Man, people on Twitter can be so annoyingly bombastic and self-assured:
I don’t know why anyone would debate whether, sans PEDs, Pettitte should be a HOFer. He clearly belongs on merit.
— Mike Bates (@commnman) Sept. 20, 2013
Oh wait, that was me. Sigh. Fine, I engaged in a little Twitter hyperbole. We’ve all been there. That’s pretty much what Twitter is for.
So, no, Andy Pettitte is not “clearly” Hall of Fame worthy. He exists on the periphery, a borderline candidate by current standards and in most eyes, and whether he should be passed through or not is actually an interesting discussion that probably says more about what you think the Hall of Fame is than it does about Pettitte.
I believe that the Hall of Fame, first and foremost, serves (or should serve) as the keeper of baseball’s history, cataloguing and enshrining the games, and plays, and players that matter most. I believe it is a museum, above all. As such, I’m a pretty “big Hall” kind of guy. I think there’s space in the Hall, not just for the best but also the really good, memorable and important. And that’s where I think Pettitte fits.
Statistically, you can make a compelling case for him. If you’re a traditional stats person, his 255 wins are pretty impressive, and while his 3.86 ERA seems high, he mostly posted it in perhaps the greatest era for offense in baseball history (115 ERA+). And by straight WAR, he’s qualified as well. With between 60 and 70 wins above replacement (depending on the version you’re using), he finishes in the same general range as modern Hall of Famers Juan Marichal, Don Drysdale and Jim Bunning, and well above Whitey Ford. That said, you could say the same thing about Luis Tiant, Kevin Brown, Rick Reuschel and Tommy John, none of whom have sniffed the Hall.
But, for me, Pettitte gets significant extra credit for his postseason work, more than a full season’s worth of innings, and almost seventy frames more than his nearest competitor. Against a higher level of competition, Pettitte has a 3.81 ERA and 19 wins. Now, of course that’s a function of opportunity. I’m sure if Ford or Koufax had had to wade through division and championship series to make the World Series they A) would have done that and B) broken down sooner. Anyway, there’s no doubt that Pettitte was a huge contributor to the Yankees’ five World Series wins between 1996 and 2009, and to the eight pennant winners he’s been a part of. Given his place in the game’s modern history, and his prominence during the sport’s biggest moments, I think this more than pushes him over the top, at least in my Hall. There’s no question he matters and is an integral part of the story of modern baseball.
But, I can hear you struggling to keep from yelling at me through your computer (which won’t work, by the way), “What about his peak value?” You see the Hall as a place for the most dominant players in the game’s history. And here, you’ve got me. For all the unfair criticism Bert Blyleven took for being hung with the derisive and dismissive “compiler” label (seriously, like Nolan Ryan didn’t “compile” for most of his late 30s), Pettitte really embodies it. FanGraphs gives him only four out of eighteen seasons with more than five wins above replacement. Baseball Reference is even tougher, giving him just three seasons. The point is that Pettitte was rarely one of the best handful of starters in the game, and he hasn’t been close to that since 2005. There is no getting around it.
Worse, it’s not like he had some kind of preternatural ability that WAR just isn’t catching, like a knuckleballer might. Nope, Petttitte has allowed a .312 batting average on balls in play in his career, which is actually slightly above average for his era. He struck out 17.4 percent of the batters he faced. Wanna guess what the MLB average was? Yeah, it was 17.4 percent. But in the long run, he did keep balls in the park, get a lot of ground balls, limit walks and had perhaps the best pickoff move in the game’s history. It added up to Pettitte being a very good pitcher for a very long time, but not close to measuring up to contemporaries like Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling.
If you want to keep him out for that, I guess I understand. Your Hall of Fame is a fundamentally different place than mine. I would also include Kevin Brown, Luis Tiant and maybe Tommy John. You could probably also convince me on David Cone. Plus, I want to include PED users like Bonds, Clemens and McGwire as a way to officially document the failures across the game of this era, and as a reminder that we have no real idea how widespread the problem was, and who used and who didn’t. Fortunately, Pettitte fits in that category as well.
And keep the following in mind: While catcher and third base have been historically underrepresented positions, pitcher has been fast catching up to them, as the Hall of Fame voters have struggled to adapt to the changes in pitcher usage in the modern game. Just thirteen pitchers who have debuted in the last 50 years have been inducted in the Hall, and of those three-and-a-half are relievers (the half being Dennis Eckersley, who is in for his work as a reliever, but also was a highly effective starter for the first part of his career).
Now, some of that will change this year, as Maddux and Tom Glavine will undoubtedly get voted in (and maybe the very deserving Mike Mussina), but nevertheless the dearth of pitchers apparently unqualified for the Hall over the last 50 years suggests to me that the pitching of Pettitte and other “borderline” cases has not been the problem. The problem has been the unreasonable standard of the fans and the electorate. Maybe we’ve all been underestimating just how tough it is to be as good for as long as Andy Pettitte has been.
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Mike Bates writes for SBNation and NotGraphs, and is one of the minds behind The Platoon Advantage. His work has also been featured on ESPN.com, Baseball Prospectus and Getting Blanked.