As we wrap up our What Went Right/What Went Wrong series, we look at one of the Yankees off-season decisions.
For the first year and a half of his return to the Bronx, Andy Pettitte was everything the Yankees could have expected. He wasn’t quite the pitcher that left after the 2003 season, but no one thought he would be. Instead, he was a reliable No. 3 starter, stepping up his game when the team needed him — notably in April 2007, when, in the first month of his return, he pitched twice in relief. Bringing back Pettitte for the 2008 season was a no-brainer, but the story was a bit different for the 2009 season.
It all started on July 31, 2008. After a tough start against Toronto earlier in the month, Pettitte came back with stellar performances against the A’s and the Red Sox, allowing just two earned runs while striking out 16 in 14 innings. He took the mound against the Angels that day with the Yankees just one game back of the Red Sox for the Wild Card. They’d just acquired Xavier Nady to help an unimposing offense, and Damaso Marte to shore up the bullpen. Things were looking bright for the Yankees, despite a prolonged early season slump.
Pettitte didn’t look good from the start, allowing four base runners in the first two innings. The game got out of hand in the third, when a pair of three-run home runs gave the Angels a big lead. Pettitte surrendered another run before Joe Girardi removed him with one out in the sixth, with the Yankees down 7-2. Chris Britton then allowed another three-run shot, and the game was all but over. The Yanks dropped to a game and a half back of the Wild Card, and never got that close again.
While the Yankees offense underperformed in 2008, they also suffered injuries to three of their top pitchers. Chien-Ming Wang injured his foot in June, Joba Chamberlain hurt his shoulder in August, and Andy Pettitte pitched with a bum shoulder for the second half of the season. From the Angels game on, that was evident, as he allowed 47 runs (45 earned) through 65 innings over 11 starts. Opponents racked up 87 hits over that period, good for a .323 BAA. The season ended with the Yankees missing the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons, leaving a bitter taste in everyone’s mouthes.
Pettitte, a consummate competitor, didn’t want to walk away that way. He made it known after the season that he wanted to come back for another season in pinstripes. The Yankees, however, weren’t so sure. They had big plans to overhaul the pitching staff in the off-season, and Pettitte didn’t necessarily factor into the strategy. Had he finished strong in 2008 he almost certainly would have, but his shoulder injury had the Yankees brass wondering if he’d be effective in 2009. After a few months of speculation, the Yankees and Pettitte finally agreed on an incentive laden deal, a $5.5 million base with incentives for innings pitched.
The deal worked out for all parties. Pettitte pitched 194.2 innings in 2009, missing just one start the whole way. His ERA, 4.16, was as good as the Yanks could have hoped. His WHIP was the lowest since his amazing 2005 campaign with the Astros. While he won only 14 games, that had more to do with the Yankees’ late inning surges than it did with Pettitte’s pitching. He did the job the Yankees had envisioned for him: keep the game close and let the Yankees offense take care of the rest.
The 2009 season changed when the Yankees rallied to open the second half. They went 10-2 after the break in July, and then went 21-7 in August, putting themselves comfortably ahead of the Red Sox in the AL East. Pettitte was a big part of that run. He pitched 59.2 innings from July 20, his first post-break start, through August 31, starting nine games in which the Yankees went 7-2. He allowed just 17 earned runs in that span, striking out 62 to 15 walks. His triple slash against was an ace-like .210/.260/.554. Plenty of players surged through that period, and Pettitte was a big part of it.
Heading into the season, Pettitte was the nominal fifth starter. CC Sabathia, Chien-Ming Wang, and A.J. Burnett were the veterans atop the rotation, and after Joba Chamberlain’s impressive run as a starter in 2008, he was penciled into the fourth spot. Andy Pettitte as a fifth starter is a luxury few teams can afford, and the Yankees are lucky to be one of those teams. When Chien-Ming Wang proved ineffective and eventually injured, and when Joba didn’t quite have the season the Yankees envisioned, Pettitte was there to step into the No. 3 starter role. Not many presumptive No. 5 starters can answer that call.
Not only did Pettitte answer the call, but he achieved an unprecedented feat. On September 27, Pettitte got the win in the AL East clinching game against the Red Sox. He then went on to clinch the ALDS against the Twins, the ALCS against the Angels, and the World Series against the Phillies. No one pitcher has ever closed out the division and all three rounds of the playoffs in the same season.
The Yankees and Pettitte now face a decision for the 2010 season. Pettitte has to decide whether he wants to pitch again, and the Yankees have to decide if they want him back. I don’t see any reason why the Yankees wouldn’t want him. The only starters penciled into the 2010 rotation are Sabathia and Burnett, and while we assume that both Chamberlain and Hughes can step into the rotation, the Yankees could still use another reliable arm. Any way the Yankees decide to fill out their 2010 rotation, Pettitte should be in the plans if he wants to pitch. As he showed last year, he can contribute to the club in big ways.