What a difference an off-season makes.
Just over six months ago, Yankee fans were ready to write off Andy Pettitte. While he pitched admirably in the Yankee Stadium finale, he had a second half to forget in 2008. After the All Star break, he went just 4-7 with a 5.35 ERA, and his season ended one start early when he revealed that he had been pitching through some shoulder pain.
During the off-season, Pettitte and the Yanks fought to a stand-still. Pettitte wanted to return — he made that very clear early on — but he didn’t want to take much of a pay cut. Baseball economics, however, didn’t cooperate with him, and he ended up signing an incentive-laden deal with a base salary of $5.5 million.
Yesterday, in his first outing of the season, Pettitte showed why he’ll be a great back-end starter for the Yanks this year. He went 7 strong innings, giving up one run on three hits and a walk. Aided by some tough shadows late in the game, he ended with six strike outs and had by far the best outing of a Yankee starter this season. It took him just 99 pitches to dispatch the Royals, and the Yanks won a crisp game 4-1.
As Pettitte’s game unfolded, he looked sharper today. So I wondered: What changed between last August and this April? The answer lies in Pettitte’s breaking balls. Mike will have more on Pettitte’s pitch f/x data tomorrow, but I want to take a quick look at Pettitte’s pitch selection right now.
If we look at Pettitte’s pitches from August 31 against the Blue Jays and August 26 against the Red Sox, something jumps out. During those two games in which Andy got shelled, he threw mainly fastballs. By the time that final start in August rolled around, Pettitte was dishing fastballs nearly 60 percent of the time.
Yesterday against the Royals, Pettitte’s fastball velocity was in fact the same as it was in August. He was topping out at 90 mph and averaging around 88-89, but he threw just 34 of them. Added to the repertoire — or re-added — was Pettitte’s slider, and with it, he can be a very successful pitcher for the Yankees this year.
Major League hitters won’t be fooled or blown away by 88 mile-per-hour fastballs, and pitchers throwing that slow can’t rely on fastballs. But Pettitte’s 2008 shoulder woes limited the number of breaking pitches he could throw. This year, Pettitte is healthy and dealing. He can mix speeds and angles far more effectively.
Of course, yesterday’s game was just day one. How Pettitte is feeling in August will be telling, but as a first step, that seven-inning victory was just what the doctor ordered.
Moving beyond Pettitte, the Yanks were facing old friend Sidney Ponson. They scored two in the first and two in the fourth but couldn’t plate anyone else. For Ponson, it was a typical effort, similar to those through which we suffered last year. He allowed nine baserunners in six innings and limited the damage to four runs. The Yanks wouldn’t need more.
After Pettitte left, Brian Bruney built the Bridge to Mowhere today. He struck out two and looked dominant. Who will pitch the 8th inning? That guy. Rivera, meanwhile, also struck out two. That guy is a machine.
For the Yanks, it was a smooth, crisp victory. I’ll take, oh, another 98 of those this year.
Rockin’ Robbie: Robinson Cano went 2 for 3 with a run scored and a walk. This base-on-balls was the fourth for the one-time free-swinging second baseman. Cano, average a walk a game, did not draw his fourth walk last year until the Yanks’ 22nd game of the season on April 21. I like this new Robbie. I hope he’s here to stay.