Aug
03

The Forgotten Starter

By

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

For the last … I dunno, week or two or four we’ve talked ad nauseum about the Yankees’ rotation, about whether Phil Hughes or Ivan Nova should be starting, about if/how Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia will hold up down the stretch, and about how totally awesome CC Sabathia is. But then there’s A.J. Burnett, almost a forgotten man in a rotation full of stories much easier to talk about. Burnett has rebounded from his brutal 2010 season but he’s not to being the guy he was in 2009, which is what I expected when I wrote our season preview

Call me (cautiously) optimistic, but I think we’ll see a Burnett that is better than what he was in 2010 this season, but perhaps not as good as he was in 2009. That would put him right around a 4.50-4.60 FIP, so let’s split the middle and call it 4.55. That would be the third worst full season of his career, but spread out over 30 or 31 starts, you’ve got a two, two-and-a-half win pitcher. Would you take that out of A.J. this year? I would, but perhaps my expectations are too low.

A.J. has a 4.66 FIP at the moment, so I’m just a little off, but we still have another eight weeks to go. His 3.93 xFIP looks a lot better and is exactly league average because he has been a little homerun unlucky, with 14.8% of his fly balls allowed leaving the park. Last year that number was 11.6%, the year before 10.8%, and for his career it’s 10.9%. Five of the 20 homers he’s given up in 2011 have been classified as either “lucky” or “just enough” by Hit Tracker, two categories that tend to be volatile from year to year. Burnett’s ground ball rate (49.0%) is his highest since 2007, so it seems odd that he’d be giving up more homers now (1.30 HR/9) than anytime in his career.

Anyway, about two weeks ago I wrote about evaluating Freddy Garcia based on results and not process, and I’m almost at that point with Burnett. He’s completed at least five innings in all 22 starts so far, something he did just 23 times last year. Only seven times has he allowed more than three earned runs and only three times did he exit a game with the Yankees down more than two runs (three runs each time). Twelve times he exited with a lead, so he’s certainly kept the Yankees in the game. Leaving seven games down one or two runs sucks, but those are hardly insurmountable leads given the offense backing him. I guess it’s also worth nothing that the Yankees have lost half of his 22 starts, but in nine of those losses they scored three or fewer runs. In fact, here look at this…

April 25th vs. White Sox: 8 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 2 K
May 11th vs. Royals: 7 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 5 BB, 6 K
June 13th @ Athletics Indians: 7.2 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 8 K

Those are Burnett’s three best starts this year by Game Score, all registering a 72. The Yankees scored a total of three runs in those games and lost all three (all three runs came in the Kansas City game too). A little offensive help and they could have been 14-8 in his starts instead of 11-11. For shame.

Burnett’s strike out rate (7.81 K/9) and swing and miss rate (9.3%) are both up considerably from last season (6.99 and 7.9%, respectively), which might be The Larry Rothschild Effect. His walk rate has also climbed a bit, from 3.66 uIBB/9 to 4.03 uIBB/9, which is a product of throwing just 39.8% of his pitches in the strike zone, his lowest rate since the data started being recorded in 2002 and the third lowest in baseball this season. His ground ball rate is his best in years, but like I said, I’m not caring too much about the process at the moment, after last year I’ll just be happy with positive results regardless of how (un)sustainable they may be.

Sabathia has been the clear number one this year with Colon and Garcia settling in nicely as the two and three, but Burnett’s improvement from last year has gone a little under-the-radar if that’s possible. By no means is he great, but he’s been a solid back of the rotation guy for Joe Girardi and is giving his team a chance a win. Burnett will give it another go against the ChiSox tonight and hopefully do what he’s been doing most of the year: just keep the Yankees in the game.

Categories : Pitching

85 Comments»

  1. Freddy Garcia's 86 mph Heat says:

    Wasn’t the June 13 game against CLE?

  2. Jake says:

    He seems like a good dude and hasn’t been totally useless this year, but I can’t wait for AJ to be done with the Yankees. I find him frustrating to no end.

  3. Cy Pettitte says:

    fyi, the June 13th game was vs. CLE (I was at the game, it sucked.)

  4. YankeesJunkie says:

    Nice write up. AJ has gotten some bad luck both on his team’s offensive production and some of the home runs. He is not the #2 pitcher that the Yankees thought he would be, but if he can get a little luck here and there it is not unrealistic to say that he can get 4-6 wins and lower his FIP to 4.4 before the season is over.

  5. RIP Irabu says:

    Hopefully somebody claims him and takes him off our hands. Then Hughes and Nova both get rotation spots and Noesi keeps his bullpen spot

  6. vin says:

    One of my favorite things about AJ is that he is developing a reputation (in my mind at least) of being a durable starter.

    Since ’06, he’s made 25, 34, 33, 33 starts, and is on pace for 34 starts this year.

    ::knocks on wood::

  7. gc says:

    This will be an interesting thread to watch. A lot of people seem to think AJ is completely worthless, and I know he’s not great, but I believe he has provided value to the team this year, as an innings eater and as someone who will for the most part keep the team in the game. As Mike alluded to, if the offense picks him up in some of those games when they only score three runs or less, and some of those L’s turn into W’s (for the team and for AJ), I think people might just think differently about him this year, and in a much more favorable light.

    • Jake says:

      I think his contract and the expectations he arrived with are, fairly or unfairly, always going to count against him. He’s improved to be a league average pitcher this year, but is being paid like a star. The expectation was that AJ would be excellent, but often hurt. Instead he’s been remarkably healthy, but not very good.

      • Drew says:

        Well what would you rather have? Better results and Burnett only makes 15-20 starts a year, or someone who takes the ball every fifth day with varying results. That’s for the fan to decide.

  8. David, Jr. says:

    He doesn’t bother me one bit. If he is our fourth starter, we are in good shape compared to most teams.

  9. John says:

    that cleveland game sucked. I was there. He’s made some great quality starts, however the offense decides to do crap nothing and he get’s saddled the loss. And of course the sheep fans start baaahing about how he’s so bad and he lost the game for the Yankees.

    Idk about you, but if you lose a game 1-0 or 3-1 and you go 6+ innings with more K’s than hits and walks, It’s not your fault the team lost.

  10. UYF1950 says:

    I realize many people say all you can ask of a pitcher is that he give his team a chance to win. I think that’s fine when you are talking about a back end of the rotation guy. But when someone was signed to be a #2 and is being paid like a #2 at $16M plus per year. I think the team and the fans have a right to expect more then “just” giving the team a chance to win.
    That plus the fact and it may just be my imagination but AJ more often then not seems to give up runs early in the game putting the Yankees in a whole to start out with and that in itself is very frustrating. That’s just my opinion.

    • Preston says:

      Well I think most people agree with you. But after last year we have tempered our expectations. John Lackey signed a contract almost identical to AJ’s. In year one he was bad and this year he is worse. AJ had a good year, a bad year, and now an adequate year. If he can maintain that adequacy for 2012 I’d be happy. If he implodes in 2013 it’s his final season and we can cut bait. But for now, with the money we owe him, we’re stuck.

      As for giving up runs early I could care less. Our hitters need to be professional enough not to change there approach because of the scoreboard. If we can’t score because we’re down 3 early and the hitters are pressing, I’m not blaming that on AJ.

  11. MikeD says:

    AJ was hoped to be a number two when signed, when in reality he was the number three. Sure, Joe still positioned him as the #2, but Pettitte was really the #2 on that team. They might put up similar numbers based on ERA, but Pettitte was the more consistent, the one the team could count on to more likely put up a solid start, especially in the playoffs, which is why I rated Pettitte as the #2 and AJ as the #3. That’s fine.

    AJ seems to have lost a little off his fastball and curve, so he’s probably more of a #4 today. The Yankees can afford to pay his salary. The shouldn’t make the mistake of believe what they’re paying him has anything to do with what he is a pitcher. Plan for him being a #4 and build the rotation around that assumption. If they do that, the Yankees will be fine and AJ will be fine.

    • Mister Delaware says:

      Disagree. 400 innings of 9+ SO/9, < 4.0 BB/9 and a better than average GB rate is atleast a #2. Didn't come with him, but at the time he signed, he was legit.

    • Foghorn Leghorn says:

      AJ has lived up to the hype of being a number two!

  12. Foghorn Leghorn says:

    I quit you AJ Burnett…I QUIT YOU!!

  13. LarryM.,Fl. says:

    Tonight I’ll get my dose of Michael Kay indicating AJ’s electric stuff. As I watch Russel Martin look like a hockey goalie. I to find AJ frustrating to watch.Two outs and he’ll walk a couple of guys. Those stares after he’s allowed a shot into the stands or Girardi having the stones to take him out of the game. Rarely is he in charge of the game. Your just waiting for the sky to wall or something bad. But in his defense the guy can keep you in the game with the better hitting clubs when the sun, moon and the stars are aligned.

  14. Rick in Boston says:

    Give him credit, at least AJ has out-pitched the other non-CC option for the 2009 rotation: Derek Lowe.

    • Ted Nelson says:

      That’s a bit dubious… Lowe has 7.1 fWAR since 2009, Burnett has 5.7.

      • Rick in Boston says:

        Interesting. bWAR has Lowe at 1.8 and Burnett at 4.

        • Jetrer says:

          Lowe 37-32, 521.2 IP, 4.47 era, 3.89 FIP, 3.79 xFIP
          AJ 31-33, 532 IP, 4.52 ERA, 4.59 FIP, 4.24 xFIP
          They’ve both been pretty damn mediocre at best

        • Ted Nelson says:

          Yeah, the difference there is interesting. Lowe’s ERA is a lot higher than his FIP and xFIP this season and 2009.

          Looking at Jetrer’s overall numbers I don’t think the difference is nearly as pronounced as the bWAR suggests, but who knows?

      • MannyGeee says:

        bWAR has AJ at 4.0 and Lowe at 1.8 since 2009. 1.7 vs 0.2 in 2011.

  15. Foghorn Leghorn says:

    If AJ can just pitch one decent game against the Sox I think that would make a lot of people feel better about him…including himself. He was great in 08 against both the yanks and the sox. But he has just sucked ass in all of his starts against the sox.

  16. Kiersten says:

    Burnett has gone from being Good A.J./Bad A.J. to simply mediocre A.J. In a way that sucks because we haven’t seen the dominance that we have in the past and there’s no chance he can slide in as a No. 2 in the playoffs, but at least he’s not bombing. So I guess mediocre A.J. is better, but I do miss the feeling of hoping we will get a dominant A.J. performance on any given fifth night.

  17. hogsmog says:

    Isn’t looking at “he exited the game with a lead…”, “he left the game down by X runs”, etc, just as bad as looking at wins as a stat because they depend on team performance? I’m not trying to be aggressive here, and perhaps I’m wrong. But those sorts of stats seem just as run-support dependent as wins (even if they don’t suffer from the situation where the starter pitches well and a reliever blows the lead). Is there any difference, or are we just doing our best to put on our glass-is-half-full hats?

  18. nsalem says:

    According to the binder AJ’s ERA is 3.60 in inning 1-5 and &.5 in innings 6 and 7 underneath that it says
    Noesi would do better in those two innings, but someone crossed it out.

    • nsalem says:

      According to the binder AJ’s ERA is 3.60 in inning 1-5 and 7.5 in innings 6 and 7 underneath that it says
      Noesi would do better in those two innings, but someone crossed it out.

  19. billbybob says:

    I guess we have a tendency to forget about players that suck.

    I kid, I kid…sort of.

  20. MannyGeee says:

    AJ is painstakingly frustrating to watch. Bad AJ makes me want to drink, but Good AJ is a thing of beauty.

    that said, we have gotten alot more good than bad lately, which means September is gonna be fucking looooong for AJ

  21. John says:

    If AJ does provide 2-2.5 WAR, that’s about 8million per win above replacement value.

    Not exactly a quality ROI. While he’s not useless, he’s certainly not valuable.

  22. JP Bouffard says:

    He has stayed healthy in his years on the Yankees. That counts for something. He pitched a great World Series game which I attended, against an excellent offense. He is frustrating because while his overall numbers are just average, he has tremendous ability and has wide variation in his performances. So we sweat the terrible outings, and are teased by the occasional flashes of brilliance. I still like having a guy like him, who eats innings, and at least has the swing and miss stuff that can beat good teams. Maybe he’ll go on a little run in August and September…a good run.

  23. Prospect Huggers Unite says:

    You’ve just forgot him because he hasn’t been using his best pitch: the pie plate.

  24. Jetrer says:

    AJ’s performance this year is fine for a #4 starter. My concern with that is that if AJ is only a 4 (at best) going forward for the rest of his contract, that makes rotation building problematic. His contract pretty much guarantees he will have every opportunity to stay in the rotation, so if AJ is the 4, if 2 young pitchers are going to be in the rotation next year (from Hughes/Nova/Noesi/Banuelos/Warren/Bettances/Phelps) that means one has to pitch at least well enough to be a 3. I’m not sure that is realistic given Hughes performance this year, Banuelos or Bettances readiness, and Nova/Noesi/Phelps/Warren’s ceiling.

    • MattG says:

      You’re worried about a 3? The Yankees don’t have a #2 for next year, none of those guys fit the bill, nor does anything in free agency. I don’t think this new Cashman will want to outbid other teams for CJ Wilson. Yu Darvish?

      • Jetrer says:

        They definitely need a 2 for next year. I’m just saying with Burnett entrenched as the 4, they may need to find a 2 and a 3 unless Hughes has a major bounceback. If AJ was a good 3, then you still need to find a 2, but it would be easier to give 2 of the homegrowns a spot in the rotation as 4 and 5 instead of praying one is a 3.

        • Ted Nelson says:

          It does present a challenge, but I don’t think the Yankees “need” a legit #2 and #3 in the regular season given their offense. In 2010 they got by complementing CC with AJ, Javy/Nova, 1st Half Hughes/2nd Half Hughes, and Pettitte/Gaudin and still won the WC and ALDS.

          CJ Wilson could be a quick fix at #2… and with him and CC I would feel pretty comfortable with Hughes/Nova/Burnett/Noesi/Warren/Banuelos/Betances #s 3-5.

          If CJ Wilson is not deemed to be worth the price or doesn’t want to be a Yankee, it might hurt in the playoffs but I still think they can make the playoffs with CC + 4 from the above list and/or some Colon/Garcia type band-aids (who could possibly act as a placeholder for Banuelos, Betances, Noesi, Warren if they start in AAA and do well).

        • 1.) CC
          2.) Wilson
          3t.) Burnett
          3t.) Hughes
          3t.) Nova
          6.) Noesi
          7.) Warren
          8.) Banuelos
          9.) Mitchell
          10.) Betances

          I can live with that. The fact that C.J. Wilson is a lefty and is MLB (and AL) proven with a 3.36/3.43/3.80 E/F/x, 3.79 tERA, 3.86 SIERA since becoming a starter in April 2010 means Cashman probably picks him over Darvish, who is a significant wildcard.

          • Jetrer says:

            If Hughes finishes strong this season, I could live with that. If not, I’d be a little concerned, although that rotation is still most likely strong enough to get to the postseason.

          • MattG says:

            I don’t see 9 or 10 as viable options for 2012, or 8 before July. Is that too cautious? B & B are going to have to find the strike zone before being put in front of Boston and Tampa Bay, and the DJ love seems to outpace his AA/AAA performance.

            Noesi and Warren could help, but they could also hurt.

            I don’t think I want to live with that as a plan. I’ll take it as plan C, maybe even plan B, but I hope there are some off-season trade targets (maybe a Marlin?) that make sense.

          • Preston says:

            The problem with Wilson is he might be AJ all over again. We’d be giving him a five year contract after age thirty based on two good years.

            • The problem with every free agent pitcher is that they could be AJ all over again. Buying pitching (and paying top dollar for it) is inherently dicey because pitchers are notoriously fickle and prone to unprecedented regression or injury.

              That being said, the fact that buying FA pitchers is extremely risky doesn’t mean it should never be done, just that it should be done as carefully and as infrequently as possible. All things considered, buying Wilson is a gamble that might be a reasonable gamble to take. He’s a lefty, he doesn’t have significant miles on his arm, he’s shown no signs of regression yet, he’s still in his prime, and his numbers aren’t the product of a pitcher’s park or facing a lineup without a DH.

              There’s obvious warts (age and propensity for walks), but for someone who advocated pretty vehemently against giving AJ Burnett 5/82 a few years ago, I’m much more comfortable giving 5/90 to Wilson now. He’s a better pitcher.

              • Preston says:

                I agree that Wilson is a better pitcher, LHP, high K%, high GB% is exactly what I want a Yankee pitcher to be. But I’d rather see us go with CC, Phil, AJ, Nova and let Warren, Phelps, Noesi (or Colon/Garcia) battle it out for the spot with little financial investment and no long term commitment. Then Banuelos or Betances may be ready by mid-season. I don’t think our pitching situation is dire enough to risk a long-term deal for an over thirty guy with SSS. I’ll wait for Cole Hamels instead.

  25. Kiersten says:

    At least he’s not John Lackey, amirite?

    • Mister Delaware says:

      “Whatever [breathes in through mouth]. Fuck you [breathes out through mouth].” – John Lackey

    • Drew says:

      Oh 100% I will take AJ over Lackey every single time. AJ can at least go out and throw a good game, every lackey start I have seen this year it’s like 4IP 6 runs. I have faith in AJ that he can give us a big start in the playoffs being the number 3 starter. That rotation being made up of CC, Colon, Burnett, and Hughes.

      • fin says:

        I would rather have Garcia over AJ…the real question I think is Hughes, Burnett or Nova. Hughes if healthy and strong could move up to number 2 but those are big ifs, its just as likely he looses his spot this year to Nova.

    • Dave the Ox says:

      Wait just one moment. Doesn’t Lackey’s sheer grit and determination (“this one’s mine, Sciosh”) qualify him for the Hall of Fame, his subsequent truggles notwithstanding?

      A.J. has never exhibited that sort of fire.

  26. fin says:

    Burnett clearly is not the pitcher the Yankees hoped they were getting. He did help the Yankees win a WS so the money wasnt wasted. THe question now is…is he better than Nova or Hughes? If he is not I hope he doesnt keep his spot in the rotation over either of them. I’m not saying that is the case right now, but if it plays out that way over the next month or 2, I hope the yankees have the guts to move him out of the rotation. I am not saying that he has to stink, that would be an easy decision, I’m saying if he performs at the level he seems to have settled into, and Nova and Hughes are better, will the Yankees make that choice?

    • Preston says:

      It doesn’t seem like Joe’s style. AJ helped win in 09 and Joe is a loyal guy (he’s still running Jorge out there). And I think Cashman (to his credit) doesn’t try to impose his will on managerial stuff. The only hope that AJ isn’t one of the four is if Hankenstein steps in and demands it happens. But he’s never been known to butt in when it would actually be constructive.

    • I am not saying that he has to stink, that would be an easy decision, I’m saying if he performs at the level he seems to have settled into, and Nova and Hughes are better, will the Yankees make that choice?

      In the regular season, probably not, no, because those games don’t matter as much and Nova/Hughes can be sent to the bullpen/minors until the stakes are higher.

      In the postseason, if Hughes and/or Nova are demonstrably better options than Burnett, yeah, I don’t think Girardi would hesitate to give Hughes or Nova a start over Burnett.

      Hughes would have more leeway than Nova, though, since he’s shown a better peak in the past. A Hughes pitching slightly better than Burnett would probably get the call over Burnett; Nova would need to be pitching CONSIDERABLY better than Burnett to be given the benefit of the doubt.

      Which seems logical, all things considered.

  27. Frank says:

    It says a lot when your best hope for the supposed # 2 starter is to “just keep the Yankees in the game.” I’ve stopped expecting anything special from AJ-if he goes 5 decent innings, I consider it a plus.

    • Freddy Garcia's 86 mph Heat says:

      He’s not the #2 starter, and does not have to be. Who cares if he was at the beginning of the season. Bartolo wasn’t even in the rotation at the beginning of the season, and he has become a legit #2 (if he can stay healthy).

  28. Jorge says:

    I’ve never truly had any positive or negative opinion on AJ Burnett whatsoever. He’s a flawed pitcher who shows signs of greatness, was that before he signed with the Yankees, and is that now. Other than his horrendous 2010, he’s exactly the pitcher the team should have known they were getting. Does that mean they overvalued him? Maybe. Does it mean he should be banished for the rest of contract? No.

    Besides, I LIKE the pies.

    • Preston says:

      I will give credit for the pies to Nick Swisher because it more accurately follows the narrative that I want. Nick Swisher good, AJ BAD.

  29. SDM says:

    You all might be shocked to hear this but AJ really hasn’t pitched much different from his 2009 version at this point of the season.

    AJ 2009 twenty-two starts in

    139 2/3 innings
    123 SO
    71 walks
    57 ER
    15 homers allowed

    AJ 2011 twenty-two starts in

    138 1/3 innings
    120 SO
    63 walks
    65 ER
    20 homers allowed

  30. Phil says:

    Really impressive outing from AJ tonight. You’ve gotta feel he’s turned the corner.

  31. BigLoving says:

    Well I read this a little bit after the game but regardless of tonight I was going to make the same point. The 3 games mentioned above on which the yankees gave him no run support is probably the only reason why the box score looks nice. I guarantee you if the Yankees gave him some runs he would have took the mound the next inning and gave it right back. Tonight just exemplifies what AJ does. He cannot for the love of big boobs pitch to a lead.

    Me and my buddy always make bets after the yanks give AJ a lead about when he will give it back (1 or 2 innings after they take the lead) and whether he will let them tie it or take the lead.

    • Kevin says:

      My buddy who likes the Red Sox does the same thing with Lackey. WOn the bet that Lackey would give up the lead to Cleveland and lo and behold he did.

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