December 11, 2003
Out goes Pettitte, in comes Brown
Soon after Andy Pettitte left the Yankees to sign a three-year deal with the Houston Astros yesterday afternoon, New York reportedly agreed to a deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers that would bring Kevin Brown to New York.
As you may remember, when I did my gigantic, three-part preview of this off-season's free agents, I identified Pettitte as the guy I felt was the top starting pitcher on the market. The theory being that his strikeout rate and walk rate were both better than the rates of the two biggest names on the market, Bartolo Colon and Kevin Millwood. In addition to that, Pettitte has been hurt quite a bit by the sub par defense he has had behind him over the past several years, with the infield defense being particularly bad and particularly important to Pettitte, who is a ground ball pitcher.
Here is some of what I said about Pettitte in that free agent preview:
"Andy Pettitte, with his extreme ground ball tendencies and solid strikeout, walk and home run numbers, is someone who could see his numbers improve dramatically if given a chance to pitch with a good or even average defense behind him.
The difference between having a good middle infield behind him and the combo he has had of late could easily mean 20+ fewer hits allowed over the course of a season, and that is the sort of thing that could drop someone's ERA from 4.02 into the mid-3.00s.
Pettitte has been a work-horse throughout his career, pitching 200+ innings in six of the last eight seasons. His strikeout rates over the last three years are significantly improved over his early-career numbers, and his control is dramatically better than it was years ago. I would love to sign him up to a three-year deal, stick him on a team with a solid defense and watch him rack up those ground ball outs. I could see him providing a team with 600+ innings with a 3.50-3.75 ERA over the next three years, and I think he will prove to be a bargain when compared to Colon and Millwood."
Just as I said I'd love to do, the Astros signed Pettitte to a three-year deal worth $31.5 million. Meanwhile, Colon recently signed with Anaheim for four years and $48 million. Those numbers are similar to what I expected and I certainly still believe Pettitte will end up as a better signing than Colon.
Pettitte now joins an Astros team that is likely to feature a middle infield of Adam Everett at shortstop and Jeff Kent at second base next season. While Kent has never been a great defender at second base, he is no worse than Alfonso Soriano, and the difference defensively at shortstop between Adam Everett and Derek Jeter is about as big a gap between two everyday defensive players at the same position as there can possibly be.
Looking at defense as a whole and not just the middle infield, the Yankees ranked 28th in baseball at turning balls in play into outs last year, while the Astros ranked sixth.
Of course, Pettitte will be moving from Yankee Stadium, which is a pitcher's ballpark, to Minute Maid Park, which is a hitter's ballpark. While that certainly won't help him any, I think it is worth pointing out that Minute Maid Park is probably not quite as friendly to offense as its "Juice Box" reputation suggests. In addition to that, Pettitte now gets to face a pitcher multiple times per game, instead of a DH, which should help make up for the switch in ballparks.
In fact, the "league-average" ERA, adjusted to Minute Maid Park, was 4.41 last season. The league-average ERA, adjusted to Yankee Stadium, was 4.39.
I think there is no doubt that the situation Pettitte now finds himself in - on a new team, in a new league, pitching in a new ballpark, with a new defense behind him - will give him a better chance to prevent runs than the situation he has been in for the last several years. At the same time, the trade-off is that he will no longer have the Yankees' offense scoring runs for him, although Houston has had good offenses during the past few years as well.
Andy Pettitte has a career ERA of 3.94 and he has had ERAs of 4.00 or above in four of his last six seasons, plus another year when his ERA was 3.99. Despite that, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Pettitte pitch 200+ innings with an ERA around 3.50 in 2004.
Pettitte may miss pitching in New York. He may miss Yankee Stadium. He may miss being a Yankee. He may miss getting all that incredible run-support. What he won't miss is that defense, and I think he's going to be very successful with Houston.
Meanwhile, as Pettitte leaves a team with a horrible defense to join a team with a good defense, Kevin Brown does just the opposite. Last year, the Dodgers ranked fifth in all of baseball at turning balls in play into outs, doing so 72.0% of the time.
Like Pettitte, Brown is an extreme ground ball pitcher. In fact, Brown had the third-most extreme ground ball ratio of any starting pitcher in baseball last year. For those of you who are curious, Pettitte ranked 14th.
Because of his extreme ground ball style, Brown was particularly helped by Los Angeles' infield defense, which featured an all-field/no-hit double-play combo of Cesar Izturis and Alex Cora, as well as an elite defender at third base in Adrian Beltre.
Not surprisingly, Brown allowed a hit on just 28.8% of the balls put in play against him in 2003. Now he moves to a team with a defense that allowed a hit on 30.2% of balls put in play and is particularly bad in the infield, where most of the balls put in play against Brown end up.
I don't mean to sound like I am predicting a horrendous season for Kevin Brown in 2004, because I most certainly am not doing that. But the fact is that, if he accepts this deal to New York, he will join a team with a significantly worse defense than the team he was with last season. He's not going to turn into a horrible pitcher because of that switch, but he is going to suffer the same fate that Pettitte has suffered over the last few years, which involves a lot of ground balls making their way through the infield for cheap singles and, in turn, some additional runs scored against him.
At the same time, Kevin Brown, when healthy, is a better pitcher than Andy Pettitte. Brown is going to be hurt a lot by New York's defense, just like any ground ball pitcher would be, but he is good enough to put up great numbers despite that.
Following their World Series loss to the Marlins, there were a lot of questions about New York's starting rotation for 2004. Roger Clemens was retiring, Pettitte was a free agent, David Wells' status was up in the air. It now appears as though the Yankees pretty much have their 2004 rotation in place and I've got to say, it looks pretty damn good:
Jose Contreras/Jon Lieber
In Mussina, Brown and Vazquez, the Yankees have three of the 10 best right-handed starting pitchers in all of baseball. David Wells will make a great #4 starter, just as he did last season, and they have several good options to fill the final spot in the rotation, including Jose Contreras, whom I think has a chance to be a dominant pitcher.
Essentially, the replaced Clemens and Pettitte with Brown and Vazquez, and, as much as I like Pettitte, that looks like an extremely good trade-off to me. Throw in a completely rebuilt bullpen that will probably end up costing more than several entire teams in 2004, and I think the Yankees' pitching-staff looks incredibly good for next season. Their defense still stinks, although they may still do something to improve it this off-season, but their offense, as always, looks very formidably, particularly if they end up signing Gary Sheffield.
Make no mistake about it, the Yankees are still the team to beat in the American League.
That's it for this week, thanks for stopping by. If you missed any of the entries from earlier in the week, here they are:
See ya Monday...
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