Pettitte’s Return A Mixed Bag For Yankees

After a year away from the game and a handful of minor league tune-up starts, Andy Pettitte officially returned to the Yankees on Sunday. His pitching line was nothing to write home about — 6.1 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 3 BB, 2 K — and he ultimately took the loss against the light-hitting Mariners. All four runs came on a pair of two-run homers, including a line drive shot by Justin Smoak that probably doesn’t leave many non-Yankee Stadium stadiums (video).

Anecdotally, the 39-year-old Pettitte looked an awful lot like the previous versions of himself, just with quite a bit of rust. He threw a ton of moving fastballs — 23 two-seamers and 32 cutters out of 94 pitches (58.5%) — but had trouble getting the ball (particularly the cutter) in on right-handed batters…

Pettitte has been keeping righties honest with inside cutters for more than a decade, but more than a few leaked middle-middle yesterday, including one that resulted in Casper Wells‘ two-run homer (video). Of the ten balls Seattle’s right-handed hitters put in play off the veteran southpaw, seven came on were fastballs. They swung a missed a total of two times at the 41 fastballs thrown their way.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Pettitte’s afternoon was his cutter velocity, which hovered anywhere from 83-90 mph. His final cutter (pitch number 93 overall) checked in at 87 mph, so he held his velocity throughout the start. Overall though, his cut-fastball came in much harder than it did when he last pitched in 2010…

It’s impossible to know if the uptick in cutter velocity — his four-seam and two-seam fastballs sat right where they had in the past — is meaningful in any way given a sample size of 32 pitches. Considering all the hoopla surrounding his return to the rotation, I’m guessing adrenaline had something of an impact on Pettitte’s overall performance, possibly including velocity. How much an impact? Your guess is as good as mine.

Pettitte is in uncharted territory as a player who voluntarily spent a year away from the game at a relatively old age before returning. We can compare his performance to previous versions of himself but that only tells us so much; the impact of the year-long hiatus is a complete unknown. He looked rusty yesterday but I think that was to be expected to a certain extent, but there’s also a chance the layover was a good thing for him physically. It’s possible his arm is healthier now than at any point in the last two or five or ten years. Wouldn’t that be kinda neat?

The Yankees replaced Freddy Garcia (5.19 FIP) with David Phelps (5.15 FIP) after four starts and have now replaced Phelps with Pettitte after two starts. The first part was unexpected but the second part was the plan all along. Phelps helped bridge the gap between Garcia and Pettitte without having much of a chance to remain in the rotation long-term, barring injury. Pettitte doesn’t need to perform like he did from 2007-2010 to be an upgrade for New York, but I doubt he went through all the trouble of a comeback to pitch poorly. Once he gets settled in and has a few starts under his belt, we’ll have a better idea of what he’s capable of at this point of his career. The results weren’t great, but Pettitte showed enough yesterday that the team should be cautiously optimistic about his ability to be a positive contributor going forward, especially if he can start running his cutter in on righties more effectively.

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Mike writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues and baseball in general at CBS Sports.

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