Assuming the first four spots in the rotation are going to CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, and Michael Pineda in some order, the Yankees have three legitimate candidates for their fifth starter’s job: A.J. Burnett, Freddy Garcia, and Phil Hughes. You can make a case that each of those three deserve it, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do over the next few days. Explain why each guy is the best man for the job, starting today with Burnett.
We all know what’s happened over the last two years, during which time Burnett has pitched to a 5.20 ERA (85th out of 86 qualifiers) and a 4.80 FIP (84th) in 377 IP. His strikeout (7.59 K/9) and homerun (1.34 HR/9) rates are well off his career averages (8.22 K/9 and 0.93 HR/9), and his fastball velocity continues to wane into his mid-30’s…
It’s not very easy to make a compelling case that Burnett deserves a spot in the starting rotation given the guys ahead of him and who he’s competing with, but I’m going to give him it a shot anyway and try to be fair.
Considering his spotty (at best) track record of health prior to signing with the Yankees, Burnett has been a bonafide workhorse in pinstripes. He’s one of only 16 pitchers to make at least 32 starts in each of the last three seasons, and one of only 29 pitchers to throw at least 185 IP in each of the last three seasons. His 98 starts since the start of 2009 are the 11th most in baseball. Hughes spent a significant chunk of last season on the disabled list, and Garcia hasn’t topped 28 starts or 160 IP since 2006, before all his arm injuries set it. There’s value in taking the ball every five days.
Strong Starts To The Season
Although he finished the 2010 and 2011 seasons with an ERA north of 5.00, Burnett did manage to carry a sub-4.00 ERA through his first dozen starts in each season. He was terrible after that, pitching to a 6.00+ ERA the rest of the way in both years. Taking advantage of that early season success can have two benefits: one, it’ll help the team on the field, and two, it could boost A.J.’s trade value. We all know the team is trying to move him.
Some Bad Luck
There’s no excusing Burnett’s poor performance over the last two years, but he did suffer from some bad luck down the stretch in 2011. His second half BABIP was through the roof (.376), and his 17.0% HR/FB was crazy high (11.3% career). The last time he posted a homer rate that high (17.7% in 2007), it corrected to 9.6% the next year. Burnett turned into a pretty extreme ground ball pitcher during the final two-thirds of the 2011 season, which will help the long ball problem if he maintains a similar batted ball profile going forward…
After posting a career-low strikeout rate (6.99 K/9 and 17.5 K%) in 2010, he rebounded to his career norms (8.18 K/9 and 20.7 BB%) last season. Burnett was undoubtedly bad in 2011, but he did have some things go against him as well. The astronomical homerun rate is unlikely to last just because no pitcher has ever given up one dinger for every six fly balls they’ve allowed for an extended period of time.
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I want to say that Burnett’s salary won’t factor into the team’s fifth starter decision, but I’m not entirely convinced that will be the case. It’s not easy to toss aside the guy making $16.5M when his two primary competitors are making relative peanuts and aren’t guaranteed to perform any better. Burnett’s case is based primary on his durability an blind faith, faith that he will have his third consecutive strong start and faith that some statistical red flags will even themselves out.
At the same time, A.J. probably offers the most upside of the three fifth starter candidates even at age 35, meaning that every once in a while he’ll go out and throw an absolute gem, one of those eighth inning, one run, double-digit strikeout efforts. Neither Garcia or Hughes have completed eight innings in a start since 2009 while Burnett did it three times in 2010 and twice in 2011. He’s very hit-or-miss, and it comes down to a preference for consistent mediocrity or occasional brilliance mixed in with some serious duds.