After hiatus, Pettitte looks like his young self in return to Yankees

Publish date:

"I wasn't throwing changeups or snapping cutters off to my kids," he said. "I was throwing straight four-seamers right down the middle, trying to get them to hit it every time."

If not for the identity of the protagonist in this story, the premise of a Texas ranch hand and youth batting practice pitcher becoming one of the major league's best starters a year later sounds like a fanciful fairy tale slated for the big screen with a Disney credit.

In reality, Pettitte's absence in 2011 proved to be more hiatus than retirement. Since returning to the Yankees' rotation in mid-May, Pettitte has been very reminiscent of the pitcher he was before he left, most recently during a dazzling two-hit, 10-strikeout performance over 7 1/3 innings in a victory over the Rays on Tuesday night.

"You have a memory of what a guy was like," New York manager Joe Girardi said. "I don't think he would come back if he didn't feel like he could do it. You just kind of see, It's Andy."

Even though Pettitte wasn't facing stressful bases-loaded counts or commanding the strike zone -- and, as Girardi joked, wasn't trying to throw brushback pitches to his children -- he threw a sufficient volume of pitches to keep his arm in shape while managing not to lose the feel of his in-game arsenal.

"I didn't think it would come back so quick," said Pettitte, who won 240 games in 16 seasons, three with his hometown Astros and the rest with the Yankees, before walking away before the 2011 season. "All I remember is how I felt when I left, you know what I'm saying? When I left, I probably felt like I was as good as I had ever been. It's kind of weird for me to sit here and say that's what I thought I was going to be because it was at age 38 then and close to 40 obviously right now, but the feel for all my pitches has gotten better."

Since making his season debut on May 13, Pettitte has been New York's best starter. His 2.78 ERA is best on the staff and ranks 10th in the American League among pitchers who have thrown at least 35 innings and, if continued, would be the Expansion Era's sixth-best such season mark for pitchers in their age-40 season or older. (Pettitte turns 40 on June 15; seasons are counted by one's age on July 1.)

Pettitte's ERA+ -- which normalizes the statistic for league and ballpark -- is 138, which is 38 percent better than average. There have only been 13 seasons in major league history in which a 40-year-old pitcher has thrown enough innings to qualify for the ERA title while maintaining an ERA+ of at least 135, and Pettitte should be a qualifier so long as he remains healthy the rest of the season.

"When you've got a guy who's done it in the past, they can always do it again," Yankees vice president of player personnel Billy Connors said. "They never think that they can't do it.

"He really has been great. That's Andy. That's the makeup he's got and the desire he has when he goes on that mound. He's a winner, and he's always been a winner."

Pettitte has even gone deep into games, lasting at least seven innings in each of his four most recent outings while pounding the strike zone. He's thrown at least 70 or more strikes in those four starts, the fourth-longest streak in the majors behind only teammate CC Sabathia, the Rays' David Price and the Phillies' Cole Hamels.

Count Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild among the few who isn't too surprised by Pettitte's swift success.

"Just because of his work habits and having seen him in spring training before we even signed him," Rothschild said. "You could tell he had been throwing quite a bit. He was in real good shape and the delivery was good. The arm looked good.

"He's been throwing [his pitches] for over 20 years. I don't think it's something you forget right away. It probably could have gone either way for a lot of guys, but with him you had a pretty good feeling."

When Pettitte retired, he appeared to leave a lot on the table. The Yankees, reeling from not having signed Cliff Lee, badly wanted him to return. Moreover, the 6-foot-5 lefthander had been an All-Star the previous season, going 11-3 with a 3.28 ERA in 21 starts, though he was slowed in the second half by a groin injury.

Even at his retirement press conference in Feb. 2011, Pettitte sent somewhat mixed signals. When asked about the possibility of a return, he said, "You can never say never," only to later add, "I can tell you, I'd be embarrassed because I've done this," referring to the event in his honor.

But he joined the Yankees in Tampa to be a spring training instructor this year and before long he threw a covert bullpen session before team brass as a de facto tryout and then announced his return. Pettitte stayed in Tampa to build up his strength, especially his legs.

"Once he got his legs in shape," Connors said, "then his arm came on like gangbusters."

From there Pettitte made a series of starts up and down the east coast -- what Connors likened to a "barnstorming tour" -- from extended spring training in Tampa to a Triple-A game in Rochester, N.Y.

In his final two starts, in Double-A and Triple-A, Pettitte gave up nine runs (six earned) in 10 innings, but the club believed he was ready "even though the results might not have said that was the case," Rothschild said. "But that's not unusual. With most guys you send out on rehab, you can't look at the results. If you do, they'll never come back."

But vintage Pettitte has come back -- and his major league results did too.