Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Andy Pettitte - What a Difference a Defense Makes

The Yankees showed little love to Andy Pettitte this off-season. He was given a "take-it-or-leave-it" offer and the notion was that the Yankees had plenty of options and if you still want to pitch in New York, here is what we'll pay you. Many wrote (including this writer) that the Yankees were correct in this stance as Pettitte had become a league average pitcher and wasn't worth big money any more. Well, now here he is, after a brilliant performance against the Orioles, at 12-8 and is (behind Sabathia) the second best starter in the Yankees rotation. So what is different this year than last, when he finished at 14-14 with a 4.54 ERA? The answer is: Not much of anything really.

Pettitte has always been a pitcher who surrendered a fair amount of base runners. He has had only two years in his career where he gave up less hits than innings pitched. One of those years was with Houston in the National League. The Fan will leave that statement just where it is and not swirl up a bunch of dust. Suffice it to say that Pettitte has had a WHIP of under 1.3 three times in his long career, two of those were with Houston. He has finished above 1.4 eight times and his career WHIP is 1.32. So Pettitte has always had a lot of people on base.

But the guy has a .630 lifetime winning percentage! He just knows how to win. He's savvy and a big-game pitcher and all those other cliches you want to throw around. But the best thing about Pettitte has always been that he played for winning teams that scored a ton of runs.

So again, why did he end up with a 4.54 ERA last year with a 14-14 record and why is he so much better this year at 12-8 with a 4.04 ERA? The answer is partly luck and partly better defense around him. Let's compare some stats last year and this.

Last year, Pettitte had a WHIP of 1.412. This year is 1.400 (before Monday's one-hitter). Last year, Pettitte gave up 10.3 hits per nine innings. This year it's 9.3. Aha! There's the one difference. Let's keep going. His walks per nine innings are up this year from last year and his career average. His strikeouts per nine are exactly the same as last year and slightly higher than his career average. His homers per nine innings is up from last year (let's call that the Yankee Stadium Effect).

So Pettitte is pretty much the same pitcher he was a year ago except for the hits per nine innings. That's where BABIP comes into play. BABIP measures the batting average of balls hit in play. Last year, Pettitte's BABIP was around .340. This year, it's just over the league average and a little over .300. That's a huge difference. So part of that means that Pettitte has been luckier this year than last and that last year, he was unlucky. The other part of the equation is that the Yankees are significantly better in the field this year than they were last year when they were horrid.

Pettitte's BABIP chart on FanGraphs is hugely illuminating. His first five years coincided with the Yankee glory years and his BABIP is remarkably consistent at just over the league average. Then in 2001, 2002 and 2003, his BABIP jumps, which seems to reflect the Yankees lack of defense after 2000 when they started signing aging sluggers who could still bop, but were anchors in the field. Then Pettitte goes to Houston for a couple of years and those years, his BABIP went way below league average. His third year in Houston, his BABIP again skyrockets above league average and his record and ERA reflect the damage in that 2007 season. The Fan has already told you about last year and so far this year.

So basically, after you break it all down, Pettitte is the same steady pitcher he's always been. He's not spectacular. But he is predictable and reliable and he keeps his team in the game. Last year was a year with bad fielding and bad luck and both contributed to making him just an average pitcher. This year, his luck is better and so are his fielders and his record and ERA reflect that too.

This year, Pettitte is throwing less cutters, curves and change ups. He is throwing more sliders and two-seam fastballs but all in all, he is the same pitcher he's always been. And what he's always been seems to be a slightly above league average pitcher that has been remarkably consistent through the years and it's a darn good thing the Yankees got him back. The telling thing about Pettitte is that Baseball Prospectus charts that Pettitte should have 46 more losses in his career based on the kind of pitcher he is. But the chart also shows the same amount of wins. And 227 wins is a lot of wins.

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