Andy Pettitte and stolen base attempts

Yankees hitters against ground ball pitchers
Imagining the sole situation in which Johnny Damon returns to New York

Ah the pickoff. There’s nothing in baseball quite like it. When one of the good guys catches a runner napping and picks him off, there’s that rush of excitement that comes with stealing an out. At the same time, there’s almost nothing in the game more frustrating than watching one of your guys get picked off. I wanted to take a look at how often opponents were swiping bases (or tried to, anyway) against Yankee pitchers last year, but frankly the data was pretty boring and consistent with past seasons for everyone on the team who accumulated a usable sample of innings. Except for one guy, that is: Andy Pettitte.

In terms of stolen base attempts, Andy is a unique case. He’s a lefty, which has its own built-in advantage, and of course he has that great pickoff move. If you’re any kind of Yankee fan, you know that Pettitte’s move to first is world class, and if it’s not the best in the game, then it’s definitely in consideration for it. Pickoffs serve two purposes, the first obviously is trying to steal an out when a guy is napping. But throws to first also serve to hold runners close, muting the running game.

Unfortunately there’s no perfect way to measure a pitcher’s ability to hold runners … well, maybe there is and I’m just not aware of it. Anyway, because of this I’ll stick to the basics and look at how often opponents have attempted to steal bases off Andy throughout his career. We generally break stats down in terms of innings pitched for pitchers (K/9, BB/9, WHIP, etc); however, for this exercise I broke the data down using baserunners because all innings are not created equal. You can’t steal a base unless you first reach base, so looking at it any other way just wouldn’t make sense. The bigger the number the better, since that means more runners have to reach base before someone attempts to steal a bag. Here’s the raw data table (the second BR/SBA column is the league average, I forgot to label it), and the plot is below. Click to enlarge.

First off, elephant in the room, that 2000 season. I double checked the data, and for whatever reason baserunners just did not attempt to steal against Pettitte that season. Just eight (!!!) stolen base attempts by 303 baserunners in over 200 innings, and that includes the three guys he picked off. It wasn’t even one of Pettitte’s best years either. Yeah, he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting on the strength of 19 wins, but he had a 4.35 ERA (4.22 FIP) and a below average 1.56 K/BB ratio. Statistical outlier, I suppose.

As for the rest of the data, it passes the sniff test. Baserunners attempted to steal bases at a slightly lower than league average rate for the first four years of Pettitte’s career, and after that crazy 2000 spike they attempted to swipe bags at an even lower rate. Once Andy got to Houston (’04-’06), it’s like they just stopped trying. We’re talking more than 20 baserunners for every one stolen base attempt. However, things changed once Pettitte returned to the Bronx.

Since coming back to the Yankees in 2007, opponents have been far more liberal on the bases against Pettitte than at any other time in his career. In fact, they’re the only three years of his 15-year career in which runners tried to steal bases at a rate higher than league average against the big lefty. The knee-jerk reaction is to blame the throwing and defensive deficiencies of Jorge Posada, but note that baserunners attempted steals at the highest rate of Pettitte’s career in 2008, when Posada was hurt and caught less than 25% of his innings.

I have no idea what is causing this, and I don’t have the tools to find out, either. It’s more than a matter of just looking at some numbers given the uniqueness of stolen bases and holding runners. Maybe after a dozen years in the bigs, the league finally caught on to Andy’s pickoff move and runners have learned when to pick their spots. Maybe it’s advancements in technology and scouting. Maybe it is Posada’s arm, who knows. For whatever reason, baserunners who reach base against Pettitte are trying to steal bases more often than ever before. Any theories?

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Yankees hitters against ground ball pitchers
Imagining the sole situation in which Johnny Damon returns to New York
  • Virginia Yank

    Just throwing this out there – could the reduced velocity of his fastball contribute to the increase in steal attempts?

    • J.R.

      Also, that Pettitte throws his fastball less often?

    • Johnny

      It would also be interesting to see how Posada has faired over time. Runners could be stealing more because of Posada and not Pettitte.

      • JMK aka The Overshare’s Garden Apartment Complex


        “The knee-jerk reaction is to blame the throwing and defensive deficiencies of Jorge Posada, but note that baserunners attempted steals at the highest rate of Pettitte’s career in 2008, when Posada was hurt and caught less than 25% of his innings.”

        Just sayin’.

  • SM

    Cool. It may be better to use LHP only as your league avg
    For theories.
    Change in XBH (non homers)?

  • JGS

    Miguel Olivo and AJ Pierzynski never struck me as the best defensive catchers out there, yet no one attempts to steal on Mark Buehrle. ever. He has pitched 200+ innings per year since 2001 and here are the stolen base attempts per year:

    2001: 12
    2002: 14
    2003: 5
    2004: 13
    2005: 11
    2006: 11
    2007: 5
    2008: 12
    2009: 8

    As far as I know, Buehrle isn’t known for a pickoff move like Pettitte is, but he is known for working fast. maybe just being a lefty that works fast is enough to suppress the run, and Pettitte’s numbers could be explained by looking at how long he has taken to throw the ball over the course of his career

  • king of fruitless hypotheticals

    did i miss the success rate of those attempts?

    • A.D.

      Yeah that could be a very interesting factor

    • Mike Axisa

      It’s in the data table. Link is above the graph.

      • A.D.

        Looks like there is no link

  • larryf

    Don’t think we’ll see the windup with a man on 3rd anymore.

    Jacoby Ellsbury

    • bexarama

      that hurt.

      • king of fruitless hypotheticals

        i want to go on record as requesting tacoby bellsbury as being the first HBP of the NYY in ’10…

        • Chip

          No way, he’s just not a guy you hit intentionally. For one, he’s the type you want to make get a hit in order to get on because he really sucks at hitting. Secondly, what he is really good at is stealing bases so there’s a good chance he ends up on second or third very shortly.

          • Sweet Dick Willie

            he really sucks at hitting.

            I hate the Sux as much as the next guy, but 297/350/414 is not my definition of “sucks at hitting.”

            While 297/350/414 is not an elite level of hitting, I’m sure that every (rational) Yankees fan would JIHP if Gardner put up those numbers this year.

            • A.D.

              Ellsbury has been around a league avg bat, given the Sox roster, you don’t want to hit him, since he’ll likely be their worst or 2nd worst hitting regular all season (assuming Beltre rebounds after shoulder surgery)

              • Sweet Dick Willie

                I could be off a little, but I remember reading somewhere that the average BA is about 260 and avg OBP is about 330. So given those #’s, Ellsbury is certainly more than a league average bat.

                Not trying to hype the Sux, just trying to be fair in the analysis.

                • A.D.

                  His OPS + was 97 last year and 96 for his career, or around league avg.

                • JobaWockeeZ

                  Ellsbury is above average but barely.
                  OPS+ has him low at 97 for last year but his wRC+ is 114 and his wOBA is .354

                  It’s a decent bat. Not really good but not bad.

                • Don W

                  On the road he’s is a below average bat = He’s a below average bat.

                  You don’t want to give him a free pass to 1st.

                • JobaWockeeZ

                  Oh I believe wRC+ takes SB into account where I do not think OPS does. A few good points are probably formed with his high SB numbers.

            • Steve H

              I think even the irrational fans would have to J.I.T.P if Gardner put that line up.

              • Sweet Dick Willie

                No effing would would I happy with that.


                • Thomas

                  297/350/414 won’t get you to the All-Star game!

                • Steve H

                  .297/.350/.414? Damon could do that with his eyes closed, and Gardner and Winn can’t do that combined.


    • J.R.

      This wasnt the first guy to steal home against Pettitte, I can’t remember the guys names but he was on Toronto and did it a few years ago. No one remembers it because it wasn’t a Sox Yankees game.

  • Thomas

    A possible reason for the lack of attempts in Houston is the presence of Brad Ausmus at catcher, who was great at throwing out potential base stealers (though his arm was starting fade at that point of his career).

  • Dan

    I think the most likely explanation can not been seen in statistical analysis.

    Runners steal off lefties with good moves on first movement. I think more runners are simply going on first movement on Andy since they realize they can not get a proper jump off him unless they do.

    The result is to a certain extent gambling, but it is also while you see many runners easily taking a base off Andy if they guess right.

    It is possible that teams are looking at his patterns and finding counts / situations where Andy is more likely to go the plate, but I am not convinced there is reliable enough pattern to be used.

    • Chip

      I think this is a huge factor in it. If you look at the numbers, he’s been picking more guys off the past two seasons which would seem to indicate they’re gambling more (plus it seems like he isn’t picking off guys who aren’t stealing anymore due to the fact that they take almost no lead off of him).

      I think a big reason people are missing is that the division has changed in the past couple of seasons. The Rays run on everybody and now you have Ellsbury up in Boston that just runs every chance he gets. The stolen base seems to be on the rebound across the AL

      • Jim_M

        In just recalling the games in which Andy has pitched, I think the increase can be attributed in some part to steals of third base, to which Andy, as a left-hander has become more susceptible to, and to an increase in general of using the stolen base as a weapon in recent years, at least by the Rays and Red Sox, teams which Andy faces more than others.

  • Bo

    having a catcher who is great at throwing out runners helps too.

  • JD

    Do any of you think Andy will eventually make it into the HOF?

    • Slugger27

      no… he just allows way too many baserunners to ever have elite statistical seasons

      even his counting stats arent that impressive

    • bexarama

      Not unless he has a pretty crazy next couple of years before he retires. He might get some votes because of what he did in the postseason, especially WHEN he gets his 20 wins after the Yankees win the World Series again next year. ;) But… that’s not really a good reason to vote for him. Then again, the HGH stuff will probably cost him as many votes as “most postseason wins ever!!!” will get him.

      He had a really nice career that he can be very proud of, but he doesn’t deserve to go to the Hall, no matter how much I love him, and I don’t think he will.

    • Matt Imbrogno

      No, and he shouldn’t.

    • MikeD

      Well, there are “worse” pitchers in the Hall than Andy, but it’s really all about perception, and I think the perception on Andy is correct. He’s been a good to very pitcher for 15 seasons who has played on good teams. He’s had some good peak seasons, but none that make you take a step back and think of him as an elite-level pitcher.

      His path to the Hall would have to be on the counting stats side. He’s have to maintain near his current level for another five seasons or so, cranking out 13-15 wins a season to get to 300. Considering the type of pitcher he is, this is not impossible, but it’s also not likely. For a guy who has been going one year at a time for several years, I think the chances are slim that he’ll sign four additional contracts. It’s also unlikely he won’t have an elbow problem during that span. While the elbow issue might be recoverable, as it has been in the past, I think it’s more likely Pettitte would use that as the opportunity to call it quits.

      That all said, stranger things have happened. Never count out experience and crafty left-handed pitchers. He could hang on if he wants.

      Last, look at lefty pitchers like Tommy John and Jim Kaat. Both have about 270 wins and neither has sniffed the Hall. It’ll take 300 wins.

  • Matt Imbrogno

    Here’s my theory:

    Andy’s got a great pickoff move, as we all know, but generally, he’s pretty slow to the plate. So, if the runner guesses right, he’s likely going to make it to second base safely. Perhaps potential runners are watching more film of Andy and becoming more confident in their abilities to get good jumps against Petttite.

  • NDR

    My initial thought was that the arm of the 1B man might also make a difference as runners might be more inclined to go on first movement. However, that doesn’t explain 2009.

  • Frank1979

    Mike (or anybody else), Question – What do you think of most non-Yankee fans’ claims that Pettitte’s move is a balk? Is this just the usual non-sensical Yankee hate or is Andy’s move really a balk and the reason they don’t call it is cause he’s so good at replicating it over and over again?

    • Mike Axisa

      I think it’s borderline. He gets away with it because he’s a veteran, but a younger guy might get called on it.

      Mariano Rivera balks on nearly every pitch he throws. He never comes set after bringing his hands to his chest, it’s basically one fluid motion.

      • Frank1979

        Yeah thats what I figured, thanks Mike.

      • bexarama

        If you’ve ever seen the home opener from 1996 that they play on Yankees Classics quite a bit, Pettitte is pitching and at one point he does his pickoff move; the manager for the other team goes absolutely batshit that it was a balk and is thrown out of the game. So, early on, I think Pettitte learned he could get away with it and he’s been doing it since. I don’t think he just gets the benefit of being a veteran.

        I also enjoyed the “he was just trying to teach Scott Kazmir how to throw to first base, but no one was paying attention” explanation from the ALCS this year.

        • El Pollo Diablo

          I’d go nuts, too. Every time I’ve watched him (whether with the Yankees or the Astros) I get irritated.

          I’m not a Major League ump, and they obviously know more than I do. But I have played and umped ball through the college level, and there is no way I’d ever let anyone get away with that; it looks like a feint to me (see rule 8.05(b)). I suppose it is a judgment call. Maybe nobody protests now because of the reams and reams of scouting data everyone has on each other, so there are no real surprises.

      • Dirt

        Isn’t the rule about a lack of deception though, or something? I remember thinking that, but then seeing somewhere, maybe even here, that since Mo doesn’t try to trick the runner it’s OK. Now, I play college ball, and I thought the rule was coming to a complete stop, and it is at the college level, but maybe it’s different in the pros? I don’t know, hopefully I’m not making myself look like an idiot now…

        And I think that Pettitte is balking, because I can see him decide to throw over when somebody steals sometimes, which theoretically should not be possible.

        • Dirt

          OK so I just checked the rules and it is a complete stop, somebody in my life lied to me about the wording of the MLB rule book…

          • A.D.

            Probably McCarver & Buck

          • El Pollo Diablo

            Check the commentary on 8.05. It specifically states that the balk rule is to prevent the pitcher from deliberately deceiving the runner.

      • Steve H

        I think it’s a balk more often than not, but he gets away with it due to repetition and being a veteran. As in other sports, if you continue to push the limit every time you’re doing something, at some point they’ll stop calling it. You see it occasionally in the NFL with pass interference, in the NBA with hand checking, etc.

    • MikeD

      I’d suggest that all great pick-off moves by lefties are actually balks. The good ones take it right to the edge, establish it as their move, and never get called on it. Just my guess.

  • Sal

    The one this I noticed in the last two years is When they steal off Andy its on 1st move and more of a GUESS by the baserunner. It seems they all get a GREAT jump by guessing. a Great baserunner is 80% plus. On a good day with a Avg baserunner Andy will throw over 4 times in a ten pitch AB , so you have a 60% chance.

    • Matt Imbrogno

      They get such a good jump because once Andy commits to going delivering a pitch rather than throwing over, he’s very slow to the plate.

      • Chris

        He’s also not much quicker to 1B than to home – he get’s pickoffs by catching the runner leaning the wrong way. Particularly when Giambi was at first, I thought the runner should steal more on first move since the chance of Giambi making a good throw to 2B on a pickoff was basically non-existent.

  • larryf

    A good thread to discuss the relative arm strengths of our catchers. Cervelli is our best I believe. What is going on with Molina?

    • Matt Imbrogno

      Gone. I’m sure someone will pick him up.

      • larryf

        Oh good. Now Cervelli can catch AJ :-) less wild pitches/pass balls

  • Pitchers Hit Eighth

    Good read. It’s interesting to note that once runners do decide to take off on Pettitte, they are successful around 67% of the time, for his career. Seems clear that the pickoff move is a big deterrent in his case.

    You can back out the catchers to some extent, giving you what should be more a more accurate idea of how a pitcher is “preventing stolen bases.”

    I did exactly that in a similar study on Chris Carpenter and the Cardinals as a whole last winter:

    Cardinal pitchers versus the stolen base

  • Nick

    I thought during the playoffs that Andy Pettitte used his signature pickoff move too much and therefore it gave the oppenent more time to look at it and they were able to predict when to go. I noticed that with the Angels towards the end of that series or once the game went into the later innings. I think if he varied it he would fair better. But maybe it’s Posadas arm.