the time and a juggernaut the other half.
And with specific regards to locking down a win for the pitcher’s column, let’s not forget that Pettitte had the best reliever in the history of the sport coming in after him for 15 of those seasons, and a prime Brad Lidge the other three.
But even if we ignore that context, let’s compare his win totals and ERA to other pitchers.
Let start with ERA. For today’s chat, we’ll use adjusted ERA (“ERA+”) for comparative purposes. To be clear, adjusted ERA is in part adjusted for the run scoring environment of each season – this benefits Pettitte, as it was harder to prevent runs in the late 90s and early aughts than at pretty much any other time in history. His ERA+ will get a boost, while pitchers who pitched in the 60s when it was easier to prevent runs will have their ERA+ knocked down a few notches.
There are 36 pitchers who have thrown more than 2,500 innings and have a better adjusted ERA than Pettitte who are not in Cooperstown. Again, the stat is adjusted for era, but just to give some era related context, among those with a better career adjusted era than Pettitte are Kevin Brown, Bret Saberhagen, Dave Stieb, Jimmy Key, Kevin Appier, David Cone, Tim Hudson and Mark Buehrle. All very good pitchers but also all of whom are almost never mentioned in Cooperstown discussions.
What about wins? There are eight pitchers with more wins than Pettitte who are not in Cooperstown, including Tommy John, Jim Kaat and Jamie Moyer. How many wins would Pettitte and Moyer each have if they switched teams during their careers? Again, Moyer was a very good pitcher, but no one thinks of him as a Hall of Famer.
What about post-season performance? Pettitte threw 276 innings in the post-season and posted a 3.81 ERA. If you recall from a few minutes back, his career ERA was 3.85. Fans have a tendency to remember the big performance post-season games and forget the also-ran post-season performances – this is certainly the case with Pettitte.
Again, all of the above is if you only take the pro-Pettitte arguments at face value. Even when doing so, it’s really hard to justify him as a Hall of Famer.
But I’m going to give you a few better, more individual based numbers anyway. Numbers that measure his performance and his performance only over the course of his career.
Let’s start with Fielding Independent Pitching, which factors only HRs, Ks and BBs – the things that don’t involve team defense. Since 1995, 63 pitchers have thrown 2,000 innings or more and 21 of them have a better FIP than Pettitte.
Let’s move on to K%-BB%, which also isn’t affected by teammates. Among those same 63 pitchers above, 38 had a better K%-BB% than Pettitte. And before you say “But Pettitte wasn’t a strikeout pitcher” I’ll let you know that neither was Jon Lieber, and he is ten spots higher on that list than Pettitte is.
For even more perspective, if you’re wondering who has very similar numbers to Pettitte in both FIP and K%-BB%, here they are: Chris Carpenter, Matt Cain, Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe and Kevin Millwood.
What about WAR, which measures overall contributions? Using Jay Jaffe’s metric which factors both career WAR and peak WAR (best seven seasons), since integration only, Pettitte trails Rick Reuschel, Brown, Luis Tiant, Cone, Saberhagen, Steib, Appier, Chuck Finley, Johann Santana, Orel Hershiser, Hudson, John, Wilbur Wood, and Frank Tanana.
We’ve arrived at the “Seriously, come on…” stage of the conversation.
I get it. I’m a Yankee fan. I saw what Pettitte did and what he meant to some great teams. But he certainly is not a Hall of Famer and he certainly wasn’t a better pitcher than David Cone who was on many of the same teams (and whose name almost never comes up in Cooperstown discussions, unfairly in my opinion).
And before we part today dear reader, let’s also note that I didn’t even need to bring up PEDs.
You’re welcome for that.
Did I miss something? Let me know.
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