TAMPA - One year ago, Andy Pettitte came to Spring Training as a guest instructor. As Pettitte stood near the first base dugout at Steinbrenner Field and discussed his new role, he looked as athletic as ever. Pettitte looked like someone who could still pitch. Soon, very soon, we all learned that he could.
That gig as an instructor didn't last too long for Pettitte. He came out of retirement about three weeks later to pitch for the Yankees and he is back again in 2013. When Pettitte pitched in 2012, which was only for 75 1/3 innings because of a broken fibula, he was very good. This season, Pettitte expects to be just as reliable.
For Pettitte, being a 40-year old pitcher trumps being a 30-year old pitcher since he suggested that he is a better pitcher than he was a decade ago. Pettitte, who is excited about the baseball detour that took him from retired instructor to dependable starting pitcher (again) has lofty goals. He stressed that he wants to stay healthy, make each of his starts and also log at least 200 innings.
"Heck, I want to win 20 games," Pettitte added. "That's what I want."
As long as Pettitte avoids injuries, the Yankees trust that he will be effective. He was 5-4 with a 2.87 earned run average and averaged 8.2 strikeouts and 2.5 walks per nine innings last year, excellent statistics for a left-hander who was a spectator throughout 2011. Pettitte was honest about how much the Yankees need him stay on the mound and produce. The same is true for CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, the two starters that precede him in the rotation, and Phil Hughes, who follows him and who already has a stiff upper back this spring.
"It's a big responsibility," Pettitte said. "I want to uphold that responsibility."
Watching the animated Pettitte pitch can be entertaining. He scolds himself on the mound, essentially talking himself through innings. One of Pettitte's former catchers said he sometimes had to suppress laughter when he heard Pettitte's self-criticism about throwing a poor pitch.
While Pettitte still has a solid repertoire, his intelligence and intensity help make him an elite pitcher. According to fangraphs.com, Pettitte's fastball averaged 87.8 miles per hour last season. He doesn't overpower hitters. He outwits them. Pettitte, who used his nasty cutter to stifle hitters for so many years, now throws a slider that has a bigger break than the cutter. The slider is the cousin to the cutter and Pettitte's reliance on it shows how he has evolved.
On a sunny morning in February of 2012, Pettitte, the instructor, joked about how he planned to help Ron Guidry, a fellow instructor, catch baseballs during pitcher's fielding practice. But, when Pettitte was asked if he could still pitch, he said, "I'm sure I could." Soon, Pettitte proved that he could. In 2013, the Yankees need Pettitte to keep proving that.
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