Andy Pettitte and the Van Doren Gene
There’s a great line in the movie Quiz Show … well, there are a lot of great lines in Quiz Show, but the one I think of now is when investigator Dick Goodwin delivers a subpoena to the fraudulent but thoroughly likable Charles Van Doren. Goodwin has figured out that Van Doren, who had gained nationwide fame as a quiz show contestant on Twenty One, was given the answers in advance. He had also wanted to keep Van Doren out of the investigation, in part because he liked Van Doren. Then Van Doren double-crossed him, pleaded his innocence publicly, and Goodwin had no choice but to bring out the subpoena.
“I can’t decide if you think too much of me or too little,” Van Doren says.
“Charlie,” Goodwin says, “I want to think the best of you. Everybody does.”
There are some people in life -- in sports, in entertainment, in politics, in your personal world -- who just fit that line. Sometimes they are called “Teflon,” as if bad things just slip off them, but I don’t think that’s quite the image I see. It’s a deeper thing with some people -- they have this certain kind of charisma that inspires other to think the best of them. We give them the benefit of the doubt. We emphasize their virtues and overlook their deficiencies. We see in them what we want to see.
This, I think, was what made the Bert Blyleven-Jack Morris Hall of Fame discussion so interesting. The statistics made it abundantly clear that Blyleven was not just a better pitcher than Morris but light years better. But Blyleven just doesn’t have the Van Doren Gene … and Morris does. And so the debate over which pitcher was better raged on; in some quarters it rages on still. People don’t just see Morris as a Hall of Famer. They WANT to see Morris as a Hall of Famer.
So Morris’ unassuming 3.90 ERA, which would normally be a Hall of Fame disqualifier (no pitcher with that high an ERA is in the Hall) has been sheltered inside a “Runs did not matter to Morris, winning did” blanket. His lack of a Cy Young Award -- which was used to bludgeon Blyleven repeatedly, not to mention Tommy John and Jim Kaat and Luis Tiant and numerous others -- was refashioned as an admirable “individual awards never meant anything to Morris” quality. His 1.78 strikeout to walk ratio -- which is 161st among pitchers with 2,000-plus innings -- has been buried well below his 175 complete games and the number of Opening Days he started and his Game 7 performance in the 1991 World Series and other cheerier topics.
I’m not arguing Morris here -- done that enough already -- but merely making the point that people want to think the best of him … and if hey did not he would have gotten 3.1% of the ballot first time out and disappeared from the ballot and the conversation. Instead, he might get inducted into the Hall of Fame next year.
Andy Pettitte, it seems to me, has the Van Doren Gene. He might have two of them.
Pettitte won his 250th game the other day -- a fine achievement, even for those of us who have no use for the pitcher win statistic -- and so the Hall of Fame discussion cranked up again. That’s natural. But I will say that Mike Mussina was a better pitcher than Andy Pettitte and I haven’t heard one-tenth the Hall of Fame conversation about him. Maybe people are having those Mussina arguments and I’m just not hearing them. I think David Cone was also a better pitcher than Pettitte, and he got 21 votes before falling off the ballot. I think Curt Schilling was a much better pitcher than Pettitte, and he got a disappointing 38.8% of the ballot his first year.
But that’s the thing about Pettitte. You want to think the best of him. Everybody does. It comes up again and again. For instance, you have undoubtedly heard over and over that Andy Pettitte is a great postseason pitcher. The reputation is so entrenched that when some people see Pettitte’s name it is literally the first thing they think. The reputation is that when October comes around, Andy Pettitte transforms himself from good pitcher into Grittyman -- he turns up the craftiness knob, takes a few gutsy pills, does some gamer calisthenics and pitches above himself.
So, it’s quite a shock when the statistics show that Andy Pettitte is EXACTLY the same pitcher in the postseason that he is in the regular season. I mean, considering the math, it’s almost impossible for these numbers to be closer.
Pettitte during season: .633 win pct., 3.85 ERA, 2.37 strikeout to walk.
Pettitte during postseason: .633 win pct. 3.81 ERA, 2.41 strikeout to walk.
We want to think the best of him. Everybody does. People seem to see Pettitte as a generally honest and minor character in baseball’s PED scandal. Ask a moderate baseball fan who was named in the Mitchell Report -- Sammy Sosa or Andy Pettitte? I’m thinking most will say Sosa, which is the wrong answer. Ask any baseball fan which pitcher denied using HGH, admitted using only twice but never more, admitted later than he actually used it another time, and I suspect Pettitte will not be the first guess.
And then there’s the Hall of Fame. Pettitte certainly has a Hall of Fame case. He has pitched almost 3,200 innings with a 117 ERA+, which is pretty strong. He has had a couple of superior years -- in 1997, for instance, he was brilliant (18-7, 2.88 ERA, just 7 homers allowed, 8.4 WAR). He was almost as good in 2005 in Houston. He also has thrown more postseason innings than any pitcher ever, which is a tribute to his durability, his consistency and the good fortune of playing for many good teams. It’s an interesting Hall of Fame case.
But, here’s the thing: There are numerous pitchers who are not in the Hall of Fame, who probably won’t ever go to the Hall of Fame, who were better pitchers than Andy Pettitte. I don’t see how you can look at Kevin Brown and Andy Pettitte and determine that Pettitte was the better pitcher. They threw almost the exact same number of innings, Brown’s ERA is more than a half run better, he had fewer walks, more strikeouts and allowed many fewer home runs. Brown threw 17 shutouts. Pettitte -- and this is pretty astonishing -- threw four. You can throw around intangibles if you like, sprinkle in some potstseason spice, but Brown was simply a better pitcher than Pettitte. And he dropped off the ballot after one year.
I think David Cone was a better pitcher than Pettitte. He threw about 300 fewer innings, but he too had a lower ERA, better overall numbers, and he had a better peak -- he did win a deserved Cy Young Award and should have been in the running two or three other times. He also had some postseason heroics.
Then there are quite a few other guys … like Ron Guidry and Bill Pierce and Dave Stieb and Luis Tiant and Rick Reuschel and Tommy John and Jim Kaat who are similar to Pettitte in various ways but have been judged as non-Hall of Famers. Yes, there are also Hall of Famers who have had somewhat similar careers to Pettitte -- Eppa Rixey, Ted Lyons, and so on. But I don’t that you would be want to pin a Hall of Fame case around those comps.
In any case, we won’t actually need to talk about Pettitte’s Hall of Fame for at least five years, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes the next Jack Morris -- someone who will spark significant arguments every year. There are just certain people like that.