NEW YORK -- When A.J. Burnett is on, he knows where his pitches are going, but hitters have doubts. A former major leaguer, who is now a scout, says when Burnett is "effectively wild," he creates a "scare tactic."
Besides just trying to hit the ball, uncomfortable batters have another thought: "Is a mid-90s fastball going to hit my head?"
"You just don't know," the scout said.
That is the thing about the New York Yankees' Game 4 starter: You just don't know.
The Yankees -- with their season in the balance heading into Game 4 -- just don't know if Good A.J. is going to show up versus the Texas Rangers on Tuesday night. Will it be the guy who started the season 3-0 with a 2.43 ERA in his first five starts? Or will it be Bad A.J., the guy who ended the season with the worst starting ERA in team history (minimum 30 starts)?
Burnett finished the year so poorly, going 10-15 with a 5.26 ERA, that despite an $82.5 million, five-year contract, he was left out of the AL Division Series rotation and has been relegated to one start in the American League Championship Series.
The questions with Burnett are always about his head, not his arm.
"He is not a dumb person," said former Toronto Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi, who had Burnett in Toronto for three years. "He realizes what is at stake."
Still, you just don't know. When his team was down in the World Series last year, Burnett pitched seven strong innings and the Yankees took Game 2. In Game 5, of course, he looked lost in Philadelphia, only lasting two innings.
Burnett is the rare starter who basically gets by on two pitches. If he throws his wicked curveball for strikes, he is devastating. As he tumbled to the fourth spot in the rotation -- he started the year in the No. 2 slot -- he lost his curveball.
Early in the count (first three pitches), Burnett threw his breaking ball for strikes less than half the time (48.6 percent) this year, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That was the worst in baseball among starters. This has allowed hitters to lay off the curve and sit on his fastball, hitting .365 against it early in the count.
"Major league hitters can hit anybody's fastball," said Ricciardi, now an ESPN analyst.
The Rangers may be a good matchup for Burnett. They are an aggressive hitting team that Burnett has had success against in the Bronx. In his two years with the Yankees at the Stadium, he has faced Texas three times and has won twice with an ERA of 2.70.
The Rangers took the seventh-fewest amount of pitches in baseball, according to FanGraphs. They were fourth in terms of chasing pitches.
"Normally, you should be patient against A.J.," the scout said.
In August in Texas, Burnett threw seven innings of three-run ball. That was on eight days of rest. On Tuesday, he will be pitching on 17 days of rest.
"I haven't pitched in a long time so I haven't struggled in a long time," Burnett said. True enough.
Given Burnett's talent, his bosses are always patient, thinking a spectacular season is just around the corner. His best two years have come when his contract is up. In 2008, he went 18-10 for the Blue Jays. It is the only year he has won more than 13 games.
Since his talent is so immense, there is always a feeling that Burnett should do more.
"You say, 'Wow, how come?'" Ricciardi said. "How come he is not [Roy] Halladay? In all honesty, I don't know if that is fair."
Ricciardi said in one breath that Burnett, at age 33, might be a fourth starter with the Yankees, but in another he said that Burnett will eventually outperform his $82.5 million contract.
That is why Tuesday night is like all other nights with Burnett: You just don't know.