The news of Andy Pettitte’s return to the Yankees came in a blur in March, which was followed by an assortment of questions. Why was he coming back? Who would he replace in the already packed rotation? When would he be ready to pitch? How good could he be?
After the hype around the Yankees subsided, it was replaced by hope. The Yankees hoped that Pettitte would prove that he could be an effective starter again. There were dozens of questions about Pettitte’s return after not pitching in 2011, but only one really mattered: Could Pettitte pitch as well as he did in 2010?
So far, Pettitte has answered that vital question in a resounding fashion. He has actually been better than he was in his last full Major League season. Pettitte looked and performed like a confident pitcher who was in complete control as he dominated the Tampa Bay Rays in a 7-0 victory on Tuesday night. He allowed two hits and struck out 10 in seven-and-one-third scoreless innings.
“I’ve been real happy with my command and the feel of all my pitches since I came back,” Pettitte said. “I didn’t think that it would come back so quick.”
It has. For that, the Yankees are grateful. Pettitte’s renaissance of a return is interesting for multiple reasons. The Yankees, who had an erratic rotation for a chunk of the season, have needed his solid outings to help vault them to within a half-game of first place. Pettitte’s presence, soothing when he is counseling teammates and animated when he is on the mound, has also been important. Catcher Russell Martin mentioned how Pettitte, the soon-to-be 40-year old, gives the Yankees a different type of energy.
But what is most interesting to me about the Petttitte of 2012 is that we are seeing a slightly different pitcher. Yes, Pettitte still holds his glove in front of his face as if his main goal is to make sure hitters can only see his eyes. Yes, Pettitte still talks to himself, a batter-by-batter scolding of sorts. Yes, Pettitte is still intense, a pitcher who gets fiery after an inning-ending double play ball.
Yet Pettitte is different, too. Through Pettitte first five starts, he is 3-2 with a 2.78 earned run average and is averaging 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings. In fact, Pettitte’s 32 strikeouts across his first five starts are the most strikeouts he’s ever had in the first five starts of a season. In addition, according to Fangraphs.com, Pettitte has a groundball percentage of 57.9, the best of his career. When a pitcher collects more strikeouts and more groundballs, positive results should follow.
Now Pettitte has always been a pitcher who succeeded because of a nasty cut fastball that bore in on the hands of right-handed batters. Pettitte still has that cutter and has used it consistently in three of his five starts. After receiving some bullpen advice from Larry Rothschild, the pitching coach, Pettitte also made a mechanical adjustment with his two-seam fastball and used it more often against the Rays. But Pettitte has also added a wrinkle to his repertory this season by throwing a nifty slider, a pitch that is a cousin to the cutter.
“A cutter is just a harder slider,” said David Cone.
While Pettitte has continually referred to his “cutter” this season, the pitch that he is throwing in the 80 mile per hour range definitely behaves more like a slider. The slider, which Pettitte used for five of his 10 strikeouts on Tuesday, has a bigger break than the cutter and has flummoxed hitters. In Pettitte’s start against the Royals, seven of his eight strikeouts came on sliders.
However Pettitte is describing his pitches, they are working superbly. The Yankees, who hoped that Pettitte would be a linchpin in the rotation, are now convinced that he is. Pettitte’s excellent starts have prompted a new question: “Can he be a number two starter in October?” If the Yankees get to the postseason and Pettitte stays healthy, the answer is “yes.”
Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES