Dandy as Ever, Pettitte’s Return a Savior for Yankees

(The following is being syndicated from The Captain’s Blog; follow me on Twitter at@williamnyy23).

It seemed like a luxury at the time, but Andy Pettitte’s return to the Yankees’ rotation after a one-year hiatus has proven to be a godsend. With the team’s pre-season pitching depth crumbling around him because of injury or poor performance, the veteran lefty has emerged as a rock. However, Pettitte has done more than just help stabilize the Yankees’ rotation. He has also turned back the clock on his own career.

It’s only been five starts and 35 2/3 innings, but so far, Andy Pettitte has, quite literally, been as good ever. In terms of game score, the left hander’s outings on May 18 and June 5 rank among the best in his long career, which spans 484 starts. In the May start against the Reds, Pettitte went at least eight shutout innings for only the 11th time, while last night’s 10 strike-out performance was only the 14th of his career. Perhaps most impressive, however, has been the veteran’s stamina. By starting the year with five consecutive outings of at least 6 1/3 innings, Pettitte matched the longest such stretch of his career, which was established back in 1996, when he was only 24.

Andy Pettitte’s Top-10 Starts, by Game Score

Source: Baseball-reference.com

Not only has this been one of the best starts to a season by Pettitte, it also stacks up well against all five-game stretches in his career. Compared to 409 consecutive, in-season five game samples, Pettitte’s current ERA (2.78), strikeout rate (8.1 per nine innings) and average game score (62) rank in the top 24%, 19%, 10%, respectively.  Although it’s probably an exaggeration to say Pettitte is pitching better than ever, considering his time away from the game, he has easily exceeded even the most optimistic expectations.

Pettitte’s Five-Start Comparison

Note: Based on consecutive five game outings within one season.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

Pettitte’s start to 2012 has definitely been vintage, but does that mean he is poised for a very good year? The Yankees sure hope so. Because of the inconsistency of every other starter not named CC Sabathia, Pettitte has quickly ascended from a luxury to the number two man in the rotation. However, is it wishful thinking to expect him to maintain his current pace? In particular, Pettitte has enjoyed a near career-high swing and miss rate even though his velocity has been down across the board. Also, he is inducing many more swings on pitches out of the zone, which has allowed him to avoid the strike zone more often than not. Are these two trends sustainable? If not, the veteran lefty might be due for regression.

Opposition Plate Discipline vs. Pettitte, Since 2007
Note: O-Swing% = percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone; zone% =overall percentage of pitches inside the strike zone; SwStr%= percentage of total pitches a batter swings and misses on.
Source: fangraphs.com

Considering what many have described as the evolution of his cutter into a slider (although PitchFX has him throwing more sliders and cutters at the expense of his four seamer), it’s possible that Pettitte’s new repertoire is the foundation for his early success. However, it could also be that American League hitters need to make an adjustment to the pitcher the veteran has become. How Pettitte’s season unfolds could have a lot to say about what the Yankees are doing in October, but for now, it has, at the very least, given the team a much needed boost at moment of vulnerability.