10 August 2003

What Goes Around Came Around for Pettitte

The Yankees lost today. Not such an unusual occurrence that it would normally be write-worthy, but it's the way they lost today that bothers me: They lost by playing well.

OK, so their hitters didn't play so well. They managed to scrounge together only three lousy hits and a walk. Four baserunners in nine innings does not often allow you to outscore your opponent, but given that they've averaged six runs per game over the last week, it's not as though they're in a "slump". Seattle Mariners starter Gil Meche just out-pitched them.

Meche was a super-prospect who broke through in 1999 and 2000, but had an undiagnosed injury to his pitching shoulder that shelved him for a while. Now, two years and two shoulder surgeries later, Meche is finally doing what everybody expected he would do in the first place: winning. He's now 13-7, 3.63 ERA, and strikes out twice as many batters as he walks, which isn't too shabby. But tip your cap to him and let's move on. This column isn't about Gil Meche.

It's about Andy Pettitte. Pettitte had the unusual misfortune of losing a game in which he pitched well. Since Pettitte hadn't seen an "L" next to his name in a boxscore since June 8, he might have forgotten what it felt like to lose. That performance (five outs, sig earned runs, two homers allowed to the Cubbies) stank very much bad. But since then, he may have begun to think that he led a charmed life, as even when he was less than stellar, his teammates picked up the slack. Four of his ten starts since that abysmal performance saw him allow four runs or more, never with more than 7 and a third innings pitched, but the Yankees hit in all of those, so he either got the win or someone in the bullpen vultured it from him. So this loss helps to make things even. If a man can be credited with a "Win" when he allows five runs to the lowly Devil Rays, then it only seems fair, if not appropriate, that he can be given a "Loss" for holding the mighty Mariners to two runs. But this column isn't about today's game.

It's about history. More specifically, Andy Pettitte's history. The guys announcing the game for FOX this afternoon were talking about how Pettitte has taken to working out with Roger Clemens, and how (presumably) this has helped Andy to improve his game. It seems that few, if any, of Rocket's teammates have been able to keep up with his workouts, but Pettitte is the exception, not the rule, and is the better pitcher for it. Apparently.

Year CG SHO   IP IP/GS H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 W L ERA
1995-97 9 1 636.33 6.42 9.12 0.64 2.83 6.25 51 24 3.58
1998-00 8 1 612.67 6.45 9.71 0.84 3.76 5.76 49 31 4.42
2001-03 5 1 482.00 6.34 9.73 0.71 2.02 7.26 41 21 3.87
Total 22 3 1731 6.51 9.50 0.73 2.93 6.36 141 76 3.96

Pettitte's never been much for stamina, averaging only about 6.5 innings per start over the course of his career,
somewhat less than most "aces" (Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Kevin Brown, etc) usually tally. He was quite a find,
the first Yankees pitching prospect to make a serious impact in quite a while. He finished third in a close vote for
1995 Rookie of the Year. (The 'close' was between Marty Cordova's 105 points and Garret Anderson's 99. Pettitte
finished a distant third with 16 points.) He finished a close (really this time) second to Pat hentgen in the 1996 Cy
Young voting, winning 21 games en route to the Yankees' first World Series triumph since 1978, and then found
himself among the leading CYA vote-getters in 1997, when he posted a career best 240 innings and 2.88 ERA,
allowing only seven home runs all year.

But then something happened. I don't know what, exactly, if Pettitte got complacent or if he just fell in love with that cut-fastball or what, but he slipped a little. From 1998-2000 his strikeout rates and innings pitched fell (though he was still a work-horse, averaging about 200 innings per year), his walk rates, homerun rates and ERA went up, and naturally he didn't win quite so often or lose quite as rarely.

But if his workouts with Clemens really are the reason for his turnaround, then it really didn't start to show until two years after Clemens joined the team. From 2001 to 2003, Pettitte has lowered his ERA, raised his strikeout rates, and cut his walk-rate almost in half. The hits have stayed about the same, as they are wont to do, but the things he can control, strikeouts and walks, he has controlled. And he should be commended for it. Where other pitchers may have gotten frustrated with lack of success or indignant towards new instruction when they had a hard time following success, Pettitte has seemed to embrace the advice and practices of someone who knows how to win and how to keep winning. Who better to look towards as a mentor than a guy who was your childhood hero, your rival for four years, and now your teammate for five? The only guy in history to win six Cy Young awards? The only guy to strike out twenty batters in a nine inning game twice?

Roger Clemens is to pitching longevity what E.F Hutton wa sto investment in the 1980's: Listen to him.

It's worked for Andy.

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