Here in New York, there remains lingering concern over the Yankees pitching staff, particularly over the absence of a left-hander in the rotation. While an argument can certainly be made for the value of a southpaw starter, acquiring quality pitching is far more important that signing a guy just because he throws from the first-base side of the mound. But what of the case of Andy Pettitte? When he signed with the Astros this offseason, sports radio talk show switchboards were practically ablaze with angry callers. Surely the Yanks botched an opportunity to resign a pitcher who was not only left-handed, but who had established himself as one of the top starters in baseball.
George Steinbrenner is widely perceived as public enemy number one when if comes to throwing baseball’s competitive balance out of whack. With a payroll that’s 50% greater than the second highest in the league, the Yankees have had the luxury of overpaying players, knowing full well that they can buy their way out of mistakes. Raul Mondesi doesn’t work out? Ship him out and pay his salary. Jeff Weaver’s not living up to expectations? That’s okay when you’ve outbid every team for Jose Contreras– a pitcher with no major league experience whom Joe Torre wanted to start the 2003 season in the minors. It’s no wonder then that Yankee fans cried foul when Pettitte departed to Houston. Understandable, yes. Sensible? Certainly not.
Put simply, Andy Pettitte is a good pitcher — not a great one — and not worth $12 million/season. In fact, over the course of his career, he has given up more hits than he’s pitched innings. His ERA has been a bit better than the league average over this time. In fact, the stats that really jump out when discussing Pettitte are his wins and losses. His win percentage is outstanding. Why? With the exception of his rookie year, Pettitte has pitched for a first place team every year of his career. The Yankees have been an offensive dynamo and their pitchers have been beneficiaries of that scoring. (Strangely, they didn’t score many runs for Mussina, but lit it up for Clemens when the latter won the 2001 Cy Young despite slightly trailing the former in almost every significant statistical category.) But the Yankee fans continue to clamor, “We need a lefty!” Maybe so (though I tend to disagree). Whatever the case may be, Pettitte is not the dominant southpaw that the Yankee fans think him to be. In 2003, he was rocked by left-handed batters to the tune of a .321 batting average and .783 OPS. (He fared substantially better against righties, notching a .254 average against and allowing a .687 OPS.) Using a larger, more statistically significant sample covering the years 2001-2003, Pettitte shows almost no lefty-righty split. Over that time, lefties put up a .707 OPS and righties answered with .704. Respectable numbers indeed, but hardly an indication of dominance over left-handed hitters.
On the current Yankee team, Pettitte would find himself the #4 pitcher, behind Mussina, Vasquez, and (a healthy) Kevin Brown. Similarly, on Houston, he’ll be behind Oswalt, Miller, and Clemens. For once, the Yankees were fiscally responsible as they declined to offer an inflated multi-year contract for a #4 pitcher who will be turning 32 this year. And better still for Yankee fans, with all that money that Steinbrenner saved, the Bronx Bombers will be able absorb the overpriced contract of a left-handed starter on the eve of the trading deadline.