Andy Pettitte’s Hall of Fame case is going to be a hot mess
Andy Pettitte is not in the news and he won’t be eligible for the Hall of Fame vote for two years, but he’s on my mind this morning.
The reason: I’ve spent the past few days reading various Hall of Fame voting columns, all of which hit on a standard set of factors for each candidate. None of them mention Pettitte, of course, but all of them talk about stuff which suggests that Pettitte’s candidacy is going represent something of a Hall of Fame argument singularity.
Think of every Hall of Fame vote justification you’ve ever heard. Not the specific justification for any given candidate, but the broad categories which lend themselves to overarching philosophical arguments about what a Hall of Famer is or isn’t. Stuff like:
- Pitcher wins being overrated/underrated;
- Compiling stats vs. “dominance";
- Postseason success mattering/not mattering;
- The quality of one’s teammates mattering/not mattering;
- PEDs; and
- Whether the candidate in question is a “good guy” who the media liked when he played.
After you get past the analysis of a candidate’s stat line, one of these argument-starters applies to most guys. Maybe two categories apply. Andy Pettitte’s candidacy, however, will touch on every single one of them. What’s more, they will apply to him in ways which will make a lot of voters uncomfortable or will challenge voters’ understanding of how these argument-starters apply compared to how they’ve applied them in the past.
Let’s run down the list and take a quick look at some of these longstanding points of Hall of Fame contention and see how they’ll apply to Pettitte. Note: none of this is to make an argument that Pettitte is or is not worthy of induction. I’m still torn on that and don’t intend this post to come down on that one way or the other. It’s simply to point out the parameters of the impending Pettitte debate, which I think will be a hot mess.
Pettitte was never a dominant pitcher in the way we normally conceive of pitcher dominance. He didn’t win any Cy Young Awards, he didn’t lead the league in ERA or strikeouts or any other category apart from starts (thrice) and wins (once). He threw four shutouts in his 18-year career. That will lead a league for a single year sometimes, but not always.
Given the lack of dominance, voters will have to rely on other stuff when it comes time to talk about Pettitte’s Hall of Fame case. The postseason is obviously big for him, but we’ll get to that in a minute. As far as the 521 of his 565 starts which did not take place in the playoffs, however, it’s going to focus mostly on wins and durability. Obviously people can dig deeper than wins if they want to, and they should, but for these purposes, it’s enough to note that a lot of people adding their voice to the Pettitte Hall of Fame arguments will relitigate the utility of pitcher wins at least to some extent.
This is going to take us on a tour through Jack Morris Land and maybe Bert Blyleven Land. Whether you’re pro-Pettitte or anti-Pettitte, it’s going to force people to confront a lot of inconsistencies with respect to how starting pitches have been judged over the years. In a lot of ways Pettitte is not really different than first-ballot inductee Tom Glavine. At the same time, he is not nearly as good as Mike Mussina, who will be on the outside looking in for some time, it seems.
Man, when you think about it, starting pitcher evaluation is almost as big a mess as PED-associated player evaluation when it comes to the Hall of Fame. Maybe even bigger, really.
This will likely be where most Pettitte supporters spend their time. And yes, Pettitte was a big-time postseason pitcher. It may be kinda hacky to simply say “count the rings!” but Pettitte not only has a lot of rings but he was a key performer in every one of those World Series pushes. I’m sure someone can construct an argument that Pettitte’s postseason resume is overrated -- people can construct arguments about anything -- but it’s not one in which I’m going to get super invested.
The real issue here, then, is going to be how much weight we give postseason performance in the first place.
Jack Morris’ long candidacy hinged on, basically, one single World Series game. Meanwhile, a whole lot of earth was moved during the very long Bert Blyleven candidacy to downplay postseason stuff as a key factor for the Hall of Fame. There are obviously distinctions to be made -- Pettite’s postseason track record is, in the aggregate, better than Morris’ and one can credit Pettitte for his postseason performance while not dinging Blyleven for not having a postseason track record -- but Hall of Fame arguments tend not to lend themselves to nuance. As is the case with pitcher wins, people will use Pettitte’s candidacy as a forum for renewing, and in some cases reversing, old arguments about “big game” pitchers and the playoffs mattering and all of that. And man, that stuff can be tedious.
This is related to the playoff stuff, of course. But it also bleeds over into the pitcher wins thing. Does Pettitte win 256 games if he comes up with Oakland or Colorado? Of course not. But Pettitte’s presence on the 1990s-2000s Yankees will open up other avenues of argument related to team quality as well.
People may knock Pettitte a bit because he had the help of a great team, but Tom Glavine doesn’t win 305 games if he comes up with the Expos, right? Why will Pettitte take a Hall of Fame discount for the quality of his team while Glavine got a boost? Narratives, I suspect. Pettitte will be seen as the beneficiary of offense from The Bronx Bombers. Glavine is seen as an ace (or one of ‘em anyway) of a pitching-first club. This leaves out the fact that the Braves had the second best offense in the NL when Glavine won his first Cy Young Award and were the third best offensive team in the league when he won his second. In arguably Pettitte’s best season -- 2005 -- his Astros had a below average offense. If he wins a couple of more games, there’s a good chance he wins the Cy Young Award that year.
The narratives will still be strong, however, and Pettitte’s time on the ballot will lead to a lot of argument about how to weigh starting pitchers from good teams.
This is gonna be a real cluster.
Despite recently-changing attitudes about some PED-associated players, the template on all of this is well-worn: if you were found to have conclusively taken PEDs, you’re out. End of story. Pettitte took PEDs. He was named in the Mitchell Report and admitted he did. That recent reconsideration notwithstanding, that disqualifies him, right?
Well, maybe not. In the wake of the Mitchell Report, Pettitte was widely praised for allegedly owning up to his drug use. He was not treated as a pariah because, it was argued, he did not lie and certainly did not create a big distracting controversy that spun into legal proceedings like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds did.
Except . . . Pettitte did lie. As I’ve detailed many, many times, Pettitte has only been as forthcoming as he’s had to and has changed his story about his drug use on more than one occasion. When he’s been caught he has admitted to what he was caught doing but no more. Then was caught doing more. When asked why he used, he said it was only to recover from injuries. The media has taken that claim at face value from him but has generally considered that to be a baseless excuse from any other player who offers it.
Compare Pettitte’s track record on this score to Mark McGwire’s. McGwire did not lie -- he kept mum as long as he could, but he did not lie and eventually admitted all -- and he consistently claimed that he took PEDs to deal with injuries. Hall of Fame voters have not accepted that argument from him. They have consistently shown that they’re OK with Pettitte floating it.
It’s all so . . . curious, and will lead to a lot of Hall of Fame voters contorting themselves into some pretty uncomfortable positions about PEDs once Pettitte is on the ballot.
The Nice Guy Factor
Everyone seemed to like Pettitte. He gave good interviews, was friendly, was “classy” in the weird way that baseball writers like to call people “classy” and all of that. That’ll help him, and at some point I suspect that a writer with column inches to fill will cite that as a reason why a borderline case like Pettitte’s should be given a greater hearing. If nothing else, it could be used as a means of distinguishing Pettitte from Curt Schilling, who is recently catching all kinds of heat for being a jackwagon.
A lot of folks find any discussion along these lines to be dicey, one way or the other, but I feel like the Schilling precedent that is being set at the moment -- character clause considerations being brought to bear separate and apart from the PED debate -- will not die with this year’s balloting. Especially if Schilling is still on the ballot when Pettitte arrives.
Like I said, none of this is to say that Pettitte definitively is or is not worthy of the Hall of Fame. I tend to think he falls just short and that there are pitchers on the ballot now who have a far better claim to Cooperstown than Pettitte will. But he has a better case than a lot of guys who got a lot of consideration for a long time [cough] Jack Morris [cough] and a lot of his case will invoke some long debated and frankly nebulous territory like postseason success and “heart and soul” and “big game pitcher” things.
Which means that, whether or not Pettitte deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, and whether or not he actually gets in, his candidacy is going to be something of a perfect storm for people who like to argue about the Hall of Fame. It’ll serve as one of the bigger battlefields in the proxy war people have been fighting over Hall of Fame standards for a long time.
Depending on how you feel about that proxy war and Hall of Fame arguments in general, that’ll either be the best or the worst thing to happen to them in a long, long time.