Learning to Embrace A.J.-ness

Burnett cracks a smile as he plots to only dominate the Yankees in 2008. (AP Photo/Frank Gunn)

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates talks of our natural inability to see things for what they truly are. Objects and concepts that we think we see and know (Jeff Kent, for instance) are actually copies of the ideal article (Jeff Kent-ness), which, for the most part, exists beyond our earthly comprehension. (For a painfully drawn out illustration of this, or if you’re simply having trouble falling asleep, please read Plato’s “Myth of the Cave.”) It’s only by having an extensive dialogue with others, says Socrates, that we can ever begin to approach the essence or –ness of something, thus enabling us to move beyond the illusions and “shadows” of our material world.

Which, naturally, brings us to A.J. Burnett.

Because when it comes to A.J., all we see are the shadows – spectacular, seductive shadows: The cocky, ferocious swagger; the no-hitter in his first full season; the 96 MPH heater and hammer curve; the 3.8 WAR in ’02 and 231 Ks in ’08; the World Series gem; and the repeated bullying of his future employer, culminating in a 8 IP, 13K dismantling at Rogers Center in 2008. That he can physically impose his will over opposing hitters like few others brings to mind images of Randy Johnson, Clemens, Pedro, and Ryan, which reinforces the illusion. This only adds to our confusion as to why he isn’t, you know, better.

Other than a stellar 8.2 K/9, Burnett’s 12-year career stat line is a nudge above pedestrian: 3.93 FIP, 1.32 WHIP, 107 ERA+, 21.5 WAR. We’re talking Charles Nagy-Ismael Valdez-Jarrod Washburn territory. This is really not such a horrible thing, of course, unless your curve has been tabbed as “unhittable,” or you’ve been called “the nastiest pitcher in baseball” by Derek Jeter.

Compounding matters, A.J. is given to unsightly implosions on the mound. These episodes typically begin with a seemingly benign wild pitch or hit batsman and culminate with an upper-deck grand slam by a .720 OPS-ing utility infielder and Sergio Mitre’s garbage-time trunk rotations in the bullpen.

Sometimes weeks pass in which Burnett, still mired in one of these patented sadness spirals, more closely resembles a frazzled, overmatched triple-A journeyman than the dominant enforcer he’s shown glimpses of being throughout his career: the shutdown ace that scouts gushed over, the cocky fireballer fans expect to show up for good any moment now. But these spells aren’t a recent development and are as much a part of A.J.’s overall body of work as his eye-popping moments of excellence. Baseball Prospectus nagged readers of this in 2009, immediately following his signing with the Yankees.

That the only three 200-inning seasons of Burnett’s career have been followed by either free agency of Tommy John surgery would seem to be a bad omen for the Yankees after giving him a five-year, $82.5 million contract. The Yankees were wowed by Burnett’s dominating them in five starts last year…but if you take those starts away, his 2008 ERA swells to a decidedly unimpressive 4.57, his WHIP gets up to 1.43, and his strikeout/walk ration shrinks to 2.4.

I remain skeptical about what B.P. was trying to imply here: That A.J. mails it in, save for contract years? That he lacks the focus and will necessary to remain consistently great against less storied franchises? That the Yankees were completely deluded in assessing his overall talent level?

Either way, B.P. was merely parroting the time-honored narrative that paints A.J. as a petulant hothouse flower who only performs to expectations in contract years. As the story goes, his failures as a starting pitcher are mainly due to deficiencies of will, mental toughness, and character rather than mechanical flaws or physical limitations. Because, as we all know, bad people are no good at sports.

Addressing the assumption that Burnett melts under pressure is the first order of business. A.J.’s career leverage numbers, shown in the table below, reinforce the notion that perception is often the enemy of reality.

For the Gold-Digger Corollary of these claims, I took a glance at four big-market clubs for whom A.J. may have been “auditioning” in 2008. I realize how un-dude it is of me to arbitrarily select a group of teams that A.J. might have had an interest in at the time, but it can’t possibly be any more unscientific than implying that Burnett stinks because he’s a lazy sack of insanity. So here’s what I found:

I realize the sample sizes here are microscopic. If anything, they reveal that A.J. may have indeed been galvanized to pitch against the big money teams in 2008, especially if one considers Burnett’s total body of work against the Red Sox (4.79 ERA, 1.435 WHIP). Whether or not the improvement in ’08 was due to a conscious contract push, the adrenaline rush of playing in front of crowds big enough to mute out the sound of his own breathing, or the added focus needed to navigate some very good offensive squads would be practically impossible to know for sure.

I vote for the latter.

While it’s specious to conclude that A.J. was lights-out against the Bombers in ’08 only because he was auditioning for a massive contract, it’s equally rash to completely discount the added intensity and self-discipline that pitching against a 900-run juggernaut like the Yankees might evoke. Time and again, we’ve witnessed soft-tossing journeymen or emergency call-ups summoning the ghost of Walter Johnson when facing the Yanks’ offensive machine – only to regress back to their former selves after posting double-digit strikeouts in eight maddening innings of one-run ball.

There could be a hundred different reasons for this phenomenon (which is actually more seldom than it seems). But like most of these one-hit-wonders, the inability to maintain long-term consistency – whether due to a lack of focus, faulty mechanics, excessive anxiety, or nagging injuries – is a fundamental component of A.J.’s essence, more so than all the striking cobras, flaming daggers and barbed wire armbands in the world.

Except what sets A.J. apart from the legions of mercurial journeymen is precisely what deludes scouts, fans, and pundits into hysterical visions of Tom Seaver 2.0: misplaced expectations. Conventional wisdom simply refuses to shut up about his raw stuff being among the best in the game while failing to acknowledge that baseball is littered with sexy fastball failures. The simple fact is that Burnett’s repertoire consists two pitches bundled in a package of a flawed delivery and erratic command.

And yet somehow we feel duped, refusing to acknowledge that beyond the egregious contract and awe-inducing gun readings, A.J. Burnett was never equipped to be much more than a mid-rotation starter, which is still a truly valuable commodity. But Plato would say we’re fixated on the deception of the “shadows,” unable to see – and, more importantly, accept – the true essence of A.J.

(AP Photo/Frank Gunn)

The ones that got away…PECOTA-style

The final stage of grieving is acceptance. With pitchers and catchers a mere two sleeps away, it’s time to look back on the starting pitchers who eluded the grasp of Brian Cashman and the New York Yankees and look forward to what 2011 holds for them. With the aid of Baseball Prospectus’ “deadly accurate” PECOTA projection system we can attempt to formulate an expectation for the players that will be donning the duds of other inferior teams in 2011. The list includes five names. The Yankees have been tied to all of them in varying degrees of interest: explicit interest, media-driven interest, and the wishful thinking of fans, or “should have”-interest. We’ll start with the most painful one of all.

That's an ugly tie, Cliff. (AP Photo)

Cliff Lee, LHP, Philadelphia Phillies

2010: 212.1 IP, 3.18 ERA, 2.58 FIP, 7.84 K/9, 0.76 BB/9, 10.28 K/BB, 41.9 GB%.

2011 PECOTA projection: 211 IP, 3.17 ERA, 3.37 FIP, 6.80 K/9, 1.60 BB/9, 4.18 K/BB, 44.2 GB%.

As is no surprise, the crown jewel of the offseason and the one for whom I have no end of hatred in my heart now grades out quite favorably by PECOTA’s standards. The high innings pitched total must be reassuring to Philly fans who have any degree of concern over his past back and oblique injury and his general advancement in age (he turns 33 this summer): 211 innings pitched is the 8th highest projected total in the PECOTA system for starting pitchers. PECOTA is seeing a regression in his strike out rate closer to his career average of 6.93 despite the fact that he’s moving to the National League. It’s also seeing an increase in his walk rate, hardly a surprise given how low it was in 2010. Despite the fact that his projected walk rate of 1.60 BB/9  is nearly a full batter higher per nine innings, this mark would have been fourth-best in baseball in 2010. Regression in his strikeout and walk rates means that his historic K/BB ratio should come back to earth a bit in 2011; again though a 4.18 K/BB would have ranked third-best in baseball. It’s unlikely that Lee can replicate his virtually unprecedented strikeout to walk ratio in 2011, but he still projects to be one of the best pitchers in the game. I hate you, Cliff.

Underrated. (AP Photo/Barry Gutierrez)

Hiroki Kuroda, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers

2010: 196.1 IP, 3.39 ERA, 3.26 FIP, 7.29 K/9, 2.20 BB/9, 3.31 K/BB, 51.1 GB%.

2011 PECOTA projection: 171.3 IP, 3.47 ERA, 3.63 FIP, 6.10 K/9, 2.20 BB/9, 2.72 K/BB, 50.1 GB%.

Including Kuroda in this group of pitchers is slightly misleading. He signed with Los Angeles during the exclusive negotiating window after the World Series; teams like the Yankees never had a real shot at inking him. Regardless, Kuroda is also projected to put together a very good 2011 season. PECOTA expects a decrease in his strikeout rate from his 2010 mark, but projects an identical walk rate and nearly identical ground-ball percentage.

Last summer in a piece entitled “Bring me Kuroda!” at The Yankee U I argued that the struggles of Burnett and Vazquez should lead the Yankees to try to acquire Kuroda for the stretch run and the playoffs. He possess decent strikeout stuff, but also keeps the ball on the ground like few other pitchers. The Yankees passed on him at the time, and weren’t able to show any interest this offseason. It wouldn’t be wise to expect Kuroda to replicate a sub-3.50 FIP in the AL East. However, Kuroda is one of the more unknown and underrated pitchers in baseball. His 4.0 fWAR in 2010 represents value equivalent to bigger and flashier names like Mat Latos, Tommy Hanson, Ricky Romero and even Matt Cain. It’s water under the bridge now that Kuroda signed with Los Angeles for 1 year and $12.5M, but he’s a name to watch this season, especially if the Dodgers fall out of contention this summer.

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darren Calabrese)

Shaun Marcum, RHP, Milwaukee Brewers

2010: 195 IP, 3.64 ERA, 3.74 FIP, 7.60 K/9, 1.98 BB/9, 3.84 K/BB, 38.4 GB%.

2011 PECOTA projection: 134.7 IP, 3.88 ERA, 4.12 FIP, 7.60 K/9, 2.60 BB/9, 2.90 K/BB, 42.3 GB%.

Going into the 2010 season it was hard to ancitipate what Shaun Marcum would bring to the the table for the rebuilding Blue Jays. Marcum missed the end of the 2008 season and most of the 2009 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, but was nevertheless named the Opening Day starter after the team dealt ace Roy Halladay to the Phillies. Marcum responded with a valiant effort on the year, giving the Jays nearly 200 innings of 3.74 FIP ball, and the Jays thanked him for his efforts by promptly sending him to Milwaukee for Brett Lawrie.

PECOTA isn’t particularly optimistic about Marcum in 2011. Performance-wise it expects him to maintain his strikeout stuff but lose some of the control he exhibited in 2010. More notably though it doesn’t see him logging more than 135 innings. For what it’s worth, Marcel projects a similar line for Marcum: 158 innings of 3.94 FIP ball with a 7.35 K/9 and a 2.45 BB/9. The Brewers have gone all in for 2011, acquiring Zack Greinke and Marcum to complement budding ace Yovani Gallardo in an attempt to win now. Prince Fielder is scheduled to hit free agency after this season, and Greinke is only under contract for one year after that. Whether the Brewers are able to outperform the Reds and the Cardinals and return to the playoffs will hinge partly on whether Marcum can outperform these low IP projections and stay healthy this season.

Maybe next year, Carl. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)

Carl Pavano, RHP, Minnesota Twins

2010: 221 IP, 3.75 ERA, 4.02 FIP, 4.76 K/9, 1.51 BB/9, 3.16 K/BB, 51.2 GB%.

2011 PECOTA projection: 102.7 IP, 4.22 ERA, 3.99 FIP, 5.20 K/9, 1.90 BB/9, 2.68 K/BB, 47.1 GB%.

As painful as it is to include Pavano’s name in a list like this, the fact remains that the Yankees pursued him this offseason, going so far as to discuss a sign-and-trade with the Diamondbacks for the right-hander. Pavano profiles somewhat similarly to Kuroda by featuring a low walk rate and inducing tons of ground balls. Pavano still had a very good 2010 campaign, and the Twins brought him back on a two year deal worth roughly $16M.

PECOTA isn’t optimistic about Pavano’s ability to stay healthy. Join the club, PECOTA. Join the club. It also sees Pavano registering a relatively higher strikeout rate and ground-ball rate in 2011. There are limits to what projection systems can see, though, and this is a good example. Fangraphs’ Dave Allen profiled Pavano a few weeks ago, noting that the increase in Pavano’s ground-ball rate was probably related to the increase in ground balls that Pavano was getting on his slider, going from 37.5 GB%  to nearly 60% on the pitch. This is based on Pavano locating his slider further low and away, and if he continues to pitch in this manner he may remain a heavy groundball and light strikeout pitcher in 2011. However, he may not receive the level of infield defense to which he’s become accustomed, given the departures of JJ Hardy and Orlando Hudson. It’s possible that some of those groundballs will find their way through the infield with greater frequency in 2011.

The only known photo of Greinke talking to the media. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

Zack Greinke, RHP, Milwaukee Brewers

2010: 220 IP, 4.17 ERA, 3.34 FIP, 7.40 K/9, 2.25 BB/9, 46.0 GB%.

2011 PECOTA projection: 179 IP, 3.52 ERA, 3.28 FIP, 8.30 K/9, 2.40 BB/9, 44.0 GB%.

It isn’t surprising that Zack Greinke wasn’t able to replicate his insane 2009 level of performance in 2010, but he still managed to pitch very well. In 2011 PECOTA is essentially splitting the difference between his 2009 and 2010 campaigns. He’s projected to strike out more than 2010, but also walk more than he did in both 2009 and 2010. It also sees his slight increase in ground-balls largely holding in 2011. If the Brewers are able to get this level of performance alongside Yovani Gallardo they ought to contend for the NL Central this year.

The Yankees considered trading for Greinke this offseason, and even went so far as to discuss trade proposals with the Royals. The Royals asked the Yankees for Jesus Montero and Eduardo Nunez, and informed the Yankees that Greinke was willing to waive his no-trade clause to come to New York. The Yankees declined. Oddly, the reason wasn’t the asking price in prospects. As Craig Calcaterra and others reported, the Yankees didn’t believe that Greinke was a good fit for New York. If the Brewers are able to reach the playoffs in 2011, it will be very interesting to see how Greinke performs under pressure.

What’s done is done. The Yankees tried their best to bolster their rotation this offseason, but for a plethora of reasons were unable to land their desired targets. Hope springs eternal, though, and tomorrow we’ll take a look at some potential trade targets and their PECOTA projections.

An Idea from the West (and plenty of other places, too)

When I grow up, I'm going to be a real journalist. View from the press box. (Photo by me, Hannah Ehrlich.)

A little back story about me: I live in Silicon Valley, so AT&T Park is just a hop, skip and a mass-transit jump away from me. I was lucky enough to attend the Giants ticker-tape parade (it wasn’t the Yankees, but still cool), so I figured that I should definitely go to GiantsFest. Free, interesting, and enough baseball to keep me going for a few more weeks. I hooked up with a friend I met on Twitter and we were off. We stood in a line for about two hours that morning, on a gorgeous t-shirt February day before being let into an absolutely packed AT&T Park. The best part of this fanfest: it took place at AT&T Park. Everything was open: the field, the press box, the dugouts and all the tunnels surrounding it, and I had a lot of fun just walking through everything and checking it out. AT&T Park is gorgeous, set right on the bay, and there are lots of additional fun places to meander in and out of. There were autograph sessions (which was basically a mash of shoulder-to-shoulder people crowded around tables) that I skipped, and Q&A sessions that I dropped in on. The other thing I noticed was that people were buying tickets and various memorabilia at an impressive clip. It’s the end of the offseason and people are aching for baseball; I’d say now is the best time to swoop in and cash in on a fan’s weakness with a subscription to Giants magazine, a Tim Lincecum jersey, or a season ticket plan.

The field was also open. As a baseball person, there’s something to be said for walking on a real baseball field, a field that ballplayers actually play on. Even if it’s not your team, the field has a very powerful vibe. There is something to be said for standing on the same pitcher’s mound that Tim Lincecum beat Cliff Lee from. There is something to be said for walking up the first baseline and sitting in the San Francisco Giants dugout.

Enough about the Giants. The fact is, as I was staring at the triples alley sign, I was wondering why my amazing New York Yankees couldn’t pull off a similar event. Granted, the Yankees have put on fanfests in the Javits Center and the old NY Coliseum where there were autographs, batting cages, and the like, but these lacked any actual Yankee Stadium walking, the best part.

There are two obvious big problems here: one, New York City in the middle of February is cold and wretched. The actual field would, most likely, be covered in a pile of snow. While I personally wouldn’t mind hiking around the magical Yankee Stadium field even if there was six inches of snow on it, I don’t think it’s an ideal plan for more casual fans. Yankee Stadium certainly would not be able to match the girls sunbathing in the AT&T Park outfield. Nor’easters could delay the flights of the players that people are traveling to see. This particular February day in San Francisco possessed perfect baseball weather: sunny, high-60’s, slight breeze. I think stomping around a snowy ball field might actually make me more depressed.

The solution for this is pretty simple: make the field off-limits, but open up everything else. The press box, for example. Let the vendors hawk their wares and open up the gift shops and museums. Set up tables for all the different players. Have Q&A sessions. Many of the things that went on at GiantsFest could easily be repeated in Yankee Stadium. Field aside, there are about a thousand new and exciting things to do in the Bronx that AT&T Park just can’t match, and with all those things come business opportunities. It’s the perfect time for the financial side of baseball to swoop in and take advantage of a team’s fan base. Alternatively, you could shovel the field, although that would probably be an enormous effort for a dubious return: even a plowed field is not as welcoming as a bright green one on a gorgeous day.

The other problem is the people. I arrived about an hour and a half early to GiantsFest, to wait on line for two hours before we were actually in the park. Once we were in the park, I was concerned about being lost in the giant shuffle. The Giants routinely expect about 20,000 people to show up GiantsFest, but they had to guess more would arrive with a World Series title. More than 40,000 people – double the average number – showed up. They closed the gates of AT&T Park for an hour in the middle of the day to try and organize things, and I heard (though I don’t know if this is true) that they closed the gates of the park permanently earlier than they had originally intended to. The planning the Giants Organization had done (or hadn’t done) turned autograph lines into one absolutely shapeless mass.

40,000 people sounds like a lot, but here’s some context: in 2010, Yankees games averaged about 45,000 people per game. That’s a low: in 2009, the team averaged 53,000. The Giants averaged about 35,000 in the past two years. If the Yankees have that many people showing up to games that they have to pay for, they’re only going to have more showing up to a free event. While lots of planning can be done to accommodate large groups, you’re still dealing with a giant mass of people that are interested in wandering around than actually listening to rules or signs posted.

The other important thing to note would be that the main purpose of an event like this is to drum up interest in the upcoming season. The Giants had booths for buying tickets basically everywhere, and they were almost all overflowing with people. For a club that averages an additional extra ten thousand fans every game, the interest is already there, and perhaps the Yankees organization and those associated don’t need to waste the manpower, money and stress that is involved in creating an event like a fanfest. I find that hard to believe, though, because in 2009 the Yankees hosted a similar event at the Javits Center, and their attendance in 2008 was strong already. It’s the job of a good business to never stop looking for ways to make an extra dollar.

I don’t know about you all, but even if the field was closed off due to snow, I’d still be very interested in walking around the Yankees Stadium concourse, looking through the various museums, picking up autographs and meeting with friends. I would love to watch a Q&A session with Girardi, Jeter and Cano. I’m sure lots of people would pick up tickets and buy souvenirs. It would be an awesome event, and I think the Yankees organization, knowing the crowds they draw, could handle the masses that would show up. I would even swallow down the massive helpings of team-supportive propaganda: at GiantsFest this year, someone actually announced Freddy Sanchez as the best second baseman ever. Really. Yeah.

Note: I tried to find the proper grammar for the term ‘fanfest,’ but basically every combination of capitals and one word/two word combinations came up.

Swisher set to hire Scott Boras Dan Lozano

Via Joel Sherman, Nick Swisher is set to replace long-time agent Joe Bick with Scott Boras. Robbie Cano did the same thing just a week ago. Swisher can become a free agent next winter after earning $9M during the upcoming season, but the Yankees hold a $10.25M club option for his services in 2012 ($1M buyout). If he performs like he has the last two years, that option is a no-brainer. It’s just a net $250,000 raise from his 2011 salary.

The Yankees might have to walk away after that, since Swisher will be 32 and Boras will comparing him to Carlos Beltran or Vernon Wells or something. I like Swish, but not that much. Can’t blame him though, Boras is the best at what he does.

Update (7:15 p.m.): Jerry Crasnick reports that Swisher has in fact hired Dan Lozano and not Boras to be his agent. So much for that. Lozano has a few high profile clients, namely Albert Pujols, Michael Young, and Jimmy Rollins.

Open Thread: Look, players stretching!

(via Marc Carig)

We’re now three days away from pitchers and catchers officially reporting for duty, but most of the team has already showed up to Tampa anyway. A clean-shaven Eric Chavez was there, Jesus Montero did some running, Curtis Granderson and Russell Martin got acquainted, and yeah, that’s pretty much it. Those linked photos come from Bryan Hoch’s Twitter feed, which has a bunch of updates on who threw bullpen sessions and took batting practice today. It’s frigid here in New York, but spring’s a comin’.

Here’s the open thread for tonight. All the local hockey and basketball teams are in action, so there’s a lot to do if you’re stuck in the house. Enjoy.

Yankees announce non-roster invitees

Via Chad Jennings, the Yankees have finally announced their Spring Training non-roster invitees. Aside from the minor league contract guys (Luis Ayala, Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, Warner Madrigal, Ronnie Belliard, and Eric Chavez), the following prospects will join the big league team in camp: LHP Manny Banuelos, OF Dan Brewer, C Jose Gil, C Kyle Higashioka, OF Austin Krum, RHP D.J. Mitchell, C Jesus Montero, OF Jordan Parraz, RHP David Phelps, C Austin Romine, 3B Bradley Suttle, 1B Jorge Vazquez, RHP Adam Warren, and RHP Eric Wordekemper. Remember, everyone on the 40-man roster goes by default, so Andrew Brackman, Dellin Betances, Melky Mesa, Hector Noesi, Ryan Pope, etc. will be there as well. They’ll have a total of 67 players in camp this year.

So, apparently Jose Gil has been re-signed after becoming a minor league free agent, and Jordan Parraz cleared waivers after being designated for assignment a week or so ago. Don’t know anything about those prospects? Check out the top 30.

Yankees still considering Kevin Millwood

Via Jon Heyman*, the Yankees are still considering free agent righty Kevin Millwood, who was said to be seeking four or five million bucks as recently as a week ago. I’d be fine with bringing him on board as an innings eater at the end of the rotation, but at that price? No way. Even half that amount seems like too much. Joe told you everything you need to know about Millwood last month, which really ain’t much.

* Insert standard Heyman-Boras client disclaimer here.