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Andy Pettitte’s complicated Hall of Fame case

Sep 20, 2013, 1:25 PM EDT

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Andy Pettitte was never a dominant starter. That’s pretty much indisputable.

In 18 big-league seasons, Pettitte has never won a Cy Young Award, an ERA title or a strikeout crown. The only “black ink” on his Baseball-Reference page comes from the three times he led or shared his league lead in games started. He’s thrown four career shutouts, which is one more than Justin Masterson has this year.

Yet here he is. As he retires for a second time, he leaves MLB as the active leader in wins with 255 and strikeouts with 2,437 and the all-time leader with 19 postseason victories.

So, yeah, Pettitte’s Hall of Fame case is based largely on wins, which should lead to a great deal of skepticism given that he spent most of his career pitching for baseball’s most successful franchise. Among pitchers with at least 300 decisions since 1901, Pettitte ranks 16th with a .627 winning percentage, ahead of obvious Hall of Famers like Tom Seaver, Carl Hubbell, Warren Spahn, Bob Gibson and even Walter Johnson. Make the cutoff 400 decisions instead and Pettitte jumps all of the way to eighth on the list.

One could argue that says as much about the Yankees as it does about Pettitte.

On the other hand, it might surprise people to see Pettitte currently sitting with a 117 ERA+. That’s not Jack Morris territory (he’s at 105). That’s squarely in the Hall of Fame range. Baseball-reference’s Play Index gives us 51 Hall of Fame starting pitchers since 1901. Pettitte’s ERA would sit right along sign Gaylord Perry at No. 30 in that group. It’s better than Steve Carlton and Fergie Jenkins at 115. It’s much better than Don Sutton’s 108. It’s just below Bert Blyleven at 118.

Of course, Pettitte didn’t pitch as much as those guys. Jenkins has the low innings total of that group at 4,500. Pettitte is currently at 3,300. And given that modest innings total, one would certainly like to see more dominance than Pettitte offers.

Going by Baseball-Reference’s WAR, Pettitte’s 60.4 puts him right around Hall of Famers Juan Marichal (61.8), Jim Bunning (60.5) and Hal Newhouser (60.4) and ahead of guys like Whitey Ford (53.9), Early Wynn (51.6) and Catfish Hunter (36.5). But it also ranks behind non-Hall of Famers like Kevin Brown (68.7), Rick Reuschel (68.2), Luis Tiant (65.9) and David Cone (61.8). WAR rates question marks Mike Mussina (82.7) and Curt Schilling (80.7) as much more deserving.

So, Pettitte’s Hall of Fame case largely comes down to two things: the postseason and doping. Some will disqualify him automatically based on his admitted hGH use. I think that’s a discussion for a different time, though. The postseason is of more interest to me here. Pettitte clearly deserves some sort of boost for making 44 postseason starts and going 19-11 with a 3.81 ERA. He has five World Series rings, and he wasn’t a bystander for any of them.

How much credit is the tough part. I’m sympathetic to both sides of the argument. If Pettitte had been drafted by any team other than the Yankees, it’d doubtful he’d have any Hall of Fame case right now. His career is hardly any different than Chuck Finley’s.

On the other hand, Pettitte made the most of the opportunities he was given. And he’s pitched the equivalent of an extra season and a third. Would Pettitte’s regular-season numbers look better if he didn’t so often make an extra five or six starts in October? I think they probably would.

Personally, I think Pettitte still comes up short. I like my Hall of Famers to have higher peaks — to have been among the best players in their leagues, even if only for a couple of years. But it’s unfair to dismiss his case as just being Yankee hype. He has a better argument than Jack Morris, and there are certainly worse pitchers enshrined already. But there are better ones to pick from, too.

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