On Saturday afternoon, Yankees lefthander and franchise fixture Andy Pettitte allowed only one run in seven and a third innings against the Seattle Mariners. That wasn't anything new for him; Pettitte has been pitching deep into games and shutting down opposing hitters for almost twenty years now -- he made his major league debut for the Yankees back on April 29th, 1995, and except for a pit stop in Houston during the early part of the last decade he's been with New York ever since.
What made Saturday important was that with the Yankees' three runs scored backing him and the New York pen, headlined by legendary closer Mariano Rivera, shutting the door behind him, Pettitte earned his 250th career win, giving him the 47th most wins all time, just one behind old St. Louis great Bob Gibson. By the end of the season, in fact, it's entirely possible he'll have leapfrogged not only Gibson, but Al Spalding, Carl Hubbell, Red Faber and a guy named Jack Morris. At 260 wins, Ted Lyons (currently 42nd on the career wins leaderboard) is probably out of Pettitte's reach unless he comes back for another season. His contract expires at the end of the season, but the pitcher himself hasn't said anything one way or another -- and even if he had, Pettitte's been wrong about being ready to walk away from the game before.
Regarding that, it does feel like just yesterday we were laughing about Pettitte's return, looking at the season WAR totals for pitchers coming back to baseball after a year off in their early 40's and finding nothing much promising for Pettitte's chances. He put the lie to that pretty quickly, throwing 58.2 innings of 3.22 ERA ball before a Casey Kotchman comebacker sent him to the disabled list for much of last season, though he did return in September for three more starts to get that ERA down to 2.87 on the year. Pettitte's 2012 remains one of the more impressive seasons by a 40-year-old starting pitcher, period, even with the missed time. Never mind that the three guys who put up better ERAs -- Nolan Ryan in 1987, Sal Maglie in 1957, and Randy Johnson in 2004 -- had the benefit of playing at age 39.
Two of those three guys are or will be Hall of Famers, and it's fair at this point in Pettitte's long and storied career to start thinking about how he'll be remembered, even though he's still playing (the third guy, Sal Maglie, didn't really get his shot to be a major league regular until age 33 with the then-New York Giants, and still put together 1723 career innings of 3.15 ERA ball, which is impressive in and of itself).
It's especially interesting to put him up next to one of the pitchers he just passed on the career wins leaderboard, Jack Morris, a current Hall of Fame cause célèbre. Pettitte has pitched six hundred fewer innings of baseball than Morris did in his 18 years in the majors (3192 IP to 3824 IP, though obviously Pettitte is still able to narrow that gap), and his career ERA is only a tick lower at 3.85 to Morris's 3.90. It's important to remember, however, the times that both men pitched in: while Morris's career 3.90 ERA is only good for a 105 ERA+ (meaning that, adjusted for park and era, Morris had an ERA 5 percent better than an average pitcher), Pettitte's 3.85 ERA is a 117 ERA+. Why? It's simple: Morris pitched in the eighties, and Pettitte pitched in the nineties, and offenses were a lot better at scoring runs in the nineties. Neither man ever won a Cy Young Award.
The majority of the weight behind Morris's Hall of Fame case is due to his postseason record or, more honestly, his 10-inning complete game shutout of the Atlanta Braves in Game 7 the 1991 World Series. The thing is, though, that if you're going to build a Hall of Fame case around postseason success, you don't do it with for Jack Morris. You do it for Andy Pettitte.
Sure, Pettitte doesn't have that complete game shutout (but for a baserunning error by Lonnie Smith, neither would Morris), but so far in his career he's pitched three times as many postseason innings to the same postseason ERA (3.81 to Morris's 3.80) in a much more difficult era to succeed as a pitcher, and has the hardware to back it up.
Morris's fate with the writers will be decided this year -- either he's in, or he's off the ballot and has to get in through the Veterans' Committee -- but whichever way it goes, it's doubtful any writers will flock to Pettitte's banner in the same manner once his career is over. Pettitte not only has the stigma of playing on the early 2000s Houston Astros attached to his name and record -- see how well that's working out for Jeff Bagwell so far? -- but has been more substantially connected to steroids and performance-enhancing drugs by sharing a strength and training coach with his friend Roger Clemens, and was supposedly named in a 2006 affidavit by relief pitcher Jason Grimsley as a player who received PEDs from the same people from whom Grimsley received his. When the names in the affidavit were revealed, neither Pettitte nor Clemens appeared among them, but by 2008 Pettitte had admitted to using human growth hormone in 2002 and 2004 to come back more quickly from injury, and apologized to Astros and Yankees fans in a press conference.
As Mark McGwire's already discovered, no matter how many nails are already in the coffin of a player's Hall of Fame case -- and for Pettitte, he's got his lack of Cy Young Awards and relatively high ERA already working against him -- admitting to using performance-enhancing drugs is the final one. It doesn't particularly matter that Pettitte insisted he was using them to come back from injury as opposed to improving his performance on the mound. An admission is an admission, and guys have seen their shots at the Hall stall out for far less grave sins.
So as nice as Saturday was for the Pettitte family (not only did Andy get his 250th win, but his son Josh was selected by the Yankees in the lower rounds of the draft as a tribute to all that Pettitte and his family have done for the team, on and off the field), it's unlikely that it substantially improves his chance at enshrinement in Cooperstown. With the way things have been going lately with the Hall, though, that's a lot less of a shame than it used to be, and he won't be alone on the outside looking in. And in all honesty, as long as Andy Pettitte keeps showing up in the postseason like he has in years past, New York Yankees fans will let all that other stuff sort itself out.