What Happens if Andy Pettitte Falters During his MLB Comeback?

Today marks the long anticipated return of New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte, who has done his best Michael Jordan impersonation by retiring then un-retiring. His first start back is conveniently against the weakest hitting team in baseball, the Seattle Mariners. They are near the bottom of all the slash categories and near the top in strikeouts.

The Mariners are a good place to start for anybody, but especially a veteran stalwart coming off a year and a half absence and whose stuff in several minor league starts was not all that impressive.

Bet Ivan Nova wishes he were getting the ball today.

Coming back from a long absence is not easy. Some examples of success were Michael Vick’s return after missing two full seasons due to jail time, and running back Paul Hornung’s comeback was successful after he and Alex Karras were suspended for the entire 1963 NFL season for betting on football games. Both cemented their HOF credentials after they returned. Jordan’s comeback to the NBA was good after his stint as a baseball player. It goes to show what a tough sport baseball really is when the best athlete in the world at the time couldn’t cut it on the diamond.

And in baseball there were dozens of former players like Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller and others who successfully came back to the game after serving for years overseas in World War II.

But all of those players weren’t 40 years old.

Pettitte’s last game in pinstripes was in the 2010 ALCS in a Game Four start against the Texas Rangers.  He allowed two runs on five hits over seven innings, suffering the loss in an 8-0 Rangers win. The Rangers were only up 2-0 entering the 9th inning but the Yankee bullpen couldn’t hold them, with David Robertson allowing five runs. It got so bad that Sergio Mitre even pitched!

Pettitte allowed a two-run home run to Josh Hamilton and that was it.

It was a sturdy performance by Andy, and he kept the Rangers hitters off balance all night, mixing his curve and cutter in and out, but rarely breaking 90 MPH.

Now after that long layoff, reports had Pettitte topping out at 87 MPH during his comeback starts, with his fastball generally in the 83-85 range. That might not get it done against major league hitters, especially if he isn’t locating very well. Pettitte hasn’t exactly had good performances against the minor league hitters he has faced, getting knocked around much more as his pitch counts were rising.

His last start a week ago saw him allow eight hits in five innings, allowing five runs, three earned. And his only Double-A start saw Pettitte also allow three earned runs with seven hits in five innings. But strangely, expectations are better for Pettitte while facing much better hitters.

I think all of us probably kind of expect that we’re going to see Andy Pettite (sic), what we’re used to seeing,” Girardi said. “A guy that grinds out starts. That has the ability to get double plays. That doesn’t panic out there. I think you can only go back on what you’ve seen from him. It’s not like he’s trying to reinvent himself. I think his stuff is going to be pretty similar to what he had when he walked away in 2010. That’s kind of what I feel. Will I be right? I hope so, but we’ll find out.”

But what if Pettitte isn’t that guy again, the guy who was 11-3, 3.28 ERA his final season? What if the major league hitters get fat pitches over the middle of the plate, and flat cutters with no bite like the 2012 minor league hitters were seeing? What if Pettitte allows five earned runs today in 2 2/3 innings? It would be easy to demote Phil Hughes back to the pen or David Phelps back to Triple-A if the kids were really bad, but would it be easy to give up on a Yankee icon?

GM Brian Cashman and Girardi will definitely give Andy another start or three, likely many more as it seems his spot in the rotation now is secure.

But what if that type of performance continues where he was the way Hughes started the season, or God forbid, the way Freddy Garcia started? Start after start of getting knocked around, with a good performance here and there for effect? Does Andy get the benefit of the doubt because he is a veteran with 240 career wins?

If Andy falters, my feeling is that Girardi will give Andy as many starts to “right the ship” and “find his stuff” all to the detriment of the Yankee bullpen and record.

When all the Pettitte comeback talk was on back in February, I wrote that the Yankees should be doing this for Pettitte’s October experience. I offered they Yankees should let Pettitte work in slowly, getting in to some game after the All-Star break and working towards a post season start. The team needs to find out how Nova would do in his second season, they needed to find out if Hughes can become the starter everyone expected.

Then Michael Pineda got hurt, Garcia bombed and Hughes was roughed up in his early starts. All hell broke loose in Yankee-land and Pettitte’s time frame was pushed up.

It is not like Hughes has continued his decline or Phelps (2 GS, 8.2 IP, 2 ER, 8 Ks, 4 BB) has been terrible in his time on the mound. These kids have been pretty good so far. Although it is not been reported yet (Girardi never says any concrete until after it happens), but it is likely Phelps will go back to the bullpen, or maybe even Triple-A to “get his innings up” similar to how Eduardo Nunez was sent down to “play SS full-time.”

Pettitte was brought back for his experience but now he is “needed” to solidify what was once perceived to be a formidable rotation. I still believe the rotation is fine as it is, and gives the Yankee kids like Phelps some much needed major league starting experience.

I hope Pettitte does well and helps lead the Yankees to the post season. But the odds are not great for similar success he had in 2010, and if he does not perform well, things could get ugly quickly for the Yankees and one of their icons.

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