Spring Training Samples

Bust. (AP)

The obvious pro of Spring Training is that baseball is back! Horray! Baseball players! They are truly wonderful and amazing creatures, capable of feats none of us could ever accomplish. I once attempted to play second base in the local rec softball league, constantly mentally telling myself to just do it exactly like Robinson Cano does. As you can imagine, this did not work out, and not only did I make a total idiot of myself, but a ground ball took a funny bounce, destroyed my shin, and had me limping for the rest of the day. After that, I decided to stick to writing about and watching baseball.

Anyway, even in Spring Training, most of the players could probably whoop us, even the veteran double-A guys who don’t know what else to do with themselves. They’re rusty, especially the big-timers like Sabathia. And I think getting on them for having a first poor Spring Training outing is, quite frankly, a little stupid.

First of all, the whole point of Spring Training is to get back into the groove. Baseball’s all timing, and when someone hasn’t thrown a ~90 MPH ball of cork at you in months, it can take some time to get used to that again. Likewise, if you haven’t thrown that ball in a while – not at full speed, facing a live batter, of course – it takes time to put all the parts back together. Throwing a baseball is a complex biomechanical action, and I’m not holding it against anyone who takes a few weeks to get back into the swing of things, consider the minuscule percentage of people who can even figure out what the correct swing of things is.

Secondly, one outing in any event should be treated as too small a sample to judge, and an outing of two innings should be a mere blip on the radar. If it doesn’t count, that seems like it should be even more insignificant on the ‘things Yankees fans should worry about from the team’ checklist. Even if Sabathia had gone out and bombed two innings in a regular season game, there’s simply not enough to worry about.

So, can we stop getting on Nova, Sabathia and Cano for not being able to put it together just yet? They’ve been playing baseball for a week. It doesn’t count. They’re obviously (ok, according to Girardi, not Nova) going to be in the lineup/rotation. It’s not like we’re dealing with scrubs who, if they don’t perform in the spring, aren’t going to be on the team. These guys are using Spring Training to experiment, re-adjust and recalibrate themselves to being utterly awesome. A little turbulence should be expected, in my humble opinion. So chill out.

On the flip side of this, if you do make it your goal in life to be stressed out about five Spring Training innings from your fourth place Cy Young finisher from last year, I have a better place for you to put those feelings. This feeling-adjustment fulfills all the necessary requirements of irrational Spring Training rage: A) The players in question are playing way differently than they’re expected. B) The samples sizes are extremely small. C) We know if they’re going to the Yankees or not.

1. Gus Molina (3-for-3)

Here we have a catcher with some potential, making very good contact and getting on base. Quite frankly, I don’t even know why we bother with Russell Martin behind the plate. It’s obvious Martin has all the power (he’s 2-for-8 with a double and 3 strikeouts) and none of the other skills. He might work out better at first base, because while him and Mark Teixeira have similar numbers, Martin has all the power.

2. Jose Gil (2-for-3)

On second thought, let’s just release Mark Texieira and put Gil at first base. He’s raking in spring training, with two doubles, an RBI, and a walk. That’s the making of a potential MVP right there, I think. Especially considering that he probably won’t bunt as much as Teixeira has been talking about doing. No bunting allowed. Ever.

3. Dan Burawa (0.00 ERA)

Really, those shiny zeroes say it all. Here we have a genuine ace who’s going to toil away at some minor league level where no one can appreciate his genius. Obviously, what the Yankees should do is demote Nova and put Burawa in his pace. While the man has given up three hits, he’s also got a strikeout and generates plenty of groundballs to make a successful job in the majors. Anyone who has a 0.00 ERA is pretty good. Exhibit A: Nick Swisher.

Not Mike Mussina

(Reuters)

Who do you think of first when you think of the New York Yankees, #24?

Recency, a penchant for the dramatic, a great glove and a power bat would of course lead one to what might seem like the obvious choice: Robinson Cano. And it’s a pretty good answer, too, in my opinion. Robbie’s grown up into a core member of the team and is, quite frankly, a really good baseball player. He’s expected to hit third in the lineup this year, which means that there will be many men-on dingers and RBIs this year, plus lots of stellar plays he makes look easy and, of course, thousands of giant gum bubbles.

But Cano isn’t the only answer. Here’s some hints: he played first base for the Yankees from 1996-2001 (really knew how to pick his years, didn’t he?), hitting .279 with an OPS+ of 114 and 175 home runs. The answer, to anyone who was around during those years, should be obvious: the wonderful and amazing Tino Martinez. As a kid, I loved Tino only slightly less than I loved Paul O’Neill, and even four years after Tino left, I was still a little sore over this obnoxious second-baseman taking his number, which I believed should have been retired. I was a little insensible as a kid, but the point still stands. In sports and especially on the Yankees, where there are no names on the jerseys, the numbers become associated quite strongly with the player.

(While we’re on the subject of Paul O’Neill and #21, I seem to recall LaTroy Hawkins begin given a lot of crap for taking that number and then changing it, which filled me with more joy than you can ever imagine.)

As the Spring Training pictures roll in, the one thing that keeps throwing me off is Michael Pineda wearing #35. Like every other sensible Yankees fan, I loved Moose and felt it was really depressing that he never got a ring, and while I don’t think retiring his number is in the cards, it’s really strange to see someone else wearing it. Pineda’s a good choice to carry on his legacy of really good pitchers I wouldn’t want to meet in a back alley at night, but that doesn’t change that he isn’t Mike Mussina. Of course, people taking the numbers of old players is just another part of growing up with baseball. Pretty sure no one else is ever going to wear 2, though.

Let’s switch gears a little bit. I had this argument with a friend while I was in New York last year, so I’ll ask all of you: my friend had purchased a Hideki Matsui jersey some years ago while he was still a Yankee. Like a sensible person with disposable income, he had no name of the back. These days, Russell Martin, who is a pretty valuable piece of the team in his own right, now wears #55. Does your jersey magically become a Russell Martin jersey? Is it still a Matsui jersey in your brain, and that’s all that matters? Is the jersey meaningless without the player you bought it for? If no one ever wears #55 again, do you never wear the jersey? What if the number’s retired?

And because this is an article about Yankees jersey numbers: between 6, 46 and 20, which ones get retired?

Who's next? (photo by flickr user 2Eklectik, used under Creative Commons.)

The Evolution of “Retro”

Hello and goodbye, childhood.

(The workweek is Saturday-Sunday, so it still counts!)

I’ve never known any other shortstop than Derek Jeter.

River Ave Blues has spent the past week talking about 80’s and bits of pieces of the 90’s because they’re history now: the players are gone, and while their numbers remain forever to tell us what they think is important, and while the plays may be play-index’d and written in scoresheets, they’re long in the past.

One of the great things about baseball is that it’s ageless: it can bring together the young and old. Baseball is frequently passed down from our parents or grandparents, who may have gifted us with stories about Ruth, Henderson, Berra, Righetti, or any number of the people who we the fans were fortunate enough to have in pinstripes. Maybe they became attached by someone old, cranky and awful, like Mel Ott. Fans of all ages deck the stands at New Yankee Stadium, from the cranky old gentlemen whining for the old park to the babies too young to really understand what’s going on yet. For each generation, what Retro Week is is something a little different. Everyone has their own childhood heroes, and ten different Yankees fans of ten different ages would write ten different weeks of Retro Week.

I was born in 1988 and missed out on Mattingly, Berra, and the hapless Yankees of the 80’s. My generation and I were lucky enough to pick up at the right time, raised with a scrawny-legged shortstop named Derek Jeter and his comrades: a Panamanian ex-starter, a chinless, scowly catcher (who was first a backup), and a beak-nosed crafty lefty. And there were plenty of other Yankees in those dynasty teams that 8-year-old me will never forget too, of course: Tino, Bernie, Cone, Paul O’Neill (my first favorite player ever), and so on.

As I end up finding my place in the real world attending my stupid job and counting my birthdays (I turn 24 in two weeks), the players that I grew up screaming for in front of my tv with my grandma have slowly faded away. Earlier this week, Mike covered David Wells’ perfect game as yore and I came to the startling realization that it happened way over ten years ago. Meanwhile, every new year comes with a new group of fans and their own childhood players. There are plenty of readers, I’m sure, who have never known another third baseman other than A-Rod, and some who can’t remember a time when the rotation didn’t feature the pure domination of CC Sabathia. That’s not bad, it’s just the way that time is. The half-important types that these Yankees kids might pick up could be Cervelli, Pena and Nunez. My favorite was Chad Curtis, and I will always love Alfonso Soriano. Sooner than maybe we’d all like (or maybe not soon enough), the youngest generation of fans will only know Derek Jeter from videos, retro baseball cards, and their parents’ brilliant stories of him, much like I know Mattingly, and my grandparents knew Ruth. When he’s honored for the Hall of Fame and Mo knows what else (tentatively everything), they’ll give him polite applause because he is history, while I’m pretty sure I will bawl hysterically thinking of the hundred different ways he enshrined himself in the hearts of everyone (but, as always) especially the kids.

Eventually, fans will grow up loving Manny Banuelos, Austin Romine, JR Murphy, and Mason Williams, or players in that age-group. I will politely reply to any children I have (and maybe some boasting kids) that there’s no one like Jeter or Pettitte or Wells anymore, and that while the cathedral that is Yankee Stadium right now is pretty amazing in almost every conceivable way, it isn’t what they had back in the 90’s. They’ll scoff, of course, and point to whatever the next greatest deed that’s been done by their hero, even if the teams are awful. And after that, well – I’m sure plenty of Yankee heroes of the future are still a blink in their parents’ eyes like Jeter was in the 60’s and Robinson Cano was in the 70’s.

Some day, kids will love them and will eventually boast to their kids that their generation was great, but man they would kill to see heroes of yore, like Derek Jeter.

(Mo is, of course, immortal, and all our children’s children will still see him pitching.)

The New York Yankees Remix

Flawless combining of sports and music. (Used under a creative common license from flickr user vtooky)

Sports have a lot in common with music.

First off, it’s easy to get over-invested. You love a band? Suddenly, you’re seeing three of their shows in a row, driving up and down the state and maybe into (shudder) Massachusetts. You might be listening to the same album over and over again. Likewise, I’m sure plenty of Yankees fans are going to Boston, DC, Queens, and Baltimore to check out your team. Also, there’s the fact we end up watching these guys play the same game 162+ times. That’s a lot to watch the same damn thing. I think we’re all crazy.

Additionally, there is nothing more pointless than arguing either music or sports with your friends. Your friend is Mets fan? Get new friends, but first, try to convince them to be a Yankees fan. Sadly, futile. Meanwhile, your friend likes that band you hate? There is no way they will ever tell you it’s not the best thing they’ve ever listened to. Meanwhile, you will make an equal fool of yourself singing in your cubicle or talking avidly about your fantasy team. (Hint: No one cares about your fantasy team.)

With this, I present Yankees as songs from my iPod.

Derek Jeter as “The Lightning Strike,” by Snow Patrol

There are lots of great things that Jeter presents: as a baseball player, he’s really good, really consistent, determined, disciplined, and talented. As a front presented to the media, he’s calm, with no surprises and no big crises; he doesn’t get into trouble, and as a result he doesn’t ever have to wiggle out of it. Jeter’s the golden boy, as everyone knows.

“The Lightning Strike” off A Hundred Million Suns, gives the listener all these things. Not only does it match Jeter’s lengthy career (the song has four parts and combines for a whopping 16:18 in play time), but the song starts with an intriguing intro before being played with a dramatic flare through all four parts. It even comes with a part around 9:35 where you thought it was over, but then you realize there’s a lot more to go. Despite the dramatic notes, there’s no surprises – gravitas is the norm, like Jeter, and there’s no random cymbal banging or screaming guitar solos where you didn’t expect them. The song ends leaving the listening feeling fulfilled, like this whole story was written and told perfectly, and couldn’t have been any other way, and when Jeter’s career is over… well, how could it have been any better? Ain’t no one out there like El Capitan.

David Robertson as “Don’t Stop Me Now,” by Queen

In the Non-Mariano Rivera division of things that happen in baseball games, is there anything that made you feel more secure in 2011 than David Robertson? The man was flat-out amazing on the mound in relief, and as such I think he’s worthy of such a great song.

Quite frankly, no one could have stopped Robertson, both last year and ’11, and even with a little regression he’d still be a downright amazing reliever. He had a real good time. He felt alive. He was floating around in ecstasy.

You get the point.

While there was usually a tenseness that came with Robertson’s appearance, they almost always ended in the impossible-to-frown-at cheeriness that also accompanies this song. Both the song and his at-bats tended to follow an easy routine: he throws fastballs, and curveballs, and strike guys out. Meanwhile, the song, like the baseball season, becomes bigger both in terms of leverage and Freddie Mercury’s voice, and Robertson still has it in the bag. With his strikeout rate’s rocket ship already reached Mars, he’s going to make a supersonic man out of you. By that, I mean he’s going to embarrass you with his pitches and make you ashamed as you walk back to your dugout.

Whether you think 200 degrees means the heat on his fastball or the break of his offspeed pitches, it was all enough to earn him a pretty awesome nickname (sadly, not Mr. Fahrenheit).

(Shameless Plug: I did a Yankees year in review video to this song.)

Phil Hughes as “Vida La Vida” by Coldplay

Phil Hughes used to be everything. He was the future. He was brilliance. He was the next 6-year-100M contact. He was the Yankees’ pride and joy. He was the kind of guy you ran off to get the jersey of, the one you knew was gonna mean everything.

But that was when he ruled the world.

These days, Hughes is but a shadow of the flawless prospect we imagined him as. Injuries and ineffectiveness have kicked him down from the position, and he’s gone from being The Future to fighting for a rotation spot. Given as how entertaining the “Phil Hughes is Fat” jokes can sometimes be, there’s a good chance that even if he returns to form, they’ll persist, and that possibility is even greater if he doesn’t. Both Hughes and Coldplay tell stories about rising and falling from power, and how easy it can be. After all, baseball’s almost as difficult as ruling a country, I bet.

While the song ends on a morbid, depressing note, I’m hoping Phil can break the trend here and get himself together in 2012. It wouldn’t be legitimately awful for him to end up as a reliever, but it does seem a little a let-down when he was so good in the first half in 2010. That seems far away now, doesn’t it?

Anyway, because this is music, I’m sure there will be many differing opinions on song choice. And because this is sports, I’m sure lots of people will disagree with me. That’s what the comments are for.

(I shamelessly modified this idea from where Friend of the Blog Rebecca Glass discusses the Yankees as mythical creatures. Derek Jeter is a unicorn.)

What’s Your Countdown?

Holy crap, baseball is so close I can almost taste it. Like many of you, I have several countdowns going, one at work, one on my computer, on my calendar… and so forth. It’s only a matter of time before we have to stop paying attention to less interesting sports to turn our attentions to diamonds, curveballs, dingers and TOOTBLANs. I can’t believe I’m this excited to complain about Derek Jeter leading off and Robinson Cano swinging at crazy pitches to foul them off rather than just taking a damn walk every once in a while.

The problem is, there’s a lot of different was to go with your countdown. Do you start at when pitchers and catchers report? Wait for Spring Training for begin? Is Opening Day the only one that really counts? Let’s break down the different events and see what the best place is to be waiting for.

Pitchers and Catchers report.
Pro: It’s the first thing to happen.
Con: There’s no games to be had.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

In less than a month, the optional reporting date for batteries rolls around. The pitchers and catchers can show up if they want and begin their stretches, long-toss, short-toss, running up and down the steps – whatever it is they’d like to do. Here’s where a few pictures start trickling in from the beat writers and official twitter accounts, along with Best Shape of His Life stories and subtle comments about who was lazing off during the offseason (Phil Hughes, don’t hide). It’s hard not to be excited about the reporting date, because getting the pitchers to the spring complexes is pretty important — hard to play a game if you don’t have a pitcher — but in essence, you’re waiting for a day when there’s no games.

The fact is, it’s an optional reporting day for only a small part of the team. There’s a solid chance that most of the people won’t even be there, and Mo only knows when all the beat guys are going to show up. The day, besides being a great day when the cogs of baseball start to break the rust and begin to turn, is a day of nothing. If you’re counting down to actual baseball, you’re going to be sorely disappointed, unless you can be satisfied by pictures of CC Sabathia running steps and Phil Hughes looking not-so-chubby. Like the pitchers and catchers themselves, the fans need to warm up to the constant stream of baseball information that we haven’t had in what seems like so long. The cold, dark offseason is done. Baseball is back. (Cue YES music.)

Or…. maybe you’re waiting for some actual games. Maybe you can only be satisfied by the crack of the bat and the thwock of the catcher’s mitt and the analyzation of pitch types and batting stances. In that case, you’re most likely looking forward to…

Spring Training games begin.
Pro: Actual baseball being played!
Con: Games don’t matter, and managers treat them like so.

(AP Photo)

In Spring Training 2011, A.J. Burnett didn’t issue a single walk.

There’s so much hope in the Florida sun! So much excitement! Baby Yankees running around striking out major leaguers! Rotation competitions (that aren’t actually competitions)! Hope for the hopeless! The weak competition, plus the rust coming off the rest of the league, usually makes the fans feel pretty optimistic about everything. This is gonna be the year. Look at all our players! They look awesome! Totally get a ring in 2012, guys. I can feel it.

There’s nothing better than Spring Training in the sense that after a cold, hard offseason nothing hits the spot like baseball. It’s like hot chocolate after dragging yourself down a snowy street or your air-conditioned house when it’s boiling and humid outside. Real baseball, with hits and strikeouts and eye-rollingly bad plays, and pitchers, and outfielders… God, what’s better, honestly? It’s a breath of fresh air with the hopes and dreams of everyone waiting.

Of course, the games don’t matter. They’re try-outs for the invites and practice for the veterans, and usually feature three to four innings of what one might call “competitive baseball” before the AAAA outfielders come in. There’s funky lineup changes, pitchers trying to make pitches work (when they don’t), hitters testing out new everything, players in strange positions, all the stuff that makes a fan go nuts when he (or she) sees it happen. And, as I mentioned earlier, the wins and the losses are both equally meaningless. It’s frustrating, when watching a game, to know it means nothing.

If you actually need that competition, you’re stuck waiting for…

Regular Season begins.
Pro: Actual, real baseball that counts.
Con: Far away.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

It’s here. The real season. Stuff counts. Anything could happen. The rotation is (probably) set. The lineup has been decided. Alex Rodriguez has hopefully avoided embarrassing himself for a whole month. Phil Hughes is skinny again.

Go time.

Is there any better guaranteed day in the year than Opening Day? Real, actual baseball, with players and teams that mean it, and games that matter towards that offseason that seems like it’s never going to come. While game one is, relatively speaking, just as important as game 162, the first is always the best. Our acceptance level of bunting, manager dumbass-ness, and general stupidity is at a high because baseball is baseball and thank god it’s back. Hell, maybe no one will actually whine about the lineup because it’s been so long.

Ok, that’s unlikely.

But just think about how long the regular season is from now: over two months. It doesn’t seem like a lot typed out, but every day with no real baseball is a painful one, especially when you’re watching Spring Training and waiting and waiting and waiting for it to matter. Staring at a baseball game knowing it’s utterly insignificant can be pretty bad, and knowing even more there’s a month or a week to go before things start counting sounds worse.

For me, pitchers and catchers is the day. It’s just so soon, and there’s so much possibility, and everything’s so close – I just can’t help it. I’ve got a countdown widget and everything.

What are you waiting for?

The Hard Choices of the Offseason

(AP Photo/John Marshall Mantel)

The offseason is the worst.

Not just for the total lack of baseball, though that’s a pretty big chunk of it. Not just the lesser sports which we are all forced to tolerate while we wait for our gentleman’s game to come back. There’s also that the decisions made during the cold winter months are a lot more permanent than the year-to-year fluctuations players have with their numbers. You can excuse away a bad year, especially if you’re trying really hard, but it’s not as easy to do so with a whopper of a trade or a big signing. Rationalizing a low average with caught line drives or a low OBP with a large strike zone against is one thing, but there’s no such protections with a big roster moves.

When the season starts, all — or many of — the numbers are influenced by randomness and factors that neither the players nor the ownerships/front office can control. That makes it easy for a fan looking for upside to feel better about his or her self. Every particular at-bat and game has so much go into it that, in most cases, there’s a bright side. Maybe the team was robbed of some stellar line drives. Maybe it was a display of warning track power. Maybe you were no-hit, but the opposing pitcher was so dominant it wasn’t even fair. Game-to-game stuff like a win or a loss can be rationalized.

Players, too. The perfect example for this is, of course, Adam Dunn. I don’t think anyone expects Adam Dunn to be as legitimately downright vomit awful as he was in 2011. That’s impossible, right? It could happen, I guess, but I (and many experts, and I assume Kenny Williams) don’t think so. Having a year like that means everything goes wrong all at once. So White Sox fans can comfort themselves knowing things will probably get better, even if Dunn isn’t the hitter he used to be. Yankees fans can have plenty of optimism in this area as well: maybe Derek Jeter stays that second-half monster he became after his injury. Maybe Alex Rodriguez stays healthy with his experimental knee surgery and his still-impressive power. Maybe Eduardo Nunez learns to field. Maybe Mark Teixeira stops hitting so many pop-ups. But even if they don’t, there’s lots of statistical noise here we can use to rationalize it. A.J. Burnett is a victim of a high HR/FB rate, for example. He’s going to be bad. But he could be slightly better.*

During the offseason, there’s nothing you can do after or during a trade. You’re stuck with the players your GM picked pick up, so here’s hoping they’re good ones. There’s no statistical noise in ‘Jesus Montero was just traded for Michael Pineda.’ You just have to hope that Brian Cashman knows what he’s doing (I personally do), and that everything will work out. It’s not like next year, Cashman gets to try again and see if he can get more for Montero, or if Montero has a massive year and Pineda’s awful, he gets to tweak the trade like a player’s mechanics to make it better. Once a trade or signing is done, that’s it. So long, thanks for all the fish. Hope everything turns out well for your team. Maybe it won’t! Of course, maybe you’ve traded Nick Swisher for Wilson Betemit.

There’s no going back. Not being able to go back is scary. All you’ve got left is this new guy, looking around at his new environment and staring at the hole he’s expected to fill from the guy you kicked out. And that’s on top of hoping that the GM wasn’t emotional about this, either: having your top prospect being traded for peanuts because he hates your bunt-loving manager sounds pretty damn awful to me. You’re not gonna be able to blame that on a torn muscle.

I don’t know how I feel about the Montero/Pineda trade. It could be great. It could be awful. It makes perfect sense in my head, what with New York needing arms and Seattle needing a bat (especially considering Cashman has been trying to give Montero to Seattle for a while now), but that’s a different statement than if I I like it. I guess it’s hard to make a decision because whether I like it or not, that’s the way it is. Even if I hate it, I don’t hate it enough to stop being a Yankees fan – Pineda’s an exciting possibility, he’s shown he’s capable, and he’s got a hell of a slider. Of course, like all Yankees fans, I loved Jesus Montero like you love a baseball player — that screaming power, the youth, the team control, all the potential and none of the inevitable disappointment. I’m sure I’ll either grow to love Pineda (in a good ending), or have bitter, hateful thoughts at Montero getting AL MVP and decide the world is a joyless, terrible place (in a bad ending). That’s just how being a fan is. The fact is, of these players will be subject to the random variation that comes with the long baseball season, and we’ll be justifying what they do no matter what. But we’re stuck with who we got, and all we can do is hope it all works out. (For us, not for them. Sorry, Jesus.)

* I get some kind of sick masochistic joy out of defending A.J. Burnett. I don’t know either.
** For other views on the Montero/Pineda trade, I, like Mike, strongly advise Lookout Landing, The Best Mariners Blog.
*** Sorry I’ve been absent for a while. You will now be subject to me on a more regular basis.

A Little Bit of Luck

AP/Bill Koustron

I’m not ready to give up on A.J. Burnett.

I know, it’s stupid. I know the numbers. I know the depressing reality. I am quite sure he is going to be in the rotation next season (at least for the majority of the year), and while in the rotation he will give up a lot of dingers and a lot of walks and make Russell Martin earn whatever he’s paid. He will also make the collective fanbase want to strangle him on multiple occasions. I’m ready for it.

I know the blogosphere is going to roll their collective eyes at this, but I think Burnett could be looking at year where he brings his numbers down again. He’ll probably never live up to that $16.5M that being paid, but the continued starter crunch means that if the guy you’re paying like a starting pitcher can at least put up mediocre innings (and not outright bad ones like Burnett has a tendency to do), that would be pretty nice.

Aside from a misplaced surplus of hope, the real reason I think Burnett can improve is that many of his peripherals did increase last year. He trended upwards in ground balls for the third year in a row, dragged himself back to his normal k/9 rate of around 8, and just managed to keep his walk rate under 4/9ip. In hindsight, he was better than he was in 2010, but that wasn’t exactly a difficult thing to do. There is one number that sticks out to me, though. Maybe, like many players, Burnett was a victim of random, year-long fluctuations that make him seem worse than he actually was. I’m not saying that a little luck is going to turn him a Cy Young winner, just that there’s a possibility of a slightly less depressing year.

That is this: in 2011, 17% of all fly balls A.J. Burnett gave up turned into home runs, which lead major league baseball. That’s absurd, and obviously much higher than the MLB average of 10%. It lead to his 1.47 HR/9 ratio (third-highest in baseball behind Colby Lewis and Bronson Arroyo), and combined with his usual walk rate, had a pretty horrible effect on his numbers. Burnett gave up 109 ER this year, and 49 of them – almost half! – came from the longball. Even with his vastly improved ground ball rate, he gave up the exact same amount of earned runs as he did in 2010, and actually fewer runs if you count the unearned ones. In this trend, his infield fly ball percentage also dropped below his career average this year, which could also be part of the problem.

In 2010, Burnett gave up 215 fly balls and 25 home runs, which is a fairly average 11.6% HR/FB. In 2011, Burnett gave up 185 fly balls and 31 home runs, causing this massive spike. Curiously enough, Burnett has been trending downwards in fly balls for all three years of his Yankees contract, while his homer rate is going up for the past four years, starting back in Toronto in 2008. Some of that massive 17% is coming from depressing A.J. Burnett statistics: dropping fastball velocity, missed location, age-related decline, that sort of depressing junk. Perhaps ballplayers are simply sizing him better. Some of it might come from the fact he spends plenty of time in the homer-happy AL East. But the enormous uptick makes me want to believe that some of it is simply part of year-to-year randomness, and that while A.J. is far from an ace, a few less dingers would go a long way to helping him and the team. Even if we keep his HR/FB rate above average at 14%, that means he gives up five fewer homers, which could do a lot for the man – especially if people were on-base at those particular times.

Like I said, I don’t think that a few less dingers is going to turn A.J. Burnett into an immensely valuable asset. But considering that the Yankees are probably not going to be able to find someone to take Burnett and Brian Cashman insists that the man is going to spend most of the year – if not all of it – in the rotation, it’s these small quirks that we have to try and rely on to improve his performance. In this case, the Yankees could use a little luck when it comes to Burnett, or even just the scales tipping even again.