Almost perfect

hairston_250_090109.jpgPreisler@jeromepreisler.com
You thought he’d probably do it. His manager and teammates thought he’d probably do it. And, in his heart, Andy Pettitte probably believed he was on his way to throwing a perfect game too.

“After the fifth inning, I kinda started thinking about it a little bit,” Pettitte would say with the characteristic understatement that’s one of his most endearing qualities.

This past July, the White Sox’s Mark Buehrle went the distance to throw the 18th perfect game in Major League baseball history. As Pettitte notched his first 20 outs over seven and a third innings, many of us felt a gaining sense that he was on his way to earning Number Nineteen.

Over the course of a baseball season, there are generally several bids at perfect games that are broken up late. Not all have the same inexorable feel that Pettitte’s did through most of Monday night in Baltimore. Maybe it was subjective — we root our hearts out for Andy Pettitte because he’s embodied the best of what it is to be Yankee for so long. Maybe it was also because Jerry Hairston Jr.’s excellent barehanded play on a slow-rolling groundball in the sixth inning made us think that was the one that could have set things awry.

Unfortunately it didn’t happen for Pettitte. With two outs in the seventh inning, Hairston, who’d made that great play just one inning earlier, bobbled a groundball to third and ended his bid at perfection.

Pettitte’s handling of the situation may tell more about him than we might have learned had he succeeded. After the Hairston error, he gave up a single to Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis, then gathered himself and went on to close out the frame with a groundout to short, preserving the Yankees’ 5-0 lead. An inning later, no longer focused on preserving his no-hitter, he surrendered a leadoff homer to Melvin Mora, but went on to elicit two strikeouts and a groundout, ending his night with eight innings of one-run ball. Final score, 5-1 Yanks.

Pettitte never took his mind off what was most important, never let the game get away from him. And in the clubhouse afterward, he noticed Hairston walking with his “head down” and consoled him — joking, as Hairston would reveal, “that he didn’t want to have to throw nine innings anyway.”

In a way the almost perfect game is emblematic of Pettitte’s career. A homegrown mainstay of four World Championship Yankee teams — and Joe Torre’s perennial stopper — the humble Pettitte has long lived in the shadow of pitchers with more out-front personalities or gaudier career numbers. In 2003, after a 21-win season in which he threw to a 4.02 ERA and went on to a tremendous postseason, the Yankees botched their contract negotiations with the left-hander and let him slip away to the Houston Astros for three years. Pettitte earned $31.5 million from the Astros. What’s often forgotten is that the Red Sox were prepared to pay him more for a longer-term contract — some reports had the sum exceeding $50 million. Pettitte canceled out on a scheduled tour of Fenway Park and Boston, however, eschewing the Sox’s overtures because he knew he could never pitch for the Yanks’ archrival.

Last season, Pettitte played through a shoulder injury because he and Mike Mussina were the last men standing in a decimated Yankee rotation. Even as the team’s playoff chances completely evaporated in August and September, he continued to pitch rather than be put on the disabled list. Coming off that gritty second half, Pettitte was finally made a belated take-it-or-leave-it offer that paid him $5.5 million in guaranteed money and an additional $6.5 in performance incentives. This was down from the $16 million guaranteed salary he earned in 2008. The rationale was that he was a dispensable fifth starter in a rotation that would include CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Chien-Ming Wang and Joba Chamberlain.

Pettitte accepted the deal because he wanted to go on pitching and could not see himself as anything but a Yankee. Now well on his way to earning his incentives, he has become the second-best pitcher in the Yankees’ rotation after Sabathia, the team’s ace, with Wang a nonfactor in the season. If the Yankees reach the playoffs this year, and merit alone predicated the order of the postseason rotation, Pettitte would start Game Two of the ALDS. But because Joe Girardi may want to break up his two left-handed hurlers, and more so because Pettitte will likely again be considered the stopper, we can expect him to start a pivotal Game Three.

In his fifteenth season as a Major League player — a season when he was signed, if not quite as an afterthought, then as a nonessential component — Andy Pettitte is once more finding himself absolutely essential to the Yankees postseason aspirations.

Pettitte isn’t the greatest pitcher ever to wear pinstripes. There’s barely a chance he will have a plaque in Cooperstown. But in imperfection, he is the perfect pitcher to capture the lasting respect and affection of Yankee fans.

Jeter Meter
As of Monday night, Derek Jeter’s 2009 batting average is .334 with an .880 OPS (on-base and slugging percentages). He has hit 17 home runs and stolen 23 bases. His improved fielding has been written about extensively, as is the fact that he is primed to surpass Lou Gehrig’s all-time Yankee hit record (2,721).

And he is increasingly becoming a prime candidate for season’s American League MVP.

Before this season, though, we were mostly reading analysis and commentary speculating about how the Yankees were going to deal with a fading Jeter. Should they re-sign him after his current contract expires? Trade him preemptively? Or perhaps move him to the outfield — or somewhere else. Anywhere but the shortstop position. Jeter was a defensive liability, we read. And his days as an offensive force were over. What was left, according to various statistical breakdowns and keen scouting observations, was a substandard defensive shortstop and Punch-and-Judy singles hitter.

The New York Post‘s Joel Sherman was far from alone in raising that cry, but he did it with the singular bombastic cruelty that’s become his career trademark.

In his February 6, 2009 column for the Post (Jeter’s Next Contract Will Be Mother of All Yankee Flaps), Sherman argued that “kowtowing to Jeter’s legacy by paying him lavishly and keeping him at short means tying yourself to a late-30s icon well beyond his expiration date.”

Sherman went on to type this:

jeter_250_090109.jpg“Jeter’s offense already is trending the wrong way. Over the last three seasons, his OPS has gone from .900 to .840 to .771; his homers from 14 to 12 to 11; his steals from 34 to 15 to 11. What do you think his offense will look like in two years?

And how about his defense? Every statistical evaluation shows Jeter’s range to consistently be among the Majors’ worst, and the scouting community pretty much confirms that.

By 2011, the Yanks could have either Jeter or just his future plaque at Monument Park play short; they will have about the same range.”

The above is an example of how little the analysts, commentators and stat geeks know about baseball, and why we need to keep level heads, remain patient, and be careful about who we consider reliable experts.

I believe that when Jeter’s contra
ct is up he will re-sign with the Yankees for the remainder of his career. To paraphrase Girardi, he will remain shortstop as long as he is willing and able to play the position. And when he is no longer able, Jeter and the Yankees will decide what is best for the team.

Jeter has always handled every facet of his professional life in exemplary fashion. There is nothing to indicate he won’t handle its waning days, whenever they may come, with equal style.

Joba Blabber

I’ve said nothing here about the latest contortion of the Joba Rules because there’s really very little worth saying. The Yankees long ago committed to making Chamberlain a starting pitcher. In the interests of protecting his arm from injury, they determined that would not throw more than a certain number of innings — said to be 160 — this season. And they have stuck to their plan.

The penultimate (so far) version of the rules, which provided extra days’ rest between starts, clearly wasn’t working for Chamberlain. His rhythm was off, his performances were mediocre. So the Yanks’ modified their plan — and deserve credit for that.

I don’t know if Chamberlain pitching a truncated number of innings every five days will work any better than having him pitch on a staggered schedule with long layoffs between starts. The truth is nobody knows, including the Yankees, who are attempting something one else has done in my mind — that is, trying, at nearly all cost, to protect the career longevity of a prized young player while keeping him integral to a pennant race and possible run for the World Championship.

Enough Joba blabber, folks. The Yanks are doing what they feel they must do with him. We can praise or pillory them come November after we’ve seen how things shake out.

6 Comments

JP, your article covers three good areas for me, the positive comments on Andy and Derek(i agree) and how it is that so many “experts”, know the answers. Lets be patient concerning Jaba
Thanks for writing.

Always nice to hear these guys being given their due, rather than being persistently overlooked or underrated. Especially where Pettitte is concerned, as he has always been among my favorite players and has never quite enjoyed the level of respect and recognition he deserves. Couldn’t agree more on the Joba Rules. Let’s just be patient and see how things pan out. After all, the chatter about Jeter early in the season was clearly way off base and without merit.

Jerome, I’m so glad you’re back! I do enjoy reading your perspective on things. Andy ~ I SO wanted him to have a perfect game. I was so nervous for him I had to pace every once in a while. I couldn’t believe that he would miss the perfect game because of an error (I did feel badly for Hairsten ~ I think I’d rather be Andy in that situation than Hairsten). Once again, Andy showed his amazing humility & character. If the Hall of Fame had a category for character & dependibility, Andy would be a shoe-in. Derek ~ I keep hearing about his “poor defense” in the past. What am I missing???? In my opinion, he has always been very good on defense . . . maybe not as good as this season but still quite good. I keep hearing commentary how he has always been “adequate”. Of course, at the beginning of this season, as well as last season, the commentators on Sport’s Radio were discussing the demise of Mariano. Quite a “demise” I’d say! They love opportunities to develop & discuss bad news! (obviously, not all of them.)

JP…enjoyed your latest blog. Remember when you wrote about Sox fans who where their hats around NYC???
Look who was ranting about seeing so many NYY caps around Boston…LOL is all I can say.
http://www.boston.com/sports/baseball/redsox/extras/extra_bases/2009/09/rant_wear_your.html

JP…enjoyed your latest blog. Remember when you wrote about Sox fans who where their hats around NYC???
Look who was ranting about seeing so many NYY caps around Boston…LOL is all I can say.
http://www.boston.com/sports/baseball/redsox/extras/extra_bases/2009/09/rant_wear_your.html

Val . . . very funny clip. The Nation is clearly in a state of profound angst.

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