In starting pitchers of 25 years ago, a reasonably lofty but still plausible goal was to win the decision in half of their starts. This would be the mark of a pitcher who was both consistently effective and durable. And if he personally won half of his starts, obviously his team was routinely being given a chance to win when he pitched.
This may be an imperfect measurement of pitching value, especially now. We know that victories and defeats are not totally in the hands of the pitchers. Particularly now, with starting pitchers being asked in many cases to pitch six innings instead of nine, starters will be involved in fewer decisions, up or down.
But Pettitte is one of the relatively few pitchers in the contemporary game who approaches this standard. His remarkable career, setting a standard for consistency, just became more remarkable Friday night, as Pettitte, in his second start back from retirement, pitched the New York Yankees to a 4-0 Interleague victory over the Cincinnati Reds.
With Friday night's victory, Pettitte has won 241 of his 481 Major League starts, or 50 percent. Among active pitchers with at least 250 career starts, this is the second-best percentage, behind only Philadelphia's Roy Halladay at 53 percent. (CC Sabathia, another Yankees model of consistency, ranks third, winning 49.86 percent of his starts.)
The argument against this statistic is that Pettitte was helped immeasurably by pitching for the Yankees, a high-scoring and highly successful team, for the vast majority of his career. That's one way of viewing this relationship. The other way is to suggest that the Yankees have been helped immeasurably by having Pettitte pitch for them in 14 of his 17 big league seasons.
One way or another, with the Yankees winning five World Series championships while Pettitte has been pitching for them this has been a mutually beneficial situation.
On Friday night, Pettitte's value was reinforced. With the Yankees on a three-game losing streak, during which they had scored a total of four runs, what was needed was a strong starting performance. Pettitte produced that and more, throwing eight shutout innings, allowing only four hits and one walk while striking out nine.
Pettitte, less than a month short of his 40th birthday, is suffering from neither rust nor age. Manager Joe Girardi convincingly made the argument that Pettitte has had no decrease in ability from the level of effectiveness he had prior to his one-season retirement. Beyond that, because Pettitte now has a greater variety of effective pitches, Girardi said that Pettitte was a better pitcher than he was during his first run of considerable success with the Yankees, in the late 1990s.
"He's added the back-door cutter, the sinker, more changeups," Girardi said. "He's evolved as a pitcher. But as far as three or four years ago, to me it's the same guy.
"He's got more weapons to go to. When I caught him, years and years ago, it was fastball, cutter and curveball. He had a changeup, but he just didn't throw it much. He didn't back-door his cutter, and he didn't really throw a sinker. He's got so many more weapons to go to [now], hitters can't sit necessarily on the ball coming in to them all the time. They can't do that. So I think he is better."
The evidence for that statement was here in this game. This was Pettitte's first career start with at least eight scoreless innings with four hits or fewer and nine or more strikeouts. For Pettitte himself, the success was more basic than that.
"It was good to get into a good rhythm, feel good with all my stuff and just give us a good start," he said.
This was Pettitte's first regular-season victory since July 8, 2010. He was limited by injury to 21 starts that season.
"It's like I tell the young guys," Pettitte said with a smile. "Those big league W's are precious."
Those big league W's are precious. But with Pettitte, they also occur with striking regularity, almost exactly in 50 percent of his starts. Yes, he has been aided considerably in producing this record by pitching for the Yankees. But as his work Friday night demonstrated once again, for the Yankees and Pettitte, this has always been a two-way street.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less