For A.J., the 2010 clock is running out

A.J.

Once upon a time, A.J. Burnett was having a very good 2010 season. Through May 6 — six starts — Burnett was 4-0 with a 1.99 ERA and a 2.85 FIP. His strike out totals — just 28 in 40.2 innings — were down, but he was keeping both runners off base and the ball in the park. Just one of the first 164 batters to face him homered.

Since then, Burnett has, with the exception of a few good starts in July, been utterly abysmal. He’s 6-15 over his last 26 starts, and he’s averaging just over 5.1 innings per start. After last night’s 2.1-inning, seven-run fiasco, his ERA over those 140 innings is 6.30, and he’s allowed 23 home runs and 64 walks while striking out just 111 guys. Opponents have an OPS against him of approximately .860. In other words, A.J. Burnett’s opponents are putting up better offensive numbers than Mark Teixeira.

Clearly, the Yankees have an A.J. problem, but what that problem is, as Jack Curry said last night on the YES Network, no one knows. “The Yankees haven’t been able to figure A.J. Burnett out,” he said during the postgame show, “so I’m not going to be able to figure him out.”

Through some of the tools available to us, we can see that A.J.’s results haven’t been so poor. His fastball velocity is down a little over a mile per hour which by itself shouldn’t create these problems, but the Pitch f/x data says his heater is too flat while his breaking pitches aren’t moving as much as they had in the past. But as Jack Curry said, figuring out the why and how of it should net someone a Major League consulting job.

After the game, Burnett’s comments boarded on flippant, but I can’t hold his statements against him. This is a professional athlete, 33 years old, struggling through his worst stretch of play. He can either be defiant, depressed or in denial, and right now, he appears to be suffering through a mixture of the three. “You have to get caught up in it,” Burnett said. “It’s a big game, a big night, but the way my season’s been, I’m not going to let it affect me. I’ve been through way worse than tonight.”

Today, tomorrow, next week, the question will focus around the American League Division Series. Because of the schedule, the Yankees do not need four starters. They can run out their Game 1 starter on three days’ rest for Game 4 and throw their Game 2 starter in Game 5 on full rest. Between Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett, someone will be the odd man out. “I would expect to start in the postseason,” Burnett said last night. “I just want the ball. Whatever Joe decides, it’s Joe’s decision.”

Enter denial. As the Yanks’ pitching stands today, A.J. Burnett will not and should not get the ball during the ALDS. While it’s true that regular season success (or failure) doesn’t predict post-season results, Burnett has done nothing to earn a key October start. Last night, he couldn’t locate his fastball and left his breaking pitches up over the plate. When he fell into hitter’s counts, the Blue Jays’ sluggers made him pay. On the other hand, Phil Hughes was nothing short of spectacular on Sunday night, and if the decision comes down to handing the bill to one of them to stave off elimination, Hughes is my guy.

That said, Burnett will probably have to pitch this October if the Yankees are to advance to the World Series. The ALCS schedule returns to the familiar 2-3-2 format this year without an extra off-day, and unless the Yanks are willing to run CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Hughes out there on three days’ rest for an entire seven-game set, Burnett will have to make an appearance. Maybe he could dominate the Twins in the ALDS as he did last year; maybe he could shut down Tampa Bay. My confidence in him though is at a low, and while Game 2 of the 2009 World Series will go down in Yankee lore, A.J. Burnett cannot coast on that legacy any longer.

Going forward, the Yankees will have to assess Burnett’s future. They still owe him $49.5 million over the next three years, and he won’t be traded unless the Yanks eat a significant portion of that deal. Based on his 2010 season alone, he’s nothing better than a fifth starter, and as like the rest of us, he’ll be a year older next year. I shudder to think what that future might bring, but if it involves April 2010 A.J. Burnett, count me in. Everything else has been one long, vivid nightmare.

Yanks can’t overcome Burnett’s latest meltdown

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press,Nathan Denette)

In what has become and all too familiar scene this season, A.J. Burnett put the Yankees in an almost immediate hole, a hole too deep for the offense to dig out of. Sure, they showed some signs of life in the later innings, but they then it was too little, too late. A September to forget continued with a 7.5 loss to the Blue Jays.

No Good, Very Bad A.J.

Honestly, I don’t really want to recap Burnett’s latest stinker. He got tagged for seven runs on seven hits (three singles, two doubles, two homers) and a walk in just two-and-a-third innings of work against his former team, reducing the Yanks’ win expectancy to just 2.9% less than a third of the way through the contest. Every ball was scalded too, don’t think he was victimized by a few bloopers or anything like that. A.J.’s season record now sits 10-15 with a 5.33 ERA, awful numbers for anyone allowed to make 32 starts and throw 180.2 innings, nevermind a guy paid $16.5M annually to be a number two starter on a championship team.

Burnett lines up to make one more start this season, Game 162 on Sunday, but there’s quite literally nothing he could do to regain the confidence of the fan base at this point. If Joe Girardi and the rest of the Yankee brain trust are foolish enough to trust this guy in a playoff game, then they deserve what they get.

No Good, Very Bad Offense

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

Oh yeah, let’s not forget how punchless the lineup looked on this fine evening. Marc Rzepczynski, he of the 5.75 ERA coming into the game, didn’t just keep the Yanks at bay in his five innings for work, he dominated them. Nine of the 15 outs he recorded came on strikeouts, and one point he struck out five straight and seven of nine. Curtis Granderson tagged him for a two run homer in the fifth, but Derek Jeter killed what could have been a rally two batters later when he grounded into his 21st double play of the season. Rzepcynski walked three batters and allowed two hits in the inning, but gave up only two runs. Story of September.

Mark Teixeira made it seem like a game with a three run homer in the seventh inning, but otherwise the offense did nothing of note. Of the final four Yankee batters to come to the plate, three were ahead 2-0 or 3-0 in the count, and all three made outs. Again, story of September.

Okay, Pretty Good Bullpen

I guess the one bright spot in this game was the work of the bullpen after Burnett departed. Jon Albaladejo cleaned up A.J.’s mess than chipped in a scoreless inning on top of that. Dustin Moseley gave Girardi two scoreless, David Robertson four somewhat scary outs (he did give up some hard hit balls), Boone Logan two pitches and an out, Chad Gaudin three pitches and out. Once Burnett was out of the game, Yankee relievers allowed just two hits and two walks in 5.2 innings of work. So yeah, hooray for that.

Leftovers

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press,Nathan Denette)

Austin Kearns picked up two hits and a walk, but he also struck out for the 14th straight game in which he’s played. I’d call that rather dubious. With 14 strikeouts as a team, this was the 25th time this season the Yankees struck out at least ten times in a game. It’s the 15th time it’s happened since July 31st, a span of just 54 games. I blame Kearns and only Kearns. Am I doing that right?

Hard to believe, but Grandy’s slugging percentage (.474) is dangerously close to Mark Teixeira’s (.488) even counting both player’s homers from this game. Who saw that coming two months ago?

This was New York’s 14th loss in their last 20 games, and they’re now just 27-26 in their last 53 games. Prett-ay, prett-ay awful if you ask me. They’re playing like crap and seem to be bottoming out at the worst possible time. Good thing a playoff spot in pretty much in the bag.

The Rays lost to the Orioles, so the Yanks still trail Tampa by half-a-game in the AL East with five to play. It’s effectively a one-and-a-half game lead though because the Rays hold the tie breaker. The Red Sox pounded the White Sox, so the magic number to clinch a playoff spot remains at one

WPA Graph & Box Score

Thanks, A.J. ESPN has the box score, FanGraphs some other cool stuff.

Up Next

We’ll have more on this tomorrow, but the Yanks will send CC Sabathia to the mound on Tuesday in what can only be described as a panic move. It’s tough to say otherwise since it throws Sabathia completely off schedule to start Game One of the ALDS. And the best part? Toronto’s throwing Kyle Drabek, a pitcher the Yankees have never seen before. That usually ends well.

Game 157: Don’t let up

It's okay, you can look now Grandy. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Following two intense series against division rivals and last night’s ulcer-inducing win, I kinda figured that Joe Girardi would take his foot off the gas a little bit and rest his players tonight. A playoff spot is all but locked up (for real this time), and quite a few players on the roster could use some time off to rest or heal up. They could have rested tonight, then come out to play the next two games before Thursday’s off day.

But nope, Girardi is still playing to win with six games left on the schedule and what is essentially a one-and-a-half game deficit in the division (Tampa holds the tie-breaker). It’s not quite the A-lineup, but it’s pretty close for this time of the year. I kinda like it, they still need to get out of this funk and that won’t happen on the bench. I just hope no one gets hurt.

Jeter, SS
Swisher, RF – I really would like to see him rest that knee
Teixeira, 1B
Rodriguez, 3B
Cano, 2B
Thames, DH
Kearns, RF- when did Brett Gardner turn into a platoon player?
Granderson, CF
Cervelli, C

And on the bump, it’s Allen Burnett.

First pitch is set for a little after 7pm ET and can be seen on YES locally or MLB Network nationally. Enjoy the (hopefully) stress free environment.

Anticipating Andy Pettitte’s return

When Andy Pettitte went down with a groin injury that cost him two months of his 2010 campaign, I guessed the injury would spur him into pitching again next year. At 11-3 and with a 3.17 ERA, he can clearly still dominate American League hitters, and he strikes me as the type of player who wants to finish strong. So as part of the Yanks’ ode to Brett Favre but without the self-serving headlines or unnecessary drama, the “will he or won’t he?” debate over Andy Pettitte has already begun. In Jon Heyman’s latest, the Sports Illustrated scribe puts Pettitte’s return at 50/50. “I hope” he returns, Jorge Posada said. “He had a pretty good year. He’s still, for me, one of the best big-game pitchers.”

Earlier in the weekend, Ken Davidoff added his take on the topic: Pettitte says Roger Clemens’ legal troubles and his own role in the the government’s case will, in his words, have “absolutely nothing” to do with the decision to return to baseball. If Pettitte, who turns 39 next June, does return in 2011, it will more likely than not be his last season. “I know I’m not going to be playing at age 40. I know that,” he said to Davidoff. “So there’s just things I know I promised myself that I wouldn’t let happen. And those things would happen if I kept playing.”

Phil Hughes and the ALDS rotation

We've come a long way, Phil. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

It wouldn’t be hard to make a case that last night’s start was the biggest of Phil Hughes‘ young career. The Yankees had lost four in a row and the whispers of a Metsian choke were getting louder heading into the season’s final week. Whether it was panic or not, Brian Cashman, Joe Girardi, and the rest of the coaching staff placed enough importance on the game to alter their pitching plans and give the ball to Hughes rather than Dustin Moseley in a nationally televised game that could potentially guarantee them no worse than a tie of the Wild Card. It was the first time since last November that a Yankee game had that electricity, that playoff kind of atmosphere, and Hughes certainly delivered.

On the heels of a six inning, three hit, one run outing against the Red Sox on Sunday, the overall season performance is more than fine for a 24-year-old kid in the AL East. Hughes has made 29 starts (and one one-inning relief appearance) and pitched to near-perfectly aligned 4.21 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 4.38 xFIP, and 4.30 tRA. To paraphrase Denny Green, he is who we thought he is. The plan to monitor his workload has gone rather smoothly, and Phil has finished very strong: .191/.286/.338 in his last three starts, taking the ball into the seventh inning each time. It’s not a question of if the righty has earned a spot in the playoff rotation, but where exactly he slots in.

Obviously CC Sabathia will start Game One of the ALDS, regardless of opponent and location, and whatever the team does to line him up for that start is beyond the scope of this post. Everything after Sabathia is a bit up in the air, at least to us outsiders, and chances are it’ll depend at least a little bit on the matchups. If the Yankees win the division, they’ll start the ALDS at home against the Rangers, but if they settle for the Wild Card (a far more likely scenario) they’ll start the postseason against the Twins in Target Field.

As we already know, Hughes’ bugaboo this season has been the longball, especially at home. He’s allowed 20 of his 25 homers in the Bronx, and opponents had tagged him for a .325 wOBA at home compared to .280 on the road. That’s the difference between this year’s versions of Jason Kubel and Jason Kendall, for some perspective. Assuming the Yanks take the Wild Card and face the Twins (again, the far more likely scenario), the series opens in Target Field, a park that has suppressed homers to 60.9% of the league average in its first year of existence. In the frigid cold of October in Minnesota, chances are the long ball will be at even more of a premium.

(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Those homer suppressing tendencies play right into the Yankees’ hands with Hughes, and it helps neutralize his biggest weakness. With CC starting Game One, starting Hughes in Game Two against the Twins gives the Yanks the best potential rotation setup in the five game series. Not only does it help with his homer problem, but it also pushes Andy Pettitte back to Game Three in Yankee Stadium. That will help keep Minny’s lefthanded power somewhat in check, which is especially important with the short porch in right. That would also take Jim Thome (.477 wOBA vs. RHP, .335 vs. LHP) out of the equation for at least the first few innings of Game Three, something that can’t hurt in a homer friendly park. And just looking at the scenarios, if the Yanks are up 2-0, they have Andy going to close things out. If they series is tied at one, Andy’s there to help them take the lead. If they’re down 0-2, there’s Andy to stop the bleeding.

Of course there’s a significant drawback here. Given the ALDS schedule, Sabathia can start Game Four on three day’s rest, then whoever starts Game Two can start Game Five on five day’s rest. That puts Hughes, after a full season and the largest workload of his career, on the mound with the season on the line. Anyone with a brain between their ears would be more comfortable with giving the ball to Pettitte in that situation regardless of matchups, stadium, etc. However, I suppose if things go according to plan in Games Two and Three, that deciding fifth game won’t be necessary.

Those fourth and fifth games can’t be a concern right now, the goal is too put the team in the best position to win during the first three games, the only ones guaranteed to be played. Hughes has pitched well enough down the stretch to earn a postseason rotation spot, and if they end up playing the Twins as the Wild Card, it’s stands to reason that throwing Phil in Game Two and Pettitte in Game Three takes the most advantage of their skill sets and puts the team in the best position to win. Now, obviously things would change if they jumped ahead of the Rays and somehow won the division, but that’s a road we’ll cross if it happens. For now, yeah, I think St. Phil has to get the ball for that second game in Minnesota.

The Alex Rodriguez Appreciation Thread

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Alex Rodriguez has been a lot of things in his time with the Yankees. He’s been a hero, a goat, unclutch, a stat-padder, a PED cheat, injured, the guy that’s dating Madonna, the MVP (twice), and a World Champion, but above all, he’s been a monster player on the field at all times. Even in 2010, statistically the worst full season of career, Alex has managed a .274/.345/.516 (.368 wOBA) batting line, which is a career year for most players. A 13th consecutive season of 30 or more homeruns seemed impossible just a week ago, but a recent binge that produced four homers in eight at-bats has him right on the doorstep.

Yes, there’s still seven years and $184M left on his contract and chances are the back-end of that will be ugly, but right now Alex is giving the Yankees everything they’ve asked of him. His very presence in the batter’s box changes the game and more often than not his swing does as well. Last night’s seventh inning two-run, opposite field homer against the wind to give the Yanks their first lead in four games was his latest masterpiece. Back in May he singlehandedly put an end to a four loss in five day stretch with a late inning grand slam against the Twins. Last season’s postseason heroics are the stuff of legend, and that’s the kind of groove Alex is in right now.

Since returning from the disabled list and an injured calf, A-Rod has hit .333/.415/.710 with eight homers in 19 games, and if you go back to before the DL stint, he’s hit 13 homers in his last 29 starts. That his pushed him past for the 4.0 fWAR threshold (it’s 4.1, to be exact) yet again, the 15th consecutive season he’s been no worse than a four-win player. Those 15 seasons represent almost the entirety of Alex’s career, which started in earnest with his age-20 season in 1996. It still feels like he just got here, but he’s played 232 more games as a Yankee than as a Mariner.

At one point the Yanks’ record without A-Rod in the lineup this season was something like 13-0 or 13-1, but no one in their right mind thinks the team is seriously better off without him. That win-loss record is a fluke, a perfect example of the randomness of baseball. The drop off from Alex to his replacement, whether it be Ramiro Pena or Cody Ransom or Miguel Cairo, has always been enormous and noticeable on the field. After the embarrassment of the PED revelations and the hip injury last year, any semblance of ego or selfishness is gone, and A-Rod been 100% focused on the team since. New Yorkers love giving people shots at redemption, and he’s done a rather marveous job of redeeming himself since last spring.

Robinson Cano has been the Yanks’ best player this season, but A-Rod has been the team’s greatest player since the moment he first put on the uniform in 2004. Even at 35-years-old, he’s a force at the plate and far-and-away the guy every Yankee fan wants to see at the plate in a big spot. How times have changed. It seems foolish to laud a player when he figures to be around for so many more years, but Alex is no ordinary player. He’s an all-time great Yankee, and deserves to be recognized as such.

Mo’s troubles come down to command

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

It usually only happens once a year. At some point, usually early in the season, Mariano Rivera will struggle for about a week. A few years ago it led to column after column wondering if this was the end of his superhuman run. Baseball writers have since learned, though, and we no longer see anything like that. We just accept that Mo will have a bad week and move on.

This year we’ve seen something a bit different. Mo experienced his annual rough week in May when he walked in a run and then served up a grand slam against the Twins, allowed two runs against Boston, and then had a shaky time saving a close game against the Mets. Before those three appearances he hadn’t allowed a run all season. He didn’t allow another run in his next 16 appearances. In other words, it looked like any other year. But since September 11 we’ve seen something quite different.

On September 10 the Yankees and Rangers were deadlocked at five heading into extra innings. Wanting to take the first game of a three-game set in Arlington, Joe Girardi went to Mo for the 10th. Even after the Yankees failed to score in their half of the 11th, Girardi went back to Mo. The appearance didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. Mo allowed one hit and struck out two in those two frames. But he cannot go three innings and the Yankees lost when Nelson Cruz homered off Chad Gaudin.

The next day the Yankees found themselves in a position to take the second game of the series. Up 6-5 heading into the bottom of the ninth, Girardi again turned to Mo. A few years ago that wouldn’t have raised a single eyebrow. But this year Mo is 40 going on 41, and he had just thrown two innings the previous day. He had used only 23 pitches to retire those six Rangers, so perhaps he was good for a rebound. It was not to be. The Rangers rallied for two runs in the bottom of the ninth while Mo recorded only one out. It was the first time in 2010 that he’d come into the game with a lead and allowed the walk-off hit.

Since then Mo has not at all been Mo. In the 5.2 innings since his two-inning appearance he has allowed six runs on nine hits and two walks, though the two walks did come during that game in Texas. Most strikingly, though, he has struck out just one batter. While he has saved three games in that span, he hasn’t looked particularly dominant in any of them. This certainly raises questions about how effective he will be in the playoffs.

The problem stems from his command. For a decade and a half we’ve seen Mo throw pitches right to the catcher’s glove. It’s part of the reason why he’s able to survive with just the cutter and the occasional fastball. This year we’ve seen more of the same. While it’s not the best measure of command, per se, Mo had thrown 67 percent of his pitches for strikes through September 10, which is right around where he’s been for most of his career. I’m not sure we can precisely measure command, but if Mo’s balls in play tendencies are any indicator then he’s doing just fine. Opponents are hitting fewer line drives and more weak fly balls, as evidenced by his meager 3.6 percent HR/FB ratio. He has also induced a swinging strike with 8.3 percent of his pitches, which is actually an increase over last year.

In his last six appearances Mo has thrown just 61 percent of his pitches for strikes, though most of that is due to the blown save in Texas, when he threw just nine of 21 pithes for strikes. That leaves a 65 percent strike rate in the following five appearances, but they haven’t all been good strikes. The 23 batter he has faced have a .300 BABIP, while Mo’s season mark is .235 and his career mark is .274. Maybe some of that is luck evening out, but most likely it’s Mo not having perfect command and serving up hittable pitches.

Given the way Mo has pitched since the two-inning appearance in Texas, it’s easy to point to that as the cause of his struggles. I used to launch into the correlation ? causation line here, but that itself is oversimplified. Maybe the strain of pitching an inning, sitting down, and then pitching another inning has affected Mo. It’s certainly possible, though I do think there is a better explanation. As Ben said last night, it’s been a long season and Mo is 40 going on 41. But in that way, I guess, it can be both. Maybe Mo’s body is no longer up to the task of pitching, then sitting down, then going out to pitch again. He did, after all, look quite fine when he retired his one batter in the eighth last night.

The good news is that Mo can get a breather this week. The Yanks are all but assured a playoff spot, so Girardi can cycle through his other, less effective relievers while he waits for the starting pitching and offense to deliver a win, or the White Sox to play the part of eliminator. I’d bank on no more than one more appearance for Mo, and that will be a tune-up. That’s nothing but good news for the Yanks, who will need their closer to again be superhuman in the playoffs.

Quick note: If Phil Cuzzi had an accurate notion of the strike zone we might not even be having this conversation right now. I’m not exactly blaming the ump; Mo still has to make his pitches. But if Bill Hall strikes out we’re looking at a completely different game, one that the Yanks might have won 2-1. Jon Papelbon, too, criticized Cuzzi, but his point was ultimately moot. If Cuzzi had given Papelbon those calls, well, he still wouldn’t have given him those calls because Pap wouldn’t have pitched in the first place. But this is just an end note, not something I think we should spend any real time discussing. Umps suck. We know this.