Does Yanks' Burnett deserve October slot?

September, 28, 2010
9/28/10
10:32
AM ET
Joel Sherman on the Yankees' No. 4 starter who maybe shouldn't be:
    Terry Mulholland has the worst season ERA in Yankees history for a pitcher who qualified for the ERA title, delivering a 6.49 ERA in a 1994 season shortened by labor issues. But if the season were to end today the Yankees would have a new No. 2 man on the list by the name of A.J. Burnett. His 5.33 ERA would bump old Bump Hadley and his 5.31 ERA from 1937 down the list to third.

    In many ways, though, Burnett stands alone: Never have the Yankees let anyone pitch this many innings (180 2/3) and be this wretched.

    --snip--

    So, of course, we get to the obvious question about Burnett: Why exactly does it appear as if he will start Game 2 of an AL Division Series. You could probably make a pretty valid point that if he did not have three more years left on his contract after this season, Burnett would have been given the Javier Vazquez treatment at some point and been removed from the rotation.

    Yes, the broken record continues about Burnett’s stuff. But in as many starts now as that stuff shows up, it doesn’t. Quite frankly, the more and more I think about how the Yankees should line up for the Division Series, the more and more I am coming to believe they should use a three-man rotation that does not have Burnett, especially if the Yankees face the Twins.

The three-man rotation consisting of CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, and Phil Hughes, with Sabathia starting on short rest in Game 4. All of this is possible because of the ridiculous schedule that includes two off-days after Game 2 (which is the case in both of the American League's Division Series).

Have I mentioned lately that the Division Series schedules in the American League are ridiculous? Well, they are. Great work, Major League Baseball!

Now, about Burnett. His stuff does still seem to be fine. He still throws in the middle 90s with some frequency. But his average fastball this season was just 93, down from 94 last season and 95 (or better) in most of his seasons with the Marlins and Blue Jays.

Can a pitcher do quite nicely when throwing 93?

Sure. But while Burnett might be throwing nearly as hard as he wants, he's not throwing often enough where he wants. Burnett's strikeout rate this season is his lowest since 2001. That would be OK, except there's been no corresponding drop in his walk rate. The combination results in a 1.84 strikeout-to-walk ratio; in his three seasons with the Jays it was 2.75. He's also given up 24 home runs in 181 innings.

Essentially, Burnett just isn't doing anything particularly well.

Which doesn't mean he's terrible. Essentially, the moment Burnett left the Blue Jays for the Yankees he went from excellent to (roughly) average. Why this happened, I don't have the slightest idea. Regression to the mean. Normal wear and tear. Nerves. Something in that pristine Catskill Mountains drinking water. I don't know. But Burnett's just not the same pitcher that he was, not so long ago.

This was masked last season by the vagaries of luck and ERA. In 2008, Burnett posted a 4.07 ERA with the Jays. In 2009, he posted a 4.05 ERA with the Yankees. But there were definitely signs of regression, and aside from his ERAs, this season looks more like last season than last season looked like 2008. Last season, his ERA should have been -- with just average luck, I mean -- somewhere around 4.30; this season it should be somewhere around 4.60.

Essentially, what the Yankees have gotten for their $16.5 million per season is a league-average starting pitcher. Which wouldn't be so awful, except when you're spending $16.5 million you do feel compelled to let him pitch. Which wouldn't be so awful, except Burnett's signed through 2013 and if he regresses much farther he simply won't be good enough to pitch for a team that needs to win 95 games every season.

Right now, though? If you don't have to pitch him, don't pitch him. If you don't want to start Sabathia on short rest, tell Burnett you're just looking for five good innings and then the bullpen will take over at the first sign of trouble. Because while he certainly is not good, neither is he bad.

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