Andy Pettitte’s Curious Qualifications for the Hall

Andy Pettitte is going to announce his (second) retirement this afternoon. Much will be written (again) about Pettitte’s career and, of course, his Hall of Fame prospects. Others are better at the history and biography stuff, and, well, at pretty much all of the other stuff, too. Personally, I am not interested in predicting whether a player will get into the Hall of Fame. Analyzing players is one thing. Sociological and psychological evaluations of the Hall of Fame’s voters is another (that is not a commentary on the voters, just on my interests). When it comes to stuff like this, I prefer to focus on a player’s worthiness, that is, whether he should get into the Hall of Fame.

Much will be written regarding Pettitte’s Hall of Fame contributions now and in the off-season, just as much was written about his post-2010 retirement. I am not going to cover every angle or offer a final verdict. Rather, I want to to discuss two or three tough angles for the sabermetric evaluation of Pettitte’s case that make it an intriguing topic.

For most (but not all) of this post I am going to use Wins Above Replacement (WAR) as a basis for discussion. It is not the only way to get into these matters, and there are ongoing debates about WAR and its variants. For the sake of getting to the point, I am going to leave those aside for now, since I think WAR, for all its issues, is a good rough way of understanding a player’s value.

Peak Value

There is no simple algorithm for determining a player’s sabermetric Hall-worthiness, of course. Not everyone is going to agree on general principles. As a general guide and starting point, we can start with overall value. Something around 60 career wins is a good guide, although, again, it is not an absolute baseline. Pettite passes the 60 WAR test, having about 68 career WAR at the moment.

But even with more advanced metrics like WAR, most of us do not want mere accumulators in the Hall of Fame. We want players who were more than just average or above-average for a significant chunk of their career. Now things get a bit fuzzier. Sometimes we use graphs to illustrate this when we compare players. That is one good way, especially when comparing the player in question with another whose worthiness is generally acknowledged. Another quick way I prefer it to look at a player’s best three to five seasons. Without getting into all the different viewpoints, I think that a player needs at least three really awesome seasons on his Hall of Fame resume. And by “awesome,” I do not mean “above average” (three or four wins) or great for a season (five or six). I mean really, really great. Something like seven wins or more in a season.

As an example, while Duke Snider‘s total career WAR is seemingly just barely in at at 63.5, he is still a no-doubt Hall of Famer largely due to his awesome peak from 1953 to 1956, four seasons in which he averaged about eight wins a year. He was very good before that, but that sustained peak (in a short time) really puts him over the top, statistically speaking. Sure, WAR is not the most subtle of tools, so seven wins a season in a peak is not a hard and fast rule, but conveys the general idea.

The peak aspect of Pettitte’s case is not very strong in this light. He only has one season with around seven wins (7.2 in 1997), and no other season really comes close. He only had three other seasons over eighteen seasons with more than five wins. Pettitte never really had an out-and-out bad season, and was pretty much always above average, but we are looking for more than just “above average for a really long time.” Longevity is a good thing, but is it enough to outweigh Pettitte’s lack of an truly impressive group of peak seasons?

FIP, RA, and Peak Value Revisited

While one might buy FIP-based WAR (as implemented here at FanGraphs) on a season-to-season basis, one might question whether it is really appropriate as an evaluation of a player’s career. After all, Pettite has pitched 3300 innings, we probably have about as good an idea of his non-DIPS skill as any pitcher. At first glance, this might seem to hurt his case for the Hall a bit, as his RA9-WAR is around 62 as opposed to the 68 with FIP-based WAR. His career 86 ERA- is a bit worse than his career 84 FIP-. These are not precision instruments, so the difference is not that big in practical terms, but it is not really helping his case.

Unless, that is, we return to the peak value issue. If we look at Pettitte’s seasonal RA9-WAR, his peak much more impressive. His 1997 RA9-WAR (7.5) is about the same as his FIP-based WAR that year. However, the switch in perspective adds 2005 as an awesome, Hall-worthy peak season of 7.8 WAR. putting him up with the best pitchers in baseball that year.

Is it enough? Well, it is just one more great peak season, and no third season really stands out. And, as those of you have already done the math in your head have already figured out, while RA9-WAR makes his two best seasons look a better, it also makes most of the rest of his seasons a bit less impressive. So I am not sure how much it really helps or hurts him, other than bringing people’s attention to the amazing 2005 he and Rogers Clemens had for the Astros.

PostSeason Value

The above discussion all dealt with Pettitte’s regular season performances, but as anyone who has paid attention knows, Pettitte has had plenty of postseason experience as well. He has pitched in eight different World Series, including five winners. He was the 2001 ALCS MVP. All together, Pettite started 44 games in the playoffs, and totaled 276 innings. For most of today’s starting pitchers, that is almost another season-and-half of work. He ERA- (84) was actually better in the postseason than it was in the regular season, even if his FIP was worse.

We do not have WAR (or other general value stat) for the postseason play at this time, and whether and how it should be done is another issue, but those innings clearly have some value. The competition was tougher than in the regular season. And while Pettitte’s amount of postseason experience was boosted by him having very good teammates, one cannot discount the fact that Pettitte made big contributions to his teams making the playoffs (and advancing so far) so often. It was not a mere coincidence.

How much should we value Pettitte’s (mostly good) postseason play? How should that be weighted against the peak and longevity issues? I do not know, but it matters, and is one more reason his Hall of Fame case is fun to discuss.



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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.


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Antonio Bananas
Guest

I don’t think a player’s postseason player should be taken into consideration. If King Felix were a Yankee, he’d have a lot of good post season numbers too. I think that Pettite is a hall of famer based on his regular season contributions though. The post season stats should give him a boost from writers who can’t comprehend that what your post season stats look like (or if you even have any) has a lot to do with the team you’re on. Pettite does have a substantial sample size of post season play, so he’s unarguably a good post season pitcher. It’s just that the opportunity for all those games were because he was a Yankee.

Fraggle
Guest
Fraggle

Totally agree with respect to valuing postseason play.

Ruki Motomiya
Member
Ruki Motomiya

Why shouldn’t post-season stats matter? Leaving aside the “If King Felix were a Yankee” bit, they’re still 276 innings he pitched. Why should we say that the innings don’t count just because they came in the postseason?

Bip
Member
Member
Bip

It’s not far to judge him against other players using those numbers because they represent an opportunity that other players didn’t get.

If they were just adding those stats to the regular season stats, then it would be fine, but voters always give extra weight to postseason performance. That is the main thing that isn’t fair, when a player is made out to be a “postseason hero” on his HOF resume, because that will hurt the cases of players who may have been better in the regular season buy didn’t get the same postseason opportunity.

Preston
Guest
Preston

Ignoring data is never the right way to evaluate for anything. It’s probably true that HOF voters put too much emphasis on post-season play, but the answer isn’t to not look at it at all. And I don’t think you should view it as only as valuable as a regular season game, because it’s not, it’s a higher leverage situation against better competition.

B N
Guest
B N

“that will hurt the cases of players who may have been better in the regular season buy didn’t get the same postseason opportunity.”

I don’t see that as a good reason to exclude someone’s postseason numbers. They still put up those numbers and they still had to work for them, against usually tougher competition. Last I checked, there was no min or max quota for the Hall. Just because we let one guy in based on great postseason stats, it doesn’t mean that we have to exclude some other guy who had no postseason play.

And yet, with at all that said, I just don’t feel like Pettitte will be a HOF guy. His stats, in aggregate, are great, but not overwhelming. Second, on how many seasons did you hear about players fearing to face Andy Pettitte? That’s reflected in his All Star appearances also (only 3 in a fairly long career). The third strike is the HGH issue. Absent any one of these, he’d probably be in the HOF. But with all three? Unlikely.

Jason B
Guest
Jason B

Preston – very well said. The entire comment was right on.

Eminor3rd
Guest
Eminor3rd

It’s not an MVP award — it’s HOF. It’s literally a popularity contest. Why not take everything into account?

Nathan
Guest
Nathan

Exactly

Travis L
Guest
Travis L

I feel like we should take Postseason stats into consideration when looking at a career. I just don’t think they should be weighted much differently than regular season. Mentally, I add about 7-8 WAR to Pettite for his postseason pitching.

In a single season comparison, counting p.s. #s doesnt make sense because it changes the number of games played. But career lengths vary greatly, anyhow. Plus, Pettite did risk injury by pitching those additional innings, so I think it’s only fair to credit him with the positive.

Carl Swenson
Guest
Carl Swenson

7-8 WAR for his postseason pitching? His best season was a 7 WAR season where he posted a 2.88 ERA. His postseason ERA was almost a full point higher at 3.81, which over 277 innings would add up to 3 WAR at the absolute maximum. He wasn’t clutch and better in the postseason. Pettitte posted only a 0.04 better ERA than his career ERA, making him only a slightly better than average pitcher when it comes to postseason play. He got the opportunity to start 44 games in the postseason because of the team he was on, he didn’t individually earn all of his teams postseason berths. He can thank his luck to be on a good team to give himself postseason opportunities.

Preston
Guest
Preston

He also pitched on an Astros WS team, so it’s not just the Yankees, and I think it’s fair to remember that the Yankees weren’t the Yankees anymore when he came up (they hadn’t been to a WS since 1981). Andy Pettitte was a huge part of turning that around.

brad
Guest
brad

Doesn’t this amount to penalizing players for being on good teams?
Pettite threw an extra season and change of innings against only the best teams of each season, though admittedly not necessarily the best hitting teams, at the same basic level of production. It’s fine to say postseason shouldn’t count for the obvious cases either way, but Pettite is in the mushy middle. Considering there’s no way to deny postseason innings are more valuable than regular season innings, there’s a good case to be made Pettite does have a third peak level season on his resume. He was throwing 10-30 more innings a year, most years. To ignore all that in evaluating his total value to his teams as a player seems quite foolish, to me.

Alexander Nevermind
Guest
Alexander Nevermind

And we should discount Tim Raines’ numbers because he had more opportunities by hitting in the leadoff position

Hejuk
Guest
Hejuk

The HOF is about what you did, not about what you did per opportunity. Edgar Martinez doesn’t get extra credit because the Mariners kept him in the minors too long. You don’t correct for freak injuries. The HOF is about the value of your career, and extraneous factors affect that value (in Pettite’s case, positively). That’s just part of life, and a fortiori part of baseball.

The HOF is not a meritocracy all the way down.

Charlie Hall
Guest
Charlie Hall

Ernie Banks would not be in the HOF if one considered postseason play.

brad
Guest
brad

Not even vaguely true.

Ryan Kelley
Guest
Ryan Kelley

Totally disagree.

There are plenty of star and elite level talents that struggle in the postseason. Off the top of my head, A-Rod. One of the most productive hitters ever, A-Rod has been a liability in the postseason for most of his career. His talent and regular season reputation almost hurts his team more, as it makes it more difficult to keep him out of the lineup etc…

If you’ve actually played baseball or any sport competitively, you’d realize how important the postseason is. It separates the men from the boys, and the stars from the guys who are very good at racking up the money stats for the arbitration case, but not great at producing when the team is banking on them…

Pettitte was a huge asset in the postseason, posting a 3.81 ERA against the best lineups in the game…

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