How exactly do we weigh opportunity?
Andy Pettitte has been far from an ace while finishing with ERAs over 4.00 each of the last four seasons, yet he keeps winning 14 games every year and is now up to 229 victories for his career. That comes with being an above average starter for very good teams. Pettitte’s career ERA is 3.91, yet he has a .629 winning percentage.
Of course, a 3.91 ERA in today’s game is hardly bad. Even though Pettitte has had just two seasons in his career in which he’s made at least 30 starts and finished with an ERA under 3.80, his ERA+, which is adjusted for league and ballpark, is 116. Tom Glavine, in comparison, finished only slightly better at 118. Legitimate Hall of Famers Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins and Phil Niekro came in at 115. Pettitte isn’t their equal — they all have big win and inning advantages — but it demonstrates that the quality of his performance is at a Hall of Fame level.
Where Pettitte’s case really comes together is with the addition of postseason stats. Pettitte is the all-time postseason leader with 16 victories, one more than John Smoltz. He’s pitched more than the equivalent of a season in October, coming in at 38 starts and 237 1/3 innings (both records). Over that time, he has a .640 winning percentage and a 3.83 ERA.
In the World Series, his ERA has held steady at 3.82, but he’s gone 3-4 in 11 starts. His teams are 4-3 in seven World Series. In just one of them did Pettitte pitch badly for a team that lost, as he went 0-2 with a 10.00 ERA against the Diamondbacks in 2001. He went 1-1 with a 0.57 ERA in the loss to the Marlins in 2003, and while with the Astros, he gave up two runs over six innings in a no-decision versus the White Sox in 2006.
Pettitte’s Hall of Fame case will likely be compared to that of Jack Morris. The two have practically identical career ERAs, with Morris coming in at 3.90. Assuming that he opts to continue his career, Pettitte’s will probably be a bit higher by the time he matches Morris’ total of 254 victories. Morris, though, pitched in a worse era for offense. His career ERA+ is just 105, which would be historically low for a Hall of Famer.
That Morris gets significant Hall of Fame support is largely because of his postseason record. He did have a couple of poor Octobers to go along with his two fabulous performances, though, leaving him 7-4 with a 3.80 ERA. Besides their strong postseason credentials and the fact that they were typically above average pitchers on good teams, there’s not a lot similar about Morris and Pettitte. Morris still has 900 innings on Petttitte. He recorded 175 complete games and 28 shutouts. Pettitte has just 25 complete games and four shutouts.
Pettitte’s regular-season career is much more similar to a group of contemporaries who, rightly or wrongly, have no chance of stiffing the Hall of Fame:
W-L ERA IP ERA+ Pettitte 229-135 3.91 2926 116 Finley 200-173 3.85 3197 115 Wells 239-157 4.13 3439 108 Cone 194-126 3.46 2899 120 Hershiser 204-150 3.48 3130 112 Rogers 219-156 4.27 3303 108 ... Schilling 216-146 3.46 3261 127 Brown 211-144 3.28 3256 127 Mussina 270-153 3.68 3563 123
I’m including Curt Schilling, Kevin Brown and Mike Mussina just to show how much more successful those three were. Pettitte’s performance rates a bit above some of the guys from the first group, but his ERA+ may yet suffer as he approaches the higher innings totals. Hershiser, for instance, was at 115 through 1998, when he had 2926 2/3 innings pitched.
So, back to opportunity. Pettitte happened to be signed by the perfect team at pretty much the perfect time. His debut in 1995 coincided with the beginning of one of the greatest runs in baseball history, not that Pettitte didn’t have quite a bit to do with that himself. If he had come along a few years earlier and joined the Angels instead, he might have ended up turning in exactly the same career as Chuck Finley. If he had been traded before reaching the majors, he still might be looking for his 200th win, instead of being all of the way up to 229.
Then again, if Pettitte hadn’t had to pitch those 238 innings in the postseason, he’d likely have been healthier. If he hadn’t had to pitch through soreness so frequently during the decade, his ERA would probably be lower. Pettitte hasn’t missed a lot of time, but he’s dealt with plenty of nagging injuries. It’s fair to say they’ve taken a toll on his performance.
Pettitte talks about retirement every offseason, but if he chooses to keep going, odds are that he’s going to finish with 250 wins. He might get a fifth World Series ring next week, and by the time he’s eligible for the Hall of Fame, there’s a good chance he’ll still be the all-time leader in postseason victories. It might be tough to deny him entry into Cooperstown, though he’d go in without a Cy Young and little in the way of regular season honors. He has just four career shutouts, fewer than Shawn Estes, Brian Moehler and Steve Trachsel. Hershiser had four different seasons with at least that many. He’s never led his league in ERA, strikeouts or innings pitched. In fact, he’s finished in the top 10 in his league in ERA three times.
It makes Pettitte a unique case. He’s probably not going to show up on any more single-season leaderboards, so it’s important that he hit a few more career milestones before he’s done.