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Feb 042011

The recently-announced retirement of Andy Pettitte is the hot story around the media and the blogosphere, and deservedly so.  His retirement has significant implications for the playoff hopes of the current squad, and also has elicited some controversy as to whether he is Hall of Fame worthy (will probably be discussed ad nauseum until there is more real news to discuss).  Andy Pettitte has long been one of my favorite Yankees (#1 since the retirement of Paul O’Neill), and there have been/will be many emotional farewell, “thanks for the memories” posts around the blogosphere, to thank the big lefty for his 13 years of service in pinstripes.  This post, however, will cover none of the above.

Instead, inspired by John Sickels’ excellent post profiling Andy Pettitte’s career (from the minors on), I just wanted to take some time to reflect on Pettitte’s path to the majors.   I recommend reading John’s post to get the more thorough breakdown, but I’ll just give my thoughts here.

Petttitte was a 22nd round pick in 1990, and instead of signing out of high school, Andy attended San Jacinto Junior College for a year.  Interestingly, Pettitte’s coach at San Jacinto was Wayne Graham, who went on to have a highly successful career coaching at Rice University, producing many first-round pitchers including David Aardsma, Phil Humber, Jeff Niemann, Wade Townsend, and Joe Savery.  Graham has notorious for working his pitchers very hard, which may have contributed to the significant injury histories of these and several other Rice pitchers.  Another fun fact that I learned is that while at San Jacinto, Graham coached a young Roger Clemens (before he transferred to Texas).

He eventually signed with the Yankees out of juco for an $80,000 bonus, a decent chunk of cash for 1990, but hardly the type of money you would expect for a guy who went on to have Pettitte’s long and distinguished career.  This was back in the days of draft and follow, when the team retained a player’s rights for a year if he went to junior college, and could sign him if they liked what they saw.  According to this old story in the Daily News, Pettitte was offered a chance to transfer to the University of Texas, a perennial baseball powerhouse, but chose the Yanks instead.   Given the track that Pettitte ended up following, it’s likely that Andy would have had a very successful college career as a Longhorn, and would’ve been a high pick in the 1994 draft (when he would have first been eligible).  The 1st round of the ’94 draft ended up being a mediocre round for pitching (Jaret Wright was probably the best pitcher from 1994′s first round).

Andy’s minor league career was very impressive, but due primarily to his low draft position (I would hypothesize), he never made a top 100 list until 1995 (when he was #49 on the BA list).  His minor league stats are below.

Year Age Lev W L ERA IP H ER HR BB SO WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
1991 19 Rk-A- 6 3 1.55 69.2 49 12 1 24 83 1.048 6.3 0.1 3.1 10.7 3.46
1991 19 Rk 4 1 0.98 36.2 16 4 0 8 51 0.655 3.9 0.0 2.0 12.5 6.38
1991 19 A- 2 2 2.18 33.0 33 8 1 16 32 1.485 9.0 0.3 4.4 8.7 2.00
1992 20 A 10 4 2.20 168.0 141 41 4 55 130 1.167 7.6 0.2 2.9 7.0 2.36
1993 21 A+-AA 12 9 3.06 164.2 151 56 7 49 135 1.215 8.3 0.4 2.7 7.4 2.76
1993 21 A+ 11 9 3.04 159.2 146 54 7 47 129 1.209 8.2 0.4 2.6 7.3 2.74
1993 21 AA 1 0 3.60 5.0 5 2 0 2 6 1.400 9.0 0.0 3.6 10.8 3.00
1994 22 AAA-AA 14 4 2.86 169.2 161 54 8 39 111 1.179 8.5 0.4 2.1 5.9 2.85
1994 22 AA 7 2 2.71 73.0 60 22 5 18 50 1.068 7.4 0.6 2.2 6.2 2.78
1994 22 AAA 7 2 2.98 96.2 101 32 3 21 61 1.262 9.4 0.3 2.0 5.7 2.90
1995 23 AAA 0 0 0.00 11.2 7 0 0 0 8 0.600 5.4 0.0 0.0 6.2
8 Seasons 43 20 2.46 608.0 522 166 21 171 493 1.140 7.7 0.3 2.5 7.3 2.88
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/4/2011.

Looking at this list, the numbers are impressive, but nothing earth-shattering.  The career ERA of 2.46, while advancing fairly quickly through the minors, is pretty strong.  Despite getting a lateish start to his minor league career compared to a high school pitcher, Andy pretty much moved up a level every year, and was never overmatched.  He reached full-season ball at age 19 (after a strong rookie ball debut), and made it to AA at 21.  He spent the next 2 seasons (1994 and 1995) between AA and AAA, before making his debut with the big club in 1995.  In his minor league career,  Pettitte demonstrated very good control (career 2.5 bb/9) and a respectable but not overwhelming strikeout rate (7.3 k/9), which would likely keep him from being a top prospect in this day and age.  I have not been able to find anything in the way of old scouting reports, but according to Sickels  Andy never particularly impressed scouts with either his fastball velocity or his secondary offerings, and was viewed primarily as a control pitcher coming up.  His minor league strikeout and walk rates were very similar to the numbers he posted in the bigs.

Was Pettitte misranked as a prospect?  That’s hard to say.  In retrospect, given the great career he had, it’s hard to believe that he didn’t make the BA top 100 until 1995, and even then was ranked behind such luminaries as Brian Hunter (OF Astros), Doug Million (LHP Rockies), Scott Ruffcorn (RHP White Sox) and Josh Booty (3b Marlins).  It must have been Jim Callis’ anti-Yankee bias at work (sarcasm, which I realize doesn’t translate well on the internet).  Believe it or not, all those guys I mentioned were in the top 25, and none of them had significant major league careers.  To be fair to BA, prospecting was a different game back then, and I think they have a lot more information at their disposal presently than they did in the early 90′s.

Where would 1995 Pettitte fit in on today’s top prospects list?  Looking at Keith Law’s top 100 list, Andy profiles similarly to #11 Zach Britton (LHP Orioles) on a statistical basis (though Britton throws a little harder and gets more grounders).  Law would probably have Pettitte lower than Britton based on scouting reports.  I would guess that Pettitte would have fit in around #60, near two lefthanded prospects (Cleveland’s Drew Pomeranz and Atlanta’s Mike Minor) who were both 1st-round picks out of college, but are not considered to have front of the rotation stuff.  In the current Yankee prospect list, he would probably be around #4 or 5, behind Montero, Banuelos, and Betances (and possibly Gary Sanchez, depending on how bullish you are willing to be on a teenager), and ahead of Brackman, Romine, Noesi, etc.

What lessons can be learned about Pettitte as a prospect?  If anything, it illustrates the crapshoot nature of predicting the development of young prospects, and at times the absurdity of the ranking process.  Pettitte was your classic high floor, low ceiling prospect, but when he hit  (and exceeded) his “ceiling”, he was tremendously valuable.  Maybe the prospect ranking industry does get too wrapped up in ceilings, pipe dreams, scouting reports, and strikeouts, and we should give more credit to guys who are able to consistently retire hitters across all levels of the minors, while maintaining good control and limiting homers.  Maybe we should pay more attention to guys like Hector Noesi, Adam Warren, David Phelps, who have been successful throughout their careers, and have great “pitchability”, and be more bearish on guys like Andrew Brackman, who despite his tantalizing potential, has a lot of work to do to even make the majors.  Sure, it’s more likely that Pettitte was an anomaly, and for every Pettitte there are dozens of “pitchability” prospects who never can handle the transition to the majors.

The attributes that made Andy Pettitte a great pitcher could not have been predicted from his minor league numbers.  He showed great aptitude for pitching in developing a nasty cutter at a young age, and reducing his use of the cutter and developing a dangerous curveball at an older age to prevent further injuries.  His tireless work ethic likely contributed to his impressive durability, which was one of his greatest assets throughout his career.  What Pettitte had were certain intangible qualities (not grit and hustle, ok) that do not show up in scouting reports, radar guns, or stat sheets, and these intangibles helped transform him from middling prospect to borderline Hall of Famer.  Trying to predict the next Pettitte would likely be an exercise in futility, but I have my hopes that Manny Banuelos is ready to take up the mantle of the next great Yankee lefty.  If the photo below is any guide, he already has a pretty decent stare.

11 Responses to “Pettitte the Prospect”

  1. Whoops, this one ended up a little longer than I intended. Sorry folks.  (Quote)

    [Reply To This Comment]

  2. Terrific stuff, Eric. While scouts always favor the guys with the big arms, MLB rosters are filled with pitchers who profile more closely to Andy. If the Yanks drafted a lefty with good command and control who throws in the high 80s to low 90s, most fans would yawn. If they drafted a righty who throws in the high 90s with control problems, they’d all get excited. A more fair view would be to look at both pitchers as a collection of plus/minus, and have a equally cautious optimism in both cases.

    I guess it ultimately comes down to things like make up, which comes across as fuzzy logic when argued against hard numbers, but is so key in terms of development. 2010 Andy Pettitte doesn’t resemble the pitcher he was when he came up in 1995. He constantly worked to improve his game even after he was a seasoned vet, and mid-career actually came up with a change up that was once a running joke (because he tried so many times and failed). He didn’t even throw a cutter when he came up, which became his signature pitch. Look at his R/L splits over the course of his career. He adjusted his approach year to year and batter to batter.

    If Andy had any edge, it was that hitters could never be sure what was coming. That’s why I liked IPK more than most, and why I tend not to like pitchers like AJ Burnett and Joba Chamberlain. Guys like Andy, El Duque, Jimmy Key and David Cone always had a Plan B, C and D. Pitchers like AJ and Joba don’t. As a hitter, I’d feel like I can hit just about anything if I have a good idea what’s coming. If I don’t, I’m pretty much in the dark and taking much more defensive swings.  (Quote)

    [Reply To This Comment]

    Eric Schultz Reply:

    Good points. As someone who follows the minor leagues very closely, I’m certainly guilty of being a “velocity whore” on occasion. Sometimes, however, there are things that the Yankee scouting staff can see that fans and prospect evaluating publications miss out on because they don’t see the guy enough. This gives me hope for Cito Culver, since that pick was pretty universally criticized in the blogosphere/mainstream prospect media.  (Quote)

    [Reply To This Comment]

    Tom Swift Reply:

    In that respect, is Pettitte like Brett Gardner, a guy who every year makes improvements in his game? Maybe we should focus less on athleticism and more on guys who are students of the game and able to make the most of their physical gifts.  (Quote)

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    Eric Schultz Reply:

    Interesting point Tom. However, I think a lot of what makes Gardener a valuable player is somewhat tangible. This is the fact that he has several standout tools; namely, his speed and defense. I’m not sure the same could have been said about Pettitte as a prospect (except maybe for his control, which was good but not earth-shatteringly impressive). Gardner was certainly underrated as a prospect because he had little to no power and does not physically look like a major league player, and his plate discipline was likely underrated.

    I guess the pitching prospect comp to Gardner would be somebody who has one or several great secondary offerings but a mediocre to solid fastball. Someone like Edwar Ramirez (probably my favorite relief prospect of jumps to mind (with his changeup the pitching equivalent of Gardy’s speed), or at least Edwar Ramirez if he were able to stick as a useful bullpen piece. Maybe David Robertson would be a better comparison, though I think his fastball is underappreciated.  (Quote)

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    Steve S. Reply:

    Yes, in that sense he is and that’s why I liked his chances to stick as well.  (Quote)

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  3. See the one thing about the sabermetric analysis of prospects (using FIP AND XFIP) is that guys like this are routinely undervalued. As someone who played DI bal I can tell you that some guys are just difficult to hit. I happens all the time. The velocity whore/ XFIP type analysis fails to take into account that some guys are deceptive. ANd that some guys have an uncany ability to make you feel like they are throwing harder than they are.

    Pettite was a classic example of that early on. Shattering bats left and right despite not throwing all that hard.
    The majors probably have more successful “pitcability” guys than wild flame throwers and it has always been that way.

    The problem the community has is tht there is no mathmatical way to know which of Phelps, noesi, KEnnedy etc etc etc will stick an which won’t. ANd if they can’t predict which hits then it’s pointless to them  (Quote)

    [Reply To This Comment]

    Moshe Mandel Reply:

    I dont think that is limited to saber types at all. The old school scouting types frequently rule out people who dont throw hard enough or are not big enough or do not have dominating stuff.  (Quote)

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  4. Andy has been a very clutch Yankee pitcher for many years and greatly missed.
    I wounder how many Yankee players I have said that about over the years? Joe “D” was one of the first, I think.
    The point is; Well we all appreciate the games and personality of an Andy or Whitey Ford, the day comes for all of us to let go. Andy is the 1st of the “core 4″, Posada is next with Mo and Jeter soon to follow. Buy 2012/13 there will be a few new stars to take their place. Leading the pack will be Cano, Brett, Montero and Phil, for now, with others on the way.  (Quote)

    [Reply To This Comment]

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