Friday, February 4, 2011

Is Pettitte a Hall of Famer?

With the expectation that New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte will announce his retirement on Friday, the question's already being asked: is he a Hall of Famer?

ESPN's Jayson Stark -- whom you could argue is a far greater authority on baseball than me (since, you know, he gets paid to write about it) -- says not quite. But I think the question is a bit complicated, and even as I write this, I'm not entirely sure of the answer.

First, the arguments in favor of Pettitte's potential induction into Cooperstown:

-A .635 winning percentage over 13 seasons.

-19 postseason wins, the most all-time.

-Five World Series championships, all with the Yankees.

-Three-time All-Star.

-Had two 20-win seasons.

Now, the arguments against induction:

-While his 240-138 career record is stellar, many use 300 wins as a benchmark for consideration. It might be unfair, but that's how some voters feel.

-Pettitte never won the Cy Young award.

-Pettitte was never considered the ace of his staff -- or even the number two guy in the rotation.

-Oh, and he's also an admitted performance-enhancing drug user.

That last reason is perhaps why the question of Pettitte's HoF candidacy is so complex. If it simply boiled down to his numbers, the argument would likely be more cut and dry. Those in favor would point to his five World Series rings, while detractors would point out his lack of a Cy Young or the fact that he was often the third- or fourth-best pitcher on his staff.

If Pettitte were a football player with five Super Bowl rings, his bust for Canton would be carved out the day he retired. That's how important championships are in the NFL; in baseball, though, the World Series ring isn't the dealbreaker. Yeah, it's nice that Pettitte has five rings, but baseball voters want more than that.

But the PED issue is really where I think this argument will be settled. In the last few years, we've seen Hall voters punish former players tainted by PED allegations. Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro can personally attest to this; McGwire and Palmeiro have received little support among voters, while Bonds -- if he ever makes his retirement official -- will likely face the same wrath.

Likewise for Roger Clemens.

But Pettitte, who was named in the Mitchell Report in 2007, differs from the above players in one key respect; when accused of using, he came forward and owned up to it. Pettitte held a press conference, admitted that he used HGH and apologized for it. Afterward, virtually everyone dropped the issue and Pettitte was able to go about his career.

Bonds, Palmeiro, McGwire and Clemens did not do this. Palmeiro was defiant, before and after his failed drug test. Bonds and Clemens are fighting everyone they see to prove their innocence, even in a court of law, evidence be damned. McGwire wasn't so much defiant as reclusive, and though he did admit steroid use in January 2010, it was too little, too late.

Would voters be more lenient on Pettitte because he came forward and admitted his mistake? Hard to tell, but I'd be interested to see how many votes he gets his first year on the ballot. If Pettitte does get in, he won't be a first-ballot selection. But if he receives a great deal more votes than other players connected to PEDs, then we'll have any idea how big an issue it is with the voters.

Personally? I say you either consider everyone from the Steroids Era, or you consider no one. You can't pick and choose who you vote for and who you don't; even with positive drug tests and confessions and other evidence, we'll never know with 100 percent certainty who used and who didn't.

We could look at a guy and know in our hearts he used, yet he could be totally clean. Then there could be a guy we ignore, think there's no way he uses, yet he's as dirty as a middle school gym shower.

You just don't know. So you either consider everyone from this era, or no one. You can't pick and choose, make a statement over one particular player while giving others a pass.

From a numbers standpoint, I think Pettitte's a Hall of Famer. The five World Series rings and the MLB-record 19 postseason wins are what do it for me; not that 240 career wins is a total to sneeze at, but Pettitte made a career out of being unhittable when it mattered most. If we measure greatness in terms of winning, in terms of winning championships, then Pettitte is a no-brainer.

He wasn't the most prolific strikeout guy. He never lit up the radar gun in triple digits. He wasn't a guy who'd go out there and give you 20 wins year after year after year. But he helped teams get to the playoffs, and once they did, he turned it up and more often than not, helped lead his team to the promised land.

Is there any other sport where a player with five championship rings wouldn't be inducted? The NFL? NBA? Hockey? NASCAR?

Tell me Jimmie Johnson's not a Hall of Famer.

The PED debate is a worthy one that I think we need to have in order to truly secure the future of the Baseball Hall of Fame. But if we ignore the PED use and simply look at Pettitte's performance on the mound, his accolades speak for themselves.