How greatly did Burnett’s 2009 affect his 2010?

(Charles Krupa/AP)

Something got lost amid A.J. Burnett‘s struggles in 2010. Had he pitched effectively, I feel as though it would have gotten a lot more play this off-season. For the third straight season, Burnett started more than 30 games. When the Yankees signed him, most fans had legitimate concerns about his health. Before 2009 he had started 30 games in a season just twice, but during his Yankees tenure he has missed few starts — the only one I can remember is the Sunday start against the Red Sox when he had back spasms. But just because he has taken the mound every five days doesn’t mean he his body was ready for the rigors of a 33-start season.

Burnett’s injury history left him with fewer innings than a typical pitcher of his age. After the 2007 season, when he turned 30, he had accumulated just 1,155 big league innings. As a counter example, CC Sabathia just pitched his age-29 season and already has 2,127 innings. Burnett, of course, is not a 23-year-old whose innings need monitoring. But his relatively low level of activity before age 30, followed by two straight seasons with 34 and 33 starts, might have affected him physically. That effect might have been amplified in 2009, when Burnett pitched more innings than he had previously in his career.

To cut off questions, no, I am not a doctor. Nor do I believe that what follows fully explains Burnett’s struggles. It just seems to me that when Burnett flopped in 2010, the media pointed to his head as the reason. Apparently speaking with a southern drawl and having an arm full of tattoos causes writers to look down on your intelligence — and, taking it a step further, blame said lack of intelligence for your struggles on the mound. Maybe Burnett does have mental issues that clouded his 2010, but I don’t think that fully explains it. His struggles could just as easily been physical.

The idea of overworking Burnett came up in the middle of the 2009 season. He was a bit above league average in terms of pitches per inning pitched, which is certainly taxing on the arm. He finished the season with 16.7 pitches per inning, which was a bit above league average rate. Still, that doesn’t represent the biggest concern. In 2009, for the first time in his career, Burnett pitched in the playoffs. That added another 27.1 innings and 459 pitches (16.8 per inning) to his total. Moreover, it had led him to exceed his previous pitch and innings pitched totals. I mentioned this when previewing Burnett for 2010, but took the optimistic route:

There are concerns that career highs in innings pitched could adversely affect Burnett and Sabathia. Neither set career highs during the regular season. In fact, both had set that mark in 2008, when Sabathia pitched 253 innings and Burnett pitched 221.1. In 2009 the Yankees had leeway later in the season to give them a rest, and it led to Burnett pitching 14 fewer innings, while Sabathia, not pitching every fourth day in a tight pennant race, managed 23 fewer innings. The playoffs, of course, pushed them both above their career highs. Sabathia threw 36.1 innings in the playoffs for a total of 266.1, 9.2 innings over his career high. Burnett threw 27.1 playoff innings for a total of 234.1, 13 more than his career high.

Put this way, it doesn’t appear either pitcher worked much harder than in 2009. In fact, they might have put less stress on their arms. Sabathia’s 2008 season started on March 31 and ended on October 2, 186 days. That works out to 6.9 innings every five days. In 2009 he started on April 6 and ended on November 1, 210 days. That works out to just about 6 1/3 innings every five days. Burnett’s 2008 season started on April 2 and ended on September 24, 176 days, or just under 6 1/3 innings every five days. In 2009 he started on April 9 and ended on November 2, 208 days, or just under 5 2/3 innings every five days. Both of their workloads, spread over time, were lower in 2009 than in 2008.

One factor I didn’t acknowledge was that Burnett and Sabathia both had less rest then normal. This was a bigger factor for Burnett, who, again, had never pitched into October before in his career. Instead of pitching 135 or 165 innings over six months and then resting four and a half months before pitchers and catchers reported, Burnett threw 234 innings over seven months and had just three and a half months until he had to report again. I can imagine that would take a toll on his body, not unlike working out harder than you ever have, and then going back to the gym after a less than customary rest time. That second workout isn’t going to feel as strong as the previous one.

Burnett seemingly broke down in June. Through his first 11 starts he had thrown 71.1 innings to a 3.28 ERA. His strikeouts were a bit down, but so were his home runs, perhaps due to an increased ground ball rate. In other words, his peripherals checked out (3.36 FIP). When his ERA shot up by two full runs in June, the easy explanation was pitching coach Dave Eiland’s absence. After Eiland returned Burnett had a few good starts, but he still wasn’t very effective. From July through the end of the season he pitched 92.1 innings to a 5.26 ERA. And still, even though Eiland had returned, the media still pointed to his head and not to any physical issues.

Maybe this all is in Burnett’s head. Maybe he had a major distraction during the season and couldn’t keep his focus on the mound. Of this we just can’t be sure. But we can be sure that in 2009 Burnett not only experienced an unprecedented workload, but he also had less time to recover. With that in mind, it is just as easy to blame his struggles on a physical issue as it is on his mental state. In fact, it’s a bit easier to blame it on a physical issue, since we can measure his workload and recovery.

The good news, then, is that Burnett had plenty more time to rest this year. He threw 192.2 innings and 3,217 pitches last season (16.7 per inning), including the postseason, both of which are reductions from his 2009 workload. He also made only one postseason start, and the Yankees’ season ended a few weeks earlier. The hope is that the combination of Burnett’s body becoming used to the increased stress, plus the increased recovery time, will make him stronger in 2011. If nothing else, it makes me a bit more confident that he’ll recover and again provide the Yankees with quality innings. They need it this year more than ever.

Hal: “I think Brian does a great job”

(Seth Wenig/AP)

We are indeed plodding through the worst six weeks of the year. In fact, right now we’re at the halfway point. There is sunshine neither behind us nor ahead of us. In many years this leads to idle chatter, but this year, after a rough off-season that saw Cliff Lee snub the team’s millions, fans are starting to get cranky. Despite having made overhauls to the team in the last two years that resulted in a World Series title and an ALCS appearance, Brian Cashman has come under fire. But if we’re to believe Hal Steinbrenner, this vitriol comes from only the fans. He has no problem with his general manager.

Despite Cashman’s recent outspokenness, which consisted of him honestly answering questions, Hal says that he and the GM continue working together as normal. Joel Sherman of the Post has Steinbrenner’s exclusive comments.

[Cashman] and I have a great working relationship. There is no problem, right now. I think we have a bunch of drummed-up drama.

I value his opinion and his advice. That does not mean that I am always going to go with that advice and all of my VPs know that I might go a different way. There are no hard feelings between Cash and I. There never was. Reasonable men can differ in opinions.

I keep reading about dissension and discord. We are a well-functioning company. The bosses have a decision to make. Sometimes people don’t agree with those decisions. So I told him, “You are always honest with the media, be honest now. Tell them what you have to tell them.” I was already onto the next decision. I told him, “You and I are fine. Answer in any way you want.” We are not always going to be on the same page. It is my job to think what is best for the family, partners and company.

Hal also said that he wants to keep Cashman beyond 2011, but that “now is not the time for that.” It would be quite hypocritical, indeed, if the Steinbrenners extended Cashman’s contract before it expired, when Cashman refuses to do so for his players.

When reading these comments, it is important to remember that Hal has every reason to say what he did. The franchise does not benefit from the perception of internal unrest. Hal’s comments are meant to smooth over what has been seen as a rough patch for the organization. Continued silence would only lead to further speculation. In that way, Hal did a good job of quieting doubters and maintaining an image of solidarity in the front office. But I’m not convinced he actually means it. Nor am I convinced that he doesn’t mean it.

This is merely the media’s nature. Sometimes we get exclusive information. Other times we get a long PR spiel. This was certainly the latter. It is nice to hear the owner of the team backing up his GM, but to take this at face value is a mistake. After all, how often do we see a GM or owner give a public vote of confidence to an employee, only to fire him within days? I do hope that Hal is sincere in his words, but experience studying the media tells me to take his comments lightly.

In his column today, Joel Sherman offers a sober look at the situation. It doesn’t make me think Hal’s comments are any more sincere, but reading it reminded me of one thing. There might be a perception of turmoil right now, but it won’t affect how the Yankees approach the season. They’re still going to look for a pitcher, whether that’s in February or it’s in June. If there is a front office issue to deal with, it will come in October or November. Which serves as a reminder that we have seven months of baseball between now and then. That’s the sweetest reminder of them all.

Thinking about the starting five

The 1948 Boston Braves were a pretty good team. They finished the season with a 91-62 record, good for first in the National League, but they fell to the Indians in the World Series in six games. Despite a few no-name pitchers in their rotation — or perhaps because of them — that club birthed one of the most famous poems in baseball history.

On September 14, 1948, as the Braves held onto first place and tried to find someone not named Warren Spahn or Johnny Sain who could win games regularly, the now-defunct Boston Post ran a verse from Gerald V. Hern. The one-time paper’s sports editor’s words live on as part of baseball culture.

First we’ll use Spahn
then we’ll use Sain
Then an off day
followed by rain
Back will come Spahn
followed by Sain
And followed
we hope
by two days of rain.

As we sit here on January 28, just a few weeks before pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training, the Yanks’ rotation resembles that poem. Substitute CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes — what, You think I’d say Mitre? — and we can have the 2011 edition of “Spahn and Sain.” Of course, Sabathia and Hughes won’t combine to throw 41 percent of all of the Yanks’ innings as Spahn and Sain did, but isn’t that why the club signed Rafael Soriano?

Lately, the Yankees have been trying to find someone, anyone willing to part with a pitcher, but the pickings are slim. So earlier this week, they turned to Bartolo Colon, and the world seemingly imploded. Blog commenters, Twitter conversations, talk radio spots all focused on Colon as though the Yanks were relying on him to make 33 starts and win 18 of them. They’re not. He’s a low-risk invitee to Spring Training who will take home a few thousand dollars if he doesn’t make the team. If he pitches well enough to merit a longer look, the Yanks will pay him a salary of $900,000. It won’t break the bank.

Yet, as Joel Sherman pointed out, every pitching move is being viewed through the prism of Cliff Lee. The Yankees didn’t sign Lee; ergo, Colon is the replacement. It doesn’t quite work that way. Rather, in a thin market, the Yanks have an opportunity to maybe catch lightning in a bottle for 15 starts — Aaron Small says hello — or push Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre to earn their rotation spots. Who would want to have Colon breathing down his neck anyway?

But maybe it won’t come to that. Sherman adds a tantalizing bit of some hopey-changey thing to the conversation:

For now, their only chance to change the perception of having a frail rotation would be if Andy Pettitte again reversed retirement plans. And optimism has risen within the Yankee family that Pettitte will indeed pitch in 2011. Two people briefed on the most recent conversations between the Yankees and Pettitte say the team is upbeat because Pettitte is working out regularly, has not firmly committed to retirement and because it is hard to dismiss the $12 million to $13 million Pettitte knows the Yankees would pay for his services.

What Yankee fan isn’t going to go to their windows, open it, stick their head and scream, “Come back, Andy Pettitte”? One simple signing will turn the Yanks’ off-season around. Although I’m not sold on Pettitte’s ability to withstand the physical rigors of a full season, 21 starts of Pettitte and 12 starts of someone else is far better than the alternative.

So we keep waiting, and if push comes to shove, as Sherman says, the Yanks just have to ride it out until early June. Cliff Lee was sent from the Mariners to Texas on July 9th, and if the Yanks can put together a Spahn-and-Sain-like rotation for half a season or less, the market will open up. Still, I’m holding out hope for Andy Pettitte. Does he really seem retired to you?

Open Thread: Cashman helps fight cancer

Brian Cashman was a guest bartender at Foley’s last night, helping raise money for prostate cancer research, the disease that claimed his father-in-law. I didn’t go, but from what I’ve heard it was a really good time and a lot of fun. BuzzFeed has a few cool pictures to check out, including the Daily News video you see above. Say what you want about his abilities as a GM, but Cashman seems like a pretty cool dude and I’m glad he does stuff like this. Baseball’s just a game, but cancer is real frickin’ life. I’m all for anything that helps fight it.

Anyways, here is the open thread for the night. The NHL is off because of the All Star break, but the Knicks welcome the Heat to the Garden tonight (8pm ET, TNT). You might want to hide yo kids and hide yo wife, it’ll probably get ugly. You all know what to do, so have at it.

A brief Cliff Lee post mortem post mortem

For the Yankees, Cliff Lee will forever be the one that got away. Whether that’s a blessing or curse depends upon how Jesus Montero develops and whether or not Lee ages gracefully. Right now, his loss stings, and Texas Rangers owner Chuck Greenberg has decided to rub salt in our wounds. The Rangers’ owner believes that his persistency kept Lee from the Yankees and gave the Phillies the time they needed to put together an offer.

While speaking at a Rangers’ Fan Fest this week, Greenberg expounded on his theory. “We had three different meetings with Cliff and his wife and his agent in Little Rock,” Greenberg said to his fans. “Even though Philadelphia was probably not in, they were always in the back of our mind. I think if we wouldn’t have gone to Arkansas that last time, I think he was going to sign with the Yankees. We pried the door open a little bit to give ourselves another opportunity. And ultimately the Phillies were able to take advantage of that opportunity that we created.” I would be pretty angry at this news if I weren’t so apathetic in the first place.

Link Dump: The Boss, Fifth Starter, Joba

Here’s a few links as the workday draws to a close…

The Boss on Twitter

Twitter has undeniably changed the media and access to information over the last few years, but Buster Olney says the world missed out on what could have been the greatest Twitter account in the history of man: George Steinbrenner. Olney put together dozens of 140-character, Boss inspired one liners in his blog today, all worth a read if you have Insider. My faves: “Mattingly’s hair has gotten so long that he looks like one of the Beatles — one of their girlfriends, I mean.” and “AARON BOONE!!!!!! He is A WINNER!!!!!! The third baseman of the future for the Yankees!!!!!!!” I laughed.

The recent history of Yankees’ fifth starters

As we all freak out about Sergio Mitre potentially starting the season in the rotation, Paul Swydan at FanGraphs points out that the recent history of Yankees’ fifth starters is rather ugly. That group includes Shawn Chacon and Chad Gaudin and Kei Igawa and Sidney Ponson and a whole bunch of other forgettable guys since 2006, a group that combined for just 1.6 fWAR since 2006. Despite that, the team has been to the playoffs four times and won a World Series, mostly because their offense and bullpen have been good enough to get them to the October. Once you get there, the fifth (and sometimes fourth) starters go out the window.

Joba’s stuff as a starter

Much has been made of Brian Cashman‘s recent comments about Joba Chamberlain not being the same guy since his 2008 shoulder injury, specifically as a starter compared to a reliever. Dave Allen at FanGraphs looked into the matter and found out that yes, Joba’s stuff isn’t the same as it once was, but notes that it declined across the board. It’s no better in the bullpen than in the rotation. This dead horse than been beaten into a bloody pulp, and I blame the media blamers.

Mike on the Beyond The Box Score podcast

I made an appearance on Beyond The Box Score’s podcast yesterday, which you can listen to right here. We talked about the state of the Yankees, touching on the bullpen, Jesus Montero, the starting rotation, the whole nine. Give it a listen, there some other great non-Yankee stuff in there too.

Determining Joba’s Trade Value (Part II)

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Earlier today we took a sabermetric approach to determining Joba Chamberlain‘s trade value, and we came up with $11M or roughly two wins. Now we’re going to take a more practical approach and compare the current version of Joba to some similar relievers, then look at what they brought back when they were traded.

Joba’s career performance as a reliever is pretty damn good. We’re talking about excellent strikeout (10.7 K/9), walk (2.7 uIBB/9), and homerun (0.55 HR/9) rates in 131.2 IP, but if we remove 2007 so the numbers aren’t skewed, we still get 10.3 K/9, 2.76 uIBB/9, and 0.59 HR/9. That’s still pretty damn good. Young pitchers who perform like that usually don’t get traded, so the number of comparable players is somewhat limited. Let’s dive in…

Joel Hanrahan
This one isn’t perfect because Hanrahan was traded mid-year, but like Joba now his stock was at an all-time low. He had a stellar strikeout rate (9.17 K/9), but the walk (4.66 uIBB/9) and homerun (1.13 HR/9) rates weren’t even close. To make things more complicated, he was packaged with Lastings Milledge. The trade brought Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett to the Nationals, so if we cut that in half we can say he fetched a young-ish big leaguer struggling to establish himself. That doesn’t sound enticing at all.

Fist pump included. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Matt Lindstrom
Lindstrom’s actually been traded twice, but his first move last offseason works best because he had the same amount of service time Joba has now. Although his strikeout (7.5 K/9) and walk (3.20 uIBB/9) rates weren’t as strong as Joba’s, he did have the “proven closer” tag, which counts for something. In exchange for Lindstrom the Marlins received two low-level minor leaguers (that did not figure into their top 30 prospects according to Baseball America) plus a player to be named later that turned out to be Houston’s Rule 5 Draft pick. Two organizational players and what ended up being a Quad-A infielder. Yuck.

Tony Pena
Not the Yankee bench coach, the current White Sox reliever by the same name. At the time of the trade, he had almost the exact same amount of service time as Joba does now, and he brought back first base prospect Brandon Allen. Allen was a legit top ten prospect in any farm system, a power hitting first baseman that posted no less than a .390 wOBA as he rose from A-ball to Triple-A in the three seasons prior to the trade. Pena’s numbers (6.55 K/9, 2.34 uIBB/9, 0.89 HR/9) weren’t even in the same realm as Joba’s though.

Ramon Ramirez
The former Yankee farmhand has been traded quite a few times, once with four years of team control left and once with two-and-a-half years of control left. The first time around he was dealt straight up for Coco Crisp, an average everyday big leaguer with one year left on his contract. The second time he fetched current Yankee farmhand Daniel Turpen, who was not a top 30 prospect. Ramirez’s performance (8.38 K/9, 3.05 uIBB/9, 0.52 HR/9) at the time of the first trade wasn’t all that far off from Joba’s.

(AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

Carlos Villanueva
We’re a year off here since Villanueva was traded with two years of team control left rather than three, but it’ll have to do. He did the starter/reliever thing early in his career like Joba, and his peripheral stats were pretty dang good (8.07 K/9, 2.90 uIBB/9) aside from the homers (1.31 HR/9). The Brewers gave Villanueva away for a player to be named later, and we have yet to learn the identity of said player. That doesn’t help us, now does it?

* * *

It’s a bit of a mixed bag, and unless the PTBNL in the Villaneuva deal turns out to be some hotshot prospect, Crisp and Allen represent the best of the lot. We don’t need to be all that precise, we’re just trying to get an approximation of Chamberlain’s real life trade value. As we can see, it isn’t all that high. If the absolute best case scenario is a top ten prospect, then you know what? I’d rather just see the Yankees keep Joba. If he stays healthy and maintains his 2009 peripherals going forward, he’ll be a nice piece towards the back of the bullpen.