Andy Pettitte’s return gives the Yankees a hero, if not an upgrade

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Andy Pettitte. ()
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The comeback of Andy Pettitte, begun in earnest unexpectedly late last offseason, is about to enter its next phase, with the Yankees announcing that he'll make his first start with the big club on Sunday against the Seattle Mariners.

It's going to be a dramatic and probably very fun event, given how much Pettitte means to Yankee fans. But in pure baseball terms, it's worth noting that the addition of Pettitte doesn't do much to improve the Yankee starting rotation, which is currently 26th in all of baseball with a 5.41 E.R.A.

Pettitte's return is without question a positive thing for the Yankees, even putting sentiment aside, since he's a very good bet to clear that statistical bar. But either pitcher he'll be replacing in the rotation is a good bet to do the same.

Consider that Pettitte's E.R.A. in his last full season, 2010, was 3.28. But his xFIP, an E.R.A. that eliminates defense from the equation, was 3.85. If a year away and aging has eroded Pettitte's skills at all, his expected performance is probably more like an E.R.A. around 4. That's helpful, especially at the salary the Yankees are paying Pettitte.

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But it isn't very different than what they'd be likely to get from Phelps or Hughes. In the case of Phelps, his E.R.A. is 3.74 in 2012, which is right in line with his xFIP of 3.62. Phelps has been every bit as effective as his E.R.A. would suggest, and while he might regress as the league gets to know him better, his Triple-A performance indicates that his success so far is no fluke, either.

Meanwhile, Hughes has a bloated E.R.A. of 6.67 this season, but that doesn't come close to measuring his true pitching level to date. His xFIP is 4.21, or well over two runs lower than his E.R.A. Hughes has pitched better of late in terms of his results, pitching into the seventh inning--and maintaining velocity in the mid-90s with his fastball--in Sunday's win over the Kansas City Royals.

So Pettitte is not likely to be worse than Hughes or Phelps, nor much better. And all three are better than league-average pitchers. That, once again, speaks to the strength the Yankee rotation possesses in numbers. Having three good bets to be above average starters, and only two slots for them, is the kind of problem teams simply don't have elsewhere around baseball.

Given how fragile pitchers are, it probably won't be a problem for long, anyway.

In the meantime, one of Phelps or Hughes is bullpen-bound, where he will become one of baseball's best long relievers. And Pettitte will pick up right where he left off.