Pettitte's Hall of Fame case strengthens with every win

Leave a comment

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.

Jose Fernandez was in the middle of baseball’s culture war

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 11:  Jose Fernandez #16 of the Miami Marlins and Brian McCann #16 of the Atlanta Braves have words after a solo home run by Fernandez in the sixth inning during a game  at Marlins Park on September 11, 2013 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Leave a comment

A lot has been written since news of Jose Fernandez’s death broke early Sunday morning. Fernandez will be remembered fondly for the way he seemed to never stop smiling and for the way he competed on the field. Having already won the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year, it seemed inevitable that Fernandez would one day win a Cy Young Award. We were truly watching one of the best arms of this era and that was paired with a terrific personality. The combination is quite rare and the sport was made so much better in the four years during which Fernandez pitched.

Fernandez attempted to defect to the United States four times and was sent to prison after each of the first three unsuccessful attempts. On the fourth attempt, his mother was thrown overboard in choppy waters and Fernandez dove in to rescue her. Fernandez risked everything to come to the United States to play baseball and seek a better life for himself and his family. If anyone had a right to tell other players to “play the game the right way” or to “respect the game,” it would have been Fernandez. But he never did. He played every game like it was his first. He savored his time out on the baseball field.

When Fernandez somehow snagged a Troy Tulowitzki line drive, Tulo stopped in his tracks to ask him, “Did you catch that?” Fernandez, flashing his trademark smile, replied, “Yeah, I did.”

When Giancarlo Stanton hit a monster home run to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth inning, Fernandez cheered like he had just won the lottery.

Most memorably, Fernandez took a moment to take in his first career home run, hit on September 12, 2013 against the Braves. He lifted a 1-0 Mike Minor change-up for a no-doubt home run just in front of the Clevelander sign beyond the left field fence at Marlins Mark. Fernandez took his time circling the bases and, as he passed third base, Chris Johnson chirped at him. Catcher Brian McCann confronted him at home plate and shortly thereafter, both benches emptied. Even during this tense moment, Fernandez was seen smiling. In the dugout, he had an expression on his face that seemed to say, “Really?”

Fernandez was not the most central figure in baseball’s culture war, but as one of baseball’s best and most well-known players, he was certainly in the middle with the likes of Yasiel Puig, Jose Bautista, and Carlos Gomez. The war was about baseball’s “unwritten rules” which were devised by a homogeneous group of players decades ago and still followed today, still a rather homogeneous group. Newer players, an increasingly diverse group, were expected to adhere to these rules despite the fact that many of them played the game in a culture where emotion and exuberance were a normal part of the game.

Fernandez’s death should be a reminder that, when all is said and done, baseball is just a game and we’re meant to have fun with it. He was the embodiment of fun on the baseball field. In his memory, players should admire their handiwork on the field. Flip a bat after hitting a foul ball, like Odubel Herrera. Bat flip a fly out, like Puig. Players should laugh and pump their fists and cheer as if they might never have a chance to do it again. Because they might not.

Jose Fernandez was remarkable on and off the field

JUPITER, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Pitcher Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins poses for photos on media day at Roger Dean Stadium on February 24, 2016 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jose Fernandez’s love for baseball was born in Santa Clara, Cuba. It was there, alongside childhood friend and St. Louis Cardinal Aledmys Diaz, that he devoted hours to makeshift games of baseball. Often alone, often without a teammate, a playing field, or even a baseball, Fernandez would spend hours lobbing baseball-sized rocks in the air, hitting them with sticks, and circling imaginary bases.

The dream was to play in the Cuban National Series, a 16-team league that formed when the original Cuban League disbanded in 1961. When Fernandez became a teenager, however, his stepfather, Ramon Jimenez, defected to the United States. It took Jimenez 13 attempts before he made a successful escape, and soon he sent for his wife and children. Whatever baseball aspirations Fernandez had took a backseat to his own treacherous journey from Cuba to Florida.

After two unsuccessful attempts and two months in a Cuban prison, 15-year-old Fernandez, his mother, and his stepsister tried again. The voyage was tumultuous; at one point, Fernandez’s mother fell overboard. Fernandez dove in after her and helped her swim 30 yards back to the boat. It took another month and change before Fernandez was settled in Florida with his family, and from there, his baseball career appeared to flourish overnight. He enrolled in Braulio Alonso High School and pitched during two championship runs with the Florida Class 6A state champions, working a 13-1 record and 2.85 ERA in his senior year with two no-hitters.

By 2011, several weeks before his 19th birthday, Fernandez was selected by the Miami Marlins in the first round of the MLB draft. His ascension through the minor leagues was even more remarkable. In his first season with Single-A Greensboro, Fernandez contributed six innings of a combined no-hitter, pitched to a combined 1.75 ERA and 158 strikeouts between Greensboro and Advanced-A Jupiter, and was distinguished as the preeminent Marlins minor league pitcher of the year.

If the transition from Miami’s minor league circuit to the big league stage was a rocky one, Fernandez hid it well. He debuted with the Marlins on April 17, 2013, holding the Mets to five innings of one-run ball and striking out eight of 19 batters. Only six major league pitchers under 21 years old had struck out at least eight batters during their major league debut; at 20 years old, Fernandez was the seventh.

The rest of his rookie season was no less groundbreaking. Fernandez worked a 2.19 ERA, second only to Clayton Kershaw’s 1.83 mark among qualified starting pitchers, appeared in his first All-Star Game, was named Rookie of the Month in two consecutive months, and capped his year with a staggering 4.1 fWAR. The Marlins didn’t just find their next ace in Fernandez; they found one of the best starting pitchers of the decade.

This isn’t to say that Fernandez was perfect — no player is. Reports surfaced in November 2015 that the 23-year-old hurler was working under a strained relationship with the Marlins’ brass, refusing to adhere to dugout protocol and asking president of baseball operations Michael Hill when he would be traded. Per Andy Slater of slaterscoops.com, the higher-ups in the Marlins’ organization weren’t the only ones frustrated with their star pitcher. Casey McGehee reprimanded Fernandez for showing up late to the clubhouse, and unnamed players also expressed their hope that Fernandez would struggle on the mound in future starts as a consequence for his arrogant behavior.

Following the report, several players stepped forward in Fernandez’s defense. According to a report by FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, the worst criticism levied at Fernandez was that he occasionally acted his age. (Brian McCann, who confronted Fernandez in a benches-clearing brawl after the rookie’s first career home run, might have agreed.) Others, like right-handers Dan Haren and Tom Koehler, vocalized their support for the pitcher despite any underlying tension surrounding his potential departure.

Whether or not the rumors had merit, Fernandez was spared the chopping block during his lengthy recovery process in 2014 and 2015 after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. In 2016, he again proved his dominance on the mound. Through 186 ⅔ innings, the 24-year-old posted 16 wins, a staggering 12.49 K/9 rate, a 2.86 ERA and career-high 6.2 fWAR. It should have been just the second outstanding season of a lengthy career; instead, it was his last.

In the wake of today’s tragedy, it is difficult to dwell on Fernandez’s professional accomplishments. We know that he was more than the sum of his innings pitched in Miami, more than a feel-good story or a testament to the resilience of other players who defected from their home countries in pursuit of a better life. By all reports, he was a man of incredible courage, a cherished son and grandson, and a remarkable talent on the field. His life, as with any other, should be valued not for what he did or did not do, but simply because he existed.