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.
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.