A.J. Burnett was atrocious last night. There’s no other way to describe it. He settled down in the first after Dave Eiland gave him an earful, but he fell back into his wild ways before long. With none out in the third inning the Yankees found themselves in a tough spot. They’d have to piece together the game from a bullpen that has failed in the postseason where it thrived during the regular season.
That’s on Burnett. He wanted the ball on short rest in Game 5, and the Yankees decided that was the best tactic. Yet it was clear from the first inning that Burnett didn’t have what he had in Game 2. He left fastballs up in the zone, signaling a mechanical issue. We’ve seen it plenty of times during the 2009 season. Against a lesser team, maybe Burnett gets away with it and makes his way through six innings. Against the Phillies, that wasn’t happening.
In the New York media market, the blame will flow. Some will blame Burnett for not being mentally tough enough to put away the Phillies. Most will blame Girardi and the Yankees organization (because I don’t think Girardi made the decision alone). There was an alternative tactic which would have led to the same result, but would have left the Yankees with their top three pitchers ready to pitch in the final two games. In terms of results, the decision didn’t work out. There’s no denying that.
Does the bad result mean the Yankees made a bad decision? While that’s a question that requires thought and reflection, I’m sure many people already have an answer in mind. It’s either yes, the Yankees made the right move and it backfired, or no, the Yankees made a poor decision and paid for it. In scenarios like this the answer is never black and white, though the result points towards the Yankees making a bad decision.
In order to determine if it was a bad decision, however, we have to rewind to Sunday, before the start of Game 4. That is when the Yankees made the decision to start Burnett in Game 5. The decision was made without knowing that the Yankees would take a 3-1 series lead that night. That’s a wrench in the argument that the Yankees should have started Gaudin when up 3-1 — they would have had to decide it before they had that information.
Since there was time to run an end around after Game 4, let’s explore that path. The Yankees take Game 4, going up 3-1 in the series. Next up is Cliff Lee, followed by Pedro Martinez and then J.A. Happ or Cole Hamels. If the Yankees changed plans after Game 4, they would have lined up their worst starter, Chad Gaudin, against the Phillies best. They then would have had Burnett on five days’ rest against Pedro Martinez on the same, with both Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia ready for a possible Game 7. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
Here’s a statement I think we can all agree on: Chad Gaudin could have done what Burnett did in Game 5. We’re able to agree on this statement because we have the benefit of hindsight. But let’s say Gaudin did post the two-plus innings, six-runs line, and the Yankees still lost 8-6. The results would have been the same, except under that scenario the Yankees are going back to New York with their three best pitchers ready to go. Put that way, it sounds like a better scenario.
Mike put it well in the postgame reaction. “AJ Burnett completely crapped the bed, which had little to do with short rest and almost everything to do with the fact that he’s AJ Burnett.” What if Burnett had this kind of game in Game 6? That could force a Game 7, something the Yankees surely don’t want to face after being up three games to one. If they had punted Game 5 and then Burnett folded in Game 6 as he did last night, that’s where they’d find themselves.
Coming into the playoffs, it was clear the Yankees had a strategy, and that was to ride their best arms as long as they could. Until Game 5, it had worked. The Yankees had used Sabathia, Burnett, Pettitte, and Rivera to cover 84 percent of the team’s postseason innings. Going with Burnett was a tactic consistent with that strategy. If they’d gone with Gaudin, it would have been altering the strategy because they felt comfortable with a 3-1 lead. In the World Series, no team should feel comfortable.
As the game played out, the tactic backfired. The strategy, however, remains strong. They knew that losing tonight was a possibility, but it was a possibility they’d be able to stomach knowing that their other two best pitchers, Pettitte and Sabathia, are waiting to take the ball. That’s the point. Even if the Phillies win a game or two, the Yankees still have their best guys waiting.
I know a lot of smart people who endorsed Gaudin for the Game 5 start, so I’ve given serious thought to the tactic. Each time I think about it, though, I’m less and less convinced. Even the morning after, I still think it was the right call to go with Burnett. Altering a strategy that works is hardly ever a good idea, especially when the alteration makes your team weaker. The Yanks made the right call. Unfortunately, as happens many times, it didn’t work out. Thankfully, the Yankees had planned for this.
(There’s obviously a question of Pettitte pitching on three days’ rest, but that’s another story, one we’ll surely discuss in the next two days.)