Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Andy Pettitte

Claim to Fame: Andy Pettitte was an anchor of the Yankees 1990s dynasty, rarely their best pitcher but always a reliable arm. He pitched much of the next decade with the Bombers, a three-year stint with his hometown Houston breaking up 13 seasons in New York. Pettitte has won 240 regular season games, made three all-star teams, and finished in the top six in Cy Young voting five times, but his legacy has been forged in October, where has won an MLB record 19 postseason games and more World Series games (five) than anyone who’s pitched in the last 30 years. Now, he’s emerging from retirement after a one-year hiatus, returning to the Bronx to add to those totals and help the Yankees back to the Fall Classic.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: If Pettitte plays for the Yankees this year he will have to wait five years before becoming eligible on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot. But if this un-retirement experiment crashes before it gets off the ground and Pettitte fails to appear in a Major League game, he’ll appear on the ballot in 2015.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Pettitte supporters like to point out that every pitcher who’s more than 100 games above .500 for his career is enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Guys like Pettitte, however, are exactly the reason wins and winning percentage are becoming less and less valued in player evaluation. That Pettitte won a higher percentage of his decisions than Greg Maddux doesn’t make the longtime Yankee a better pitcher than Maddux; it just means he played for more great teams. In fact, Pettitte has never pitched for a sub-.500 club in his 16-year career, while Maddux made over 200 starts for teams that ended up losing more often than they won.

More telling than Pettitte’s impressive winning percentage is his only-respectable 117 career ERA+ over 16 seasons of relative durability. That ERA+ is better than those of four of the past five Major League pitchers inducted into the Hall of Fame, although each in that quartet threw drastically more career innings than did Pettitte. Of the eight Hall of Famers within 150 innings of Pettitte’s total, only the undeniably under-qualified Chief Bender owns a worse ERA+. The other seven are all at least ten points higher in the category.

With Cooperstown seemingly getting more selective with their admission of pitchers, Pettitte’s fate might be similar to that of Orel Hershiser, whose career numbers were similar to Pettitte’s but not good enough to preserve his spot on the Hall of Fame ballot for more than two years. After a long drought of Hall of Fame pitchers (no current HOFer pitched after 1993), a wave of worthy hurlers confronts the BBWAA next year. Roger Clemens may not make it to Cooperstown any time soon due to alleged steroid use, but Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez are locks, and Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz all have strong cases as well. Pettitte’s candidacy looks less convincing than all of the above, and voters may be hesitant to vote for a marginally-qualified starter immediately after supporting a mass induction of well-qualified starters.

Pettitte could potentially be helped by two of the same effects that are enabling Jack Morris’s absurd Hall of Fame candidacy. Like Morris, Pettitte won more games than any other pitcher in a given decade (148 from 2000-2009), and like Morris, Pettitte made a name for himself in the playoffs. Pettitte’s stats are more impressive than Morris’s, and I would support Pettitte’s Hall of Fame bid long before I would consider supporting Morris’s, but I’m not sold on the arguments on which their candidacies hinge. As discussed earlier, wins are a product of the team as much as the pitcher, and a decade is nothing but a random period of time and shouldn’t be used to judge a career any more than a random 13-year stretch should. Postseason stats are even more dependent of team success, as in order to compile such numbers a player’s teammates need to be good enough to take him to the playoffs. No one should make the Hall of Fame because he got to the postseason more than his peers and pitched adequately once there.

So, with stats that seem short of the Cooperstown threshold and a case based on arguments I don’t buy, Andy Pettitte doesn’t get my hypothetical Hall of Fame vote, although I wouldn’t be too upset were he to be elected. The BBWAA’s treatment of starting pitchers is difficult to predict (as I’ve covered before, Jack Morris’s near induction contrasted with Kevin Brown’s immediate dismissal from the ballot is some sort of travesty), but I imagine the above “qualifications” will garner Pettitte some degree of support. Then again, irrationally vindictive writers might withhold their votes due to Pettitte’s admission of HGH use. Assuming the Yankees deem him a capable Major League starter, however, the lefty’s career appears not to be over. A successful comeback and a good season in 2012 and beyond could alter the Hall of Fame discussion. For now, Pettitte’s worthiness and likelihood of induction remain unclear.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a regular feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian BeltreAl OliverAlan TrammellAlbert BelleAlbert PujolsAllie ReynoldsBarry BondsBarry LarkinBert BlylevenBill KingBilly MartinBobby GrichCecil TravisChipper JonesClosersCraig BiggioCurt FloodDan QuisenberryDarrell EvansDave ParkerDick AllenDon Mattingly,Don Newcombe,Dwight EvansGeorge SteinbrennerGeorge Van HaltrenGus GreenleeHarold BainesHarry DaltonJack MorrisJeff BagwellJim EdmondsJoe CarterJoe PosnanskiJohn Smoltz, Johnny MurphyJose CansecoJuan GonzalezKeith HernandezKen CaminitiKevin BrownLarry WalkerManny RamirezMaury WillsMel HarderMoises AlouPete Browning,Phil CavarrettaRafael PalmeiroRoberto AlomarRocky Colavito,Roger MarisRon CeyRon GuidryRon SantoSammy SosaSmoky Joe WoodSteve Garvey,Ted SimmonsThurman MunsonTim RainesTony OlivaVince ColemanWill Clark