Last night’s game seemed like a replay of an old one. A.J. Burnett pitched well through five innings, but in the sixth he completely fell apart. All the good will he had accumulated by shutting out the Angels in the first five completely disintegrated when he handed them a three-run lead. The calls for his removal from the rotation were loud and frequent following the game.
As long as the Yankees employ a six-man rotation, there is no need to remove Burnett. As Mike argued last week, there are definite benefits to maintaining this six-pitcher arrangement for a few weeks. There’s a doubleheader later this month, which will require them to use six starters in five days, and everyone could probably use a bit of rest during the 30 games in 30 days stretch. But the six man rotation will not last until the end of the season.
The hope is that either Ivan Nova or Phil Hughes stands above the other and claims the final spot in the rotation. But what if they continue to pitch well, while Burnett continues to toil in mediocrity? The Yankees say that Burnett’s rotation spot is not in jeopardy, but they have every reason to say that right now. They might be singing a different tune, though, if Nova and Hughes produce quality results in their next few starts.
With more than two years left on his deal, Burnett is not going anywhere. The Yankees are not DFAing him, nor are they trading him. That leaves them with limited options. They’ve taken the path of least resistance, which is to continue trotting him out there and hoping for the best. But as has become apparent in the past two seasons, his best might not be enough. He’s been good at times, but he hasn’t sustained his success for any long stretch. It might be time to go with the alternative.
There is a right reason and a wrong reason for placing Burnett in the bullpen. The wrong reason is the one you’ll hear from most agitated fans: to get him out of the rotation. While that would certainly represent a byproduct of placing him in the bullpen, it does not represent a good reason for doing so. Placing him in the bullpen just to get him out of the rotation means, in all likelihood, that he’ll wither out there, waiting for a mop up situation. That’s not productive for anyone.
The right reason for placing Burnett in the pen is that he might actually find success there. Maybe if he’s able to gear up for short appearances, emptying the tank while taking advantage of his two-pitch arsenal, he could become a viable short relief option down the stretch. It might not be the best use of $16.5 million, but it’s better than leaving him in the rotation while a potentially better option leaves for the bullpen.
Two innings have bitten Burnett more than others: the 4th and the 6th. Why the fourth has been a problem remains something of a mystery. The sixth, though, is a bit more understandable. At that point he’s facing batters for a third time, and the third time through opponents have a .900 OPS against Burnett. In the sixth they have a .918 OPS. Even with the ugly fourth inning, if we look at just the first five innings Burnett has a .216/.294/.393 batting line against, with a 3.85 ERA and 4.17 FIP. It’s pretty clear that he lacks the stamina to give the Yankees length as a starter.
In the first three innings, however, Burnett’s numbers are much nicer. There he has a .205/.288/.358 batting line against, with a 2.88 ERA and 3.82 FIP. He strikes out almost a batter per inning, and has a 2.4 K/BB ratio. He does have some trouble starting a game, as opponents have a .812 OPS through 25 pitches, and a .728 OPS in the first inning. But perhaps Burnett could mitigate some of these numbers by 1) not necessarily facing the top of the order, and 2) emptying the tank rather than pacing himself. Given his overall numbers the first time through the order, when opponents have a .647 OPS, it seems worth the shot.
If stamina truly is the problem, and the numbers do indicate that is the case, then not all is lost for the last two years of the deal. It might be tougher to get into that peak physical condition, since Burnett will be 35 next year. But he can certainly work on building endurance during the off-season, with hopes of joining the rotation in 2012. But right now there’s no good way to improve his stamina. If he’s gassed after five innings, there’s little the Yankees can do.
Moving Burnett to the bullpen provides a potentially useful solution for a clear problem. Who knows: maybe Hughes or Nova will falter in their next few starts and necessitate Burnett staying in the rotation. But if they both pitch well, Burnett might not only be the worst of the starting options, but he might also be best suited for the pen. The chances are slim that they’ll do that, as they’ve remained adamant about keeping him in the rotation. But if the Yankees put him out there with the idea that he can play a useful role, then maybe they’ll gain some value from that.