The Invincible Pettitte and Lee

If you hate me or my writing, my anti-traditionalism or my affinity for newfangled statistics, you should be happy to know that at eight o’clock tonight I will be one of the most miserable people in New York. Because the majority of my grad school classes run from 7-9pm, I will be missing the first hour of Games 3 and 4 in the ALCS. I have two strategies to combat this horrific coincidence, neither of which will make anything better at all. First, I will look around the classroom for other students whose faces are just as contorted in displeasure as mine will be. Surely I will find someone with whom to exchange a despairing wince (I won’t, because my school is something like 98% female. Maybe that makes me a pig, but I’m pretty sure there are no serious baseball fans in my classes). When that fails, I will pull out my BlackBerry and hit “refresh” one thousand times until class ends, when I will scamper to the nearest television for what will probably be disappointing news.

Yes, “disappointing.” The Yankees face Cliff Lee tonight, a man who has transformed himself into one of the elite pitchers in baseball. He will probably pitch very well. But he is not invincible, as most of the newspapers and radio shows would have you believe. Lee pitched terribly in August and has occasionally pitched poorly in other months. Because pitching is, you know, difficult and unpredictable. If Roy Halladay can give up four runs to the Giants after no-hitting the Reds a week earlier, that means Lee can be beaten too, even if we are being told he is unbeatable.

More perplexing than the “Lee is unbeatable” narrative is its “Andy Pettitte is the clutchiest thing to ever walk the earth” counterpart. Lee has called Pettitte “the best postseason pitcher of all-time“, an errant notion that I can condone because Lee a professional baseball player and not a professional analyst. But it’s not just Lee who thinks this. Much of the local sports media – likely on account of Pettitte’s 19 playoff wins and his modest, likable personality – is echoing the idea that October is under his dominion.

Lost in this mythologizing is the fact that Pettitte pitches almost exactly the same in the playoffs as he does in the regular season. His postseason ERA is one one-hundredth of a run lower than his regular season ERA. He has allowed hits at exactly the same rate. His playoff home run rate is higher than his regular season’s. He strikes out fewer batters in October but walks fewer too, making his K/BB ratio almost exactly the same as in the regular season. Look at the numbers for yourself. Pettitte doesn’t step it up in October. It’s a myth.

Tonight, one of these myths will probably be crushed. I’m rooting for Lee’s, but even as a Yankee fan, the debunking of Pettitte’s playoff invincibility would be an acceptable silver lining in the long term.

 

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