Yankees

Keefe To The City: A.J. Burnett’s “Great Stuff”

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Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

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If you watch Hard Knocks then you frequently hear Rex Ryan refer to his team as a “football team” or a player as a “football player,” as if we thought he was talking about another type of team or another type of player. But Rex isn’t the only football coach, broadcaster or personality that constantly refers to the New York Jets as a good “football team” or Darrelle Revis as a great “football player.” It just happens to be one of those odd figures of speech in sports that is overused.

For instance, a basketball analyst will say an NBA player is “an athlete” when describing the player’s abilities (I’d hope he’s an athlete since he is making a living being one in the highest league for his sport) and it sounds awkward. And in baseball, a commentator might say “when you have a Derek Jeter or an Alex Rodriguez or a Mark Teixeira in your lineup” when trying to compare players, but since there is only one Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, why not just say “when you have Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez or Mark Teixeira in your lineup?” It has the same meaning and instead of trying to sound more sophisticated, it actually sounds right.

One of my favorite commonly used phrases in the world of sports and mainly broadcasting occurs in baseball when a pitcher is described as having “great stuff,” because very, very rarely is the person talking about a pitcher that actually has “great stuff.”

“Great stuff” is a tag that has become synonymous with hard throwing pitchers that have no control and really just throw since they don’t know how to actually pitch. If some recent call-up is facing the Yankees and is throwing in the high 90s, but walks the first two hitters he faces, you can bet your life that John Flaherty will talk about the pitcher’s “great stuff” when he breaks down the pitch-by-pitch sequence. That’s right, the pitcher that just walked the first two hitters of the inning on eight pitches has “great stuff!”

How many times have you heard someone say A.J. Burnett has “great stuff?” Listen to Michael Kay or John Sterling call a game, or listen to sports radio or talk to a random Yankees fan about Burnett and the phrase will come up. And when A.J. starts an uncontrollable forest fire in the third of fourth inning of one of his starts when it seems like he might never record another out, Kay or whoever has the play-by-play duties for the game (or John Sterling if you are listening on the radio) will start to wonder out loud what is wrong with A.J.

“He throws so hard and has such great stuff — some of the best stuff in the league. It just doesn’t make any sense why he struggles the way he does.”

It actually makes perfect sense as to why A.J. Burnett has the problems he has. It’s because he doesn’t have “great stuff.” Roy Halladay has great stuff. Felix Hernandez has great stuff. CC Sabathia has great stuff. Josh Johnson has great stuff. A.J. Burnett has average stuff.

Yes, A.J. Burnett throws hard and yes, he has a breaking ball that can buckle someone’s knees like a Ronnie one-punch, but that doesn’t make his stuff “great.” Being able to control your stuff and being able to dominate on a consistent basis and grind through a start when you aren’t at your best is what makes someone’s stuff “great.” Leaving the game in the fourth inning with the bases loaded and one out and burning the bullpen in the first game of a three-game series with your team not having an off-day for another 12 days for some reason to me just shouldn’t be classified as having “great stuff.”

On Saturday against the White Sox (a day after Burnett’s most recent disaster), CC Sabathia was given a 6-1 lead to work with. Lacking his “A” game, Sabathia struggled and let the White Sox close the gap to 6-5 before the Yankees tacked on six more runs in their eventual 12-9 win. Sabathia ended up going seven innings, allowing nine hits and five earned, needing to grind through the start and battle in big spots to make sure the White Sox never completed their comeback and never took the lead. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that if A.J. Burnett had been put in that game in the same situation as CC that the White Sox wouldn’t have come all the way back. The White Sox would have 100 percent come back and taken the lead.

There is a chance that Burnett goes out and shuts down the A’s in his next start and members of the A.J. Burnett Fan Club (which is probably just his immediate family at this point) will let me know about it. And honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnett went out and pitched a gem against the A’s or pitched a shutout in his next start after that or the start after that one. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if he went out and put together a nice Stage 3 meltdown and found some plastic lineup card holders to take his frustration out on.

The thing is that nothing surprises me with Burnett anymore. I wouldn’t be surprised if he pitched a no-hitter or gave up nine earned runs in 3 1/3 innings. I wouldn’t be surprised if he went undefeated in the postseason or if he didn’t even make the postseason roster. Since the beginning of June, he has lapped Nick Johnson and Javier Vazquez and Chan Ho Park for the Most Hated Player on the 2010 Yankees and he has become the front-runner for eventual albatross contract on a team that will still be paying Alex Rodriguez in 2017.

On Friday on Twitter, I said, “I have nothing left to say about A.J. Burnett for now, but I am sure I will be able to find things to say about him over the next 3 years.” Well, I lied. I am not done using my writing as my plastic lineup card holders to get out my frustration about Burnett.

So while you watch Burnett square off against the A’s on Wednesday in what will be the No. 2 starter on Opening Day (who is making $16.5 million this year) auditioning to stay in the rotation, here are two guys to remember that were A.J. Burnett for the Yankees before A.J. Burnett was on the Yankees. Two guys that have been notoriously known to have “great stuff,” and by “great stuff,” I mean two guys that threw hard, rarely lasted long in games and were never able to fully put it together during their career.

Number 18, Jeff Weaver, Number 18

Jeff Weaver is A.J. Burnett. Seriously, I have a hard time believing they are different people. Their deliveries, their demeanors, their numbers, it’s all nearly the same. The only difference is Jeff Weaver was doing this same inconsistent act for a lot less money. With Weaver, his mental meltdowns and mid-inning breakdowns were nowhere near as costly as the $500,000 A.J. Burnett makes every fifth night in the summer.

To get Weaver in 2002, the Yankees gave up Ted Lilly, a left-hander who to date has a 3.80 ERA in 20 games and 19 starts against the Red Sox in his career. Good thing the Yankees didn’t keep him since they don’t play the Red Sox 18 times a year or anything. In exchange for Lilly, the Yankees got a pitcher in Weaver who was wrong for the big stage of New York that his time with the Yankees almost makes Javier Vazquez seem comfortable pitching in the Bronx.

The other day, Twitter follower BAMBAMBPT said, “I used to go to Jeff Weaver’s starts for the sole purpose of booing him” and I don’t doubt that he is telling the truth because Weaver was that bad and that unlikable that going to the Stadium just to hate him was actually acceptable, as crazy as it might sound.

On a team that had Raul Mondesi, Nick Johnson and Rondell White, it’s possible that Weaver might have been the unanimous decision for most disliked. And when you consider how worthless those three were, well I think that will tell you all you need to know about Jeff Weaver as a Yankee.

Weaver bombed in his only appearance in the 2002 postseason (2.2 IP, 4 H, 2 ER) and in his only inning of work in the 2003 playoffs, he gave up the series changing walk-off home run to Alex Gonzalez in Game 4.

I am so anti-Jeff Weaver that I became anti-Weaver. That’s right, I don’t like Jered Weaver just because he is Jeff’s brother. Forget that he pitches for the Angels and has that herky-jerky motion, but just knowing that he is from the same mold as Jeff makes me upset. When I think about big brother Jeff and little brother Jered, I just think about the O’Doyle’s from Billy Madison, and I think about Jeff and Jered thinking they are so cool and both of them thinking they are the man.

Burnett was part of a World Series winner last season, so it’s unfair to put him on the same level as Jeff Weaver, but he is getting dangerously close to matching the former Yankee.

Number 34, Jaret Wright, Number 34

On Friday, October 6, 2006, I was at school in Boston and remember calling my friend Scanlon and telling him that if the Yankees could win Game 4 against the Tigers and send the series back to the Bronx, we would go back home and go to the game. I had been home just three nights prior to attend Game 1 and remember leaving Yankee Stadium and thinking the Yankees would sweep the Tigers. Now, here I was just hoping the Yankees could extend the series to a fifth and deciding game. And here I was, hoping that Jaret Wright of all people could win a postseason start for the Yankees the way he did when he faced the Yankees and beat them twice in the 1997 ALDS.

I was obviously delusional at the time; thinking that Jaret Wright would save the day for the Yankees and keep the season alive. I needed a guy who made 40 starts for the Yankees between 2005 and 2006 and finished seven innings just once and pitched to a 4.99 ERA and 1.603 WHIP over that time to go out and beat the Tigers — a team that was serving as the textbook definition of momentum and thriving off of it.

In Game 4, there were no signs of the 21-year-old Wright, who started Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. Instead, the now 30-year-old and oft-injured Wright became the newest pitcher to prove that Brian Cashman knew as much about signing free agent pitchers as James Dolan knows about making sound front office decisions. After a 1-2-3 first, Wright only lasted another 1 2/3 innings before being pulled with two down in the third and a 3-0 deficit.

I get why Brian Cashman signed Jaret Wright, or at least I think I do. The Yankees had just collapsed in the ALCS to the Red Sox because they had only two reliable starters, and with Wright making 32 starts for the Braves and pitching to a 3.28 ERA, it appeared as though he was finally healthy. At the age of 28, Cashman had the chance to get a guy coming off a 15-win season and a guy with postseason experience to be his fifth starter behind Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina, Carl Pavano and Kevin Brown.

No one knew what Chien-Ming Wang was going to be at the time or how Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon would help later in the year, and Cashman thought he was getting a big arm for the back end of his rotation. But why couldn’t the Red Sox have been the team that landed Wright?

Follow Neil on Twitter at http://twitter.com/NeilKeefe

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