Andy Pettitte had his best outing of the year on Monday night as he took a perfect game into the seventh inning. He did not get the perfect game, or a no-hitter, but pitched eight very strong innings. That outing, which has been part of a surprisingly strong year for Pettitte, raises a question about his Hall of Fame chances, specifically whether his decision to spend three years with the Houston Astros will have cost him election into the Hall of Fame.
Pettitte is a borderline Hall of Fame candidate. He has never been a truly dominant pitcher, never won a Cy Young Award, only finished in the top ten in Cy Young voting five times, only won twenty games twice, and never struck out more than 180 batters in a season. His career numbers are almost, but not quite good enough for the Hall of Fame. He currently has 224 wins which for a pitcher without a very impressive peak is not enough for the Hall of Fame, but if he pitches two more years, which is far from guaranteed, and gets to 250-255, he would be in the middle range for career wins for Hall of Fame starting pitchers. Similarly, his current total of 2126 strikeouts puts him in the mid-range for Hall of Fame pitchers, but if he could play long enough to get to about 2,350, he would be in the higher half. His ERA+, a useful measure, but one to which Hall of Fame voters do not always pay a lot of attention, is 116, which would be among the lowest for Hall of Fame pitchers. This number is not likely to improve since Pettitte is in the decline phase of his career.
What then did Pettitte’s decision to sign with the Houston Astros following the 2003 season have to do with his Hall of Fame chances? Pettitte pitched three years for Houston and had one injury-filled year (2004), one of his best years (2005) and one below average year (2006), before returning to the Yankees in 2007. It is possible that playing those years in a hitter’s park cost Pettitte a few points on his ERA, but he got those back by pitching in the National League, similarly the Yankees during those years provided more run support so Pettitte may have won a few more games had he stayed with the Yankees, but that is only speculation. An even more speculative approach might say that, had Pettitte stayed with the Yankees, the team would have managed to either beat Boston and go on to win the World Series in 2004, or have gone past the first round of the playoffs in 2005 or 2006. One more World Series ring would certainly have helped Pettitte’s Hall of Fame bid, but in reality he came closer with Houston in 2005 than the Yankees did while he was gone.
Had Pettitte stayed with the Yankees, however, his potentially slightly better career numbers would not have been enough to put him into the Hall of Fame, but something else might have. The narrative of Pettitte’s career would have have looked very different had he not spent those three years in Houston. Narratives are important for Hall of Fame voters. To see that one need look no further than Jim Rice, whose election into the Hall of Fame seems to rest more on the narrative of being “the most feared hitter in baseball” than on any actual accomplishments.
Had Pettitte not gone to Astros, he would have spent his entire career with the Yankees and would have fit neatly into the history of other great Yankee lefties like Ron Guidry, Whitey Ford and Lefty Gomez who, with the exception of 4.2 innings at the end of Gomez’s career, all spent their entire career with the Yankees. Ford and Gomez are in the HOF; and Pettitte has had a better career than either Gomez or Guidry. Additionally, had he not spent those three years away from the Yankees, Pettitte would have almost certainly become the all-time Yankee win and strikeout leader by the time he retired as well.
For any player, spending one’s entire career with one team often helps their image and creates a more appealing narrative for Hall of Fame voters, but this is particularly true for the Yankees, who have a strong tradition of many of their best players, including Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Ford spending their entire careers in with the Yankees. Pettitte’s longtime teammates Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and perhaps Jorge Posada may well join these players by spending their whole careers with the Yankees. Rivera and Jeter will almost certainly join them in the Hall of Fame, while Posada will be a good candidate as well. Pettitte’s borderline case would have been stronger if he were more unequivocally linked to these other great Yankees.
The Pettitte Hall of Fame narrative will suffer not just because he left the Yankees, but because of his relationship with Roger Clemens, his close friend in Houston. Pettitte was, of course, linked to Clemens not just in two different pitching rotations, but with regards to steroid use as well. It is harder to excuse Pettitte’s own links to steroids given his close relationship with Clemens, which was never made clearer than when they both decided to leave New York for Houston.
Andy Pettitte probably won’t and probably shouldn’t go into the Hall of Fame. However, the image of Pettitte as the all-time Yankee leader in wins and strikeouts who fits into a long history of great Yankee lefties who spent their whole career with the franchise might have been enough to get Pettitte significantly more consideration. However, that is not the narrative at which voters will be looking. Instead they will see a pitcher who is not one of the very few great players to spend their career with one team, who is second or third, but not first in a few categories for Yankee pitchers and who was just a little too close to Roger Clemens during the latter’s steroid period.