After Andy Pettitte retired concluding the 2010 season, many believed the lefty still had some magic left in the tank. He finished an injury plagued season with an 11-3 record in only 21 starts and a 3.28 ERA. Pettitte’s injury, a strained left groin, was by no means career threatening, but the Yankee pitcher decided he was done and retired. However, after spending 2011 at home, the Yankee legend again had the “itch” to pitch and has thus far been the biggest surprise of the Yankees 2012 season.
When Pettitte first announced he wanted to come back and pitch for the Yankees, the team’s starting pitching was already much improved. During the 2011 season, without Pettitte, the Yankees realized they had serious pitching depth issues and following the season traded ineffective starter A.J. Burnett, signed Hiroki Kuroda, and traded top catching prospect Jesus Montero to the Seattle Mariners for starting pitcher Michael Pineda. As a result, there initially did not seem to be room for Pettitte in the Yankees revamped rotation.
However, as training camp progressed the Yankees discovered Pineda would require season-ending surgery. Then once the season started and the rotation struggled, the need for Pettitte in the rotation was much greater. Since joining the rotation in mid-May, Pettitte has done much more than provide pitching depth; he has stabilized the rotation and arguably been the team’s ace, thus far, by posting a 3.29 ERA with a 3-3 record.
Pettitte has done so, in his advanced age, by “pitching” rather than “throwing”. “Throwers” rely on their velocity and movement to get hitters outs while “pitchers” try to out-think and set up hitters to swing at their pitches. Pettitte is really “pitching” in 2012 and the numbers back it up.
Even early in his career Pettitte never relied on a 95-mph fastball; averaging below 90.0 mph since 2002. Over his career he has relied on his cut fastball and curveball to keep the ball on the ground and in the ballpark. Having never been able to rely on his stuff alone and pitching more to contact, Pettitte has always been more a “pitcher” than “thrower”.
What Pettitte has done in 2012 is show the importance of getting ahead in the count and getting the first out of the inning. Batters leading off innings vs. Pettitte are batting a lowly .196 with a .495 OPS. By getting the first out of the inning, Pettitte puts himself in a situation where he is one pitch away from inducing an inning-ending double play. Pettitte not only makes sure to start each inning the right way, he also does so with each at bat by throwing first pitch strikes 66.5% of the time; highest of his career. Any pitcher will tell you pitching ahead in the count is much easier than from behind.
By throwing strikes early in the count Pettitte is able to expand the strike zone and get hitters to chase balls outside of the zone. So along with his career-high first-strike rate Pettitte has also gotten more hitters to swing outside of the zone (36.2% vs. career 25.3%) while throwing less pitches in the zone (41.9% vs. career 51.5%) than ever before; while still maintaining a well bellow average 6.4 BB%. Also, by expanding the zone and getting hitters to chase Pettitte is carrying two other career highs in K% (23.9%) and swinging-strike rate (11.2%).
Pettitte has done all of this at the advanced age of 40, without adding a new pitch, despite not changing the rate at which he throws any pitch, and with declining fastball velocity. Also, I do not believe these numbers are due to luck considering his career low LD% of 12.8%; which would be the lowest in the league if he qualified right now. He also has an xFIP of 3.05 which suggests that luck is not an overwhelming factor and that Pettitte’s performance is not an albatross.
While Pettitte’s numbers have been great we must remember he has only started 8 games and pitched fewer than 60 innings. Many of these career highs may not stand but that does not mean Pettitte cannot continue to pitch effectively. Even in days when he does not have his best stuff, like Friday vs. the Mets, he is still able to give the Yankees quality innings (6 IP) and a chance to win. In fact, Pettitte has averaged 6.83 IP/GS in 2012; the second highest on the team behind CC Sabathia (7.24).
Time will tell if he can stay strong and healthy, but what I am most interested to see is how the league will now adjust to Pettitte. Teams and players may look closer at Pettitte’s numbers and see some of the trends I pointed out; mainly his first-strike pitch tendencies and the amount of pitches he has been throwing out of the zone. This would force Pettitte to re-adjust his approach, but with 16 years of experience I like his chances to keep outworking the opposition. If Pettitte can continue to do that, than I like the Yankees chances with him on the mound come playoff time.