Free-agent-to-be Andy Pettitte is 36 years old. The man who has spent 11 years of his career in pinstripes is coming off of a 2008 season in which he posted a 4.54 ERA, his highest mark since 1999. Pettitte surrendered 233 hits in 204 innings, or 10.28 per 9 frames. Those numbers suggest that Pettitte has slipped a notch or two, and is in the decline phase of his career. Something declined in the Bronx this past year, but it wasn’t Pettitte: the quality of the defense behind him is the culprit for Andy’s ascending ERA.
In terms of controllable skills, Pettitte has lost almost nothing to father time. He struck out 6.97 batters per nine innings while showing his typically-solid control, issuing 2.43 BB/9. That 2.87 K/BB ratio helped Pettitte post a 3.71 Fielding Independent ERA (FIP ERA). The 0.84 run difference between his actual ERA (4.54) and his FIP ERA is the fifth-largest in baseball among qualified pitchers. The reason for that wide dichotomy is Andy’s Sistine Chapel-high .339 BABIP. When a hitter put the ball in play, those Yankee gloves did a very poor job of converting it into an out. The Bombers ranked 25th in the majors in Defensive Efficiency, which measures the percentage of balls put in play that are converted into outs.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, but since Pettitte posted a 1.80 GB/FB ratio in 2008 (thus giving his infield D plenty of chances), let’s start in the infield. From Bill James Online, we can take a look at John Dewan’s Plus/Minus Fielding Data. Dewan’s system rates players based on the number of plays made above/below the number that an average fielder would make. For a more complicated explanation, see Dewan’s site. By position, here are the infield’s plus/minus numbers, with their rank among that position in parentheses:
Only A Rod came in with a solid rating, with Giambi, Cano and Jeter all coming in well below the major league average. Without starting a riot or beating to death a topic that has been widely discussed, it’s virtually impossible to find an objective defensive metric that rates Jeter as anything a poor-fielding major league shortstop. In fact, his -12 showing this past year was actually a major improvement from ’07 (-34). Perhaps there’s some hope of a rebound for Cano, as he posted an excellent +17 mark in 2007 (5th-best among 2B). Giambi, meanwhile, has long been an iron glove at first. But, like Pettitte, he’s a free agent after the Yankees declined his $22M option by buying him out for $5M. Perhaps the good folks in New York who sit along the first base line will no longer have to wear protective equipment to the game to shield against Giambi’s follies, as slick-fielding Mark Teixeira (+24) is a possible replacement.
While Pettitte is more of a groundball-oriented pitcher, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the extreme difficulty that one New York outfielder had as well:
Abreu (also a free agent) showed precious little range in right field, and it’s not a one year fluke: he rated 32nd among RF in both 2006 and 2007. The soon-to-be-36 year-old remains a solid hitter, but NL teams may want to think twice before offering him a multi-year contract.
If Cano rebounds, Teixeira signs, Abreu moves on and Jeter moves off of shortstop (hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?), the Yankees could improve defensively by a significant margin. However, none of those things are guaranteed, and it’s possible that the club will be sporting little leather once again next season. Pettitte is a long-time Yankee and a former farm product, but he might do his ERA a favor by picking a less defensively-challenged team this winter.