By Neil Keefe
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When A.J. Burnett talked to the media following the second to last disaster in his season — the worst statistical season for any starting pitcher in the history of the Yankees — he said things that made my distaste for him grow. At the time I didn’t think I could like him any less than I already did.
“Joe’s going to make a decision on his own,” Burnett told the media about his spot in the postseason rotation following a loss in Toronto. “I don’t have anything to prove. He saw what I did last year in the postseason. Everybody always says that the season doesn’t matter here and the postseason does. He makes the decisions and I want the ball whenever he gives it to me.”
It was 18 days ago that I picked apart the interesting choice of words from A.J. Burnett and wrote about a decision that Joe Girardi would be faced with if the Yankees advanced to the ALCS. Now here we are just hours before a must-win Game 4 in the ALCS, and Joe Girardi’s decision has been made.
A lot has happened in the 18 days since I decided that I would rather see A.J. Burnett pitch in the ALCS than Javier Vazquez. At the time, it didn’t seem like there was another option. But a lot can happen in 18 days. What exactly happened in the time that I thought A.J. Burnett should start Game 4 of the ALCS to present day? Well, I think the scene between Ben (Jim Sturgess) and Micky (Kevin Spacey) in the movie 21 explains it best. Ben, an M.I.T. student and future card counter, is asked a question by his professor, Micky Rosa, in class.
Micky: We’re gonna call this the game show host problem, all right? And you are given a chance to choose from three different doors, all right? Now, behind one of the doors is a new car. Behind the other two, goats. Which door would you choose, Ben?
Ben: Door number one?
Micky: Door number one. Ben chooses door number one. All right, now, the game show host, who, by the way, knows what’s behind all the other doors, decides to open another door. Let’s say he chooses door number three. Behind which sits a goat. Now … Ben, game show host comes up to you. He says, “Ben, do you want to stay with door number one “or go with door number two?” Now, is it in your interest to switch your choice?
Micky: Well, wait. Remember, the host knows where the car is so how do you know he’s not playing a trick on you? Trying to use reverse psychology to get you to pick a goat?
Ben: Well, I wouldn’t really care. I mean, my answer’s based on statistics. Based on variable change.
Micky: Variable change? But he just asked you a simple question.
Ben: Yeah, which changed everything.
Micky: Enlighten us.
Ben: Well, when I was originally asked to choose a door, I had a 33.3% chance of choosing right. But after he opens one of the doors and then re-offers me the choice, it’s now 66.7% if I choose to switch. So, yeah, I’ll take door number two, and thank you for that extra 33.3%.
Micky: Exactly. People, remember, if you don’t know which door to open, always account for variable change. Now, see, most people wouldn’t take the switch out of paranoia, fear, emotions. But Mr. Campbell, he kept emotions aside and let simple math get his ass into a brand-new car!
Originally I chose A.J. Burnett because the alternative options were Javier Vazquez (2004), Dustin Moseley (inconsistent journeyman) and Ivan Nova (seven career starts). I knew the choice would come down to Burnett and Vazquez, and for fear of flashbacks, cold sweats and a possible sequel to the 2004 ALCS, I went with Burnett. It wasn’t like Burnett was the clear-cut favorite. It came down to the fact that he wasn’t the one who gave up a first-pitch grand slam to Johnny Damon in the second inning of the 2004 ALCS. Fair or not, to someone who was living in Boston at the time, it makes sense.
Since my decision, a lot has happened. So much has happened that the fact that I chose Burnett over anyone actually seems insane. But at the time it was the logical choice. But now that the actual decision is upon us, it’s necessary to factor in variable change. Consider these two crucial changes to the Yankees’ postseason:
1. CC Sabathia got lit up in Game 1 and threw 93 pitches in four innings. It was the first start in nine days for a pitcher who has been on the record several times in the past voicing his concern about pitching on extra rest. He made a name for himself and positioned himself for a historical contract with the Yankees following a 2008 season in which he pitched on short rest regularly and with excellent results. I keep hearing that CC’s six starts on three days rest is not a good enough sample size, but I would like someone to find me an active pitcher with more starts on short rest. In terms of starting on short rest, CC Sabathia is the king in this day and age of pitch counts and innings limits and injury prevention. The Yankees got two victories in Game 1. They won the game that CC started (even if he didn’t factor into the win), and they didn’t use up all his bullets, so they could bring him back on short rest if they needed to. It was the perfect formula to make sure A.J. Burnett would not start Game 4, especially if the Yankees happened to be trailing in the series.
2. The Yankees are trailing in the series. The Yankees are down 2-1 in the series and forfeited their chance at taking over home-field advantage in the ALCS when they lost Game 3. Now if they are going to win the series, they are going to have to win it on the road in Texas, and unless they win the next three games, they are going to have to find a way to beat Cliff Lee in Game 7.
When I made it clear that the Yankees should use Sabathia, Phil Hughes and Andy Pettitte on short rest I had accounted for variable change and what had occurred over the first three games and four days of the series. The problem is that Joe Girardi made his decision to start A.J. Burnett and despite drastic changes to the series, he is sticking with his decision. His reasoning? Phil Hughes has never started on short rest and Andy Pettitte is coming off an injury. At one time CC Sabathia had never started on short rest either, but he did and he was good on it. We don’t know Phil Hughes won’t be the same after making just two starts in the last 13 days. And if Andy Pettitte’s injury is really a concern, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have given up just four earned runs in 14 innings in two starts so far this postseason. I’m not buying it, Joe.
Let’s forget the No. 1 reason why A.J. Burnett shouldn’t start Game 4, which is because he isn’t consistent, trustworthy or reliable (that’s the nice way of saying he isn’t a good pitcher). If those miserable qualities aren’t enough to make you change your mind about who should start Game 4, consider the elephant in the room that not one person ever mentions or talks about: Joe Girardi has no idea how to handle A.J. Burnett.
I’m not saying Girardi doesn’t know how to make Burnett a good pitcher because after 12 years and three teams in the majors, it’s clear that no one does. Let’s not pretend like Burnett has only been bad as a Yankee because, truthfully, he was never very good. The Yankees paid $82.5 million for an 87-76 pitcher because they missed the playoffs the year before and because Burnett was 3-1 with a 1.64 ERA against the Yankees in 2008. They didn’t get him for his postseason pedigree and October experience since he had never pitched in the postseason before 2009, and they certainly didn’t get him for his résumé, which aside from a nine-walk no hitter in 2001, included nothing worth giving him $16.5 million a year.
So, no I’m not saying it’s Girardi’s fault that Burnett lost 15 games on a 95-win team, what I’m saying is that the problem with Girardi and his utilization of Burnett is that he has no idea when to pull the plug on him or when to keep him plugged in. Take for instance what Girardi did on Monday night in Game 3: Trailing 2-0 and with Cliff Lee close to being finished for the night, it looked like Joe Girardi wanted to keep the Rangers right there hoping that the Yankees could come back against the Rangers bullpen. So, Joe had Kerry Wood pitch the eighth, which would only mean that Mariano Rivera would pitch the ninth (since Joe was using his primary setup man) since he had pitched just one inning in nine days. But to start the ninth, Girardi went with Boone Logan who allowed a leadoff single to Josh Hamilton. Then he brought in David Robertson who faced seven batters and retired just one of them. Sergio Mitre relived Robertson and at the end of the inning the Rangers’ lead went from 2-0 to 8-0, and the game was over. Why did Girardi save Mariano Rivera? He saved him because he managed for Game 4 during Game 3. The same manager who told the media following Game 2 that, “If we worry about Game 4 before Game 3, we are going to be in trouble.” And that’s exactly what he did and now the Yankees are in trouble.
What does Girardi’s handling of the bullpen in Game 3 have to do with Girardi’s handling of A.J. Burnett? Everything! Because if Girardi doesn’t know the leash of each of his relievers in the bullpen (a strength of the team), then how is he going to handle Burnett in Game 4 when the game begins to unravel? In case you aren’t aware, when A.J. Burnett begins to go south, it happens in seconds not minutes. Following a walk, in three pitches, you could have three consecutive doubles and if you don’t see Burnett entering his famous “Eff It” mode quick enough, the game could be out of hand before you have even called down to the bullpen. Girardi has no idea how to judge when Burnett is about to begin an epic meltdown, and aside from Burnett being the worst pitcher on the team and my least favorite player, Girardi’s inability to understand his momentum swings on the mound is the unnerving part of him staring Game 4.
There are the fans, the ones who watched A.J. Burnett’s 2010 season and watched him lose all five of his starts in June and record just 14 quality starts in 33 starts. The fans that watched a 95-67 team get 22 percent of their losses from one pitcher making the equivalent of 30 percent of the 2010 Rangers’ payroll. These are the fans like me. These are the fans that are realists and know that even though Tommy Hunter might be as bad as Burnett, the Yankees are going to likely need to hang a six-spot on the Rangers in Game 4, and even then it might not be enough.
Then there are the fans that have started the AJ Burnett movement. These are the fans who even though deep down they know Burnett has about as good of a chance of winning Game 4 as Don Larsen would at 81 years of age, they have proclaimed they “believe in Burnett.” These are the fans that don’t get worried when the Yankees trail by five runs in an ALCS game because the night before the Yankees erased the same deficit as if the chance that the same result might happen again has any relevance to the current game. These are the fans that will say, “I told you so” when Burnett pitches well, but I don’t need someone to tell me when a guy who makes $16.5 million finally does his job.
Following the disastrous Game 3, my friends Jim and Sags asked me what my prediction for Burnett would be in Game 4. Here is what I told them:
“I can see Elvis Andrus walking to lead off the game. Then Michael Young singling to right-center and Andrus going first to third. Then Josh Hamilton getting walked on four pitches. Then Vladimir Guerrero cranking a double to the gap. At this point it will be 3-0 with Vlad on second and Sergio Mitre and Dustin Moseley will up in the bullpen. A.J. Burnett will be enter “Eff It” mode before Girardi has a chance to take him out and the TBS cameras will zoom in on Girardi with his arms folded just staring out into the field and wondering if they’ve made any recent renovations to the manager’s office at Wrigley Field. Dave Eiland will slam down the bullpen phone and trot out to the mound to kill some time and meet with Burnett and Francisco Cervelli, who also shouldn’t be starting in a postseason game. And somewhere around 10 minutes after Burnett threw the first pitch of Game 4, the game will already be over. But don’t worry because CC Sabathia will be ready to pitch on full rest in Game 5 with the Yankees’ backs against the wall. And Cliff Lee will be sitting back and laughing and waiting for the Yankees in Game 7 if the Yankees are fortunate enough to get there, so he can add another $50 million to his contract this winter.”
It might sound a little pessimistic and over the top, but that’s what A.J. Burnett has done to me, and that’s the way he has now made me think when he starts.
The man who makes the ultimate decision on whether or not Burnett starts Game 4 also happens to the man with the most to lose. If Girardi goes with CC and CC gets lit up, so be it. Hey, we lost with our best pitcher on the mound. It happened in 2007 with Chien-Ming Wang against the Indians and it’s going to happen again at some point. But at least we will have lost with our best pitcher. No one is going to say, “Hey you should have pitched AJ Burnett” (except for maybe a few writers). And let’s not forget about Girardi’s impending free agency. A second championship in as many years will make him a more intriguing managerial candidate as he hits the open market this offseason, so why he would want to start Burnett with his own value at stake is beyond me.
No, the Yankees won’t be eliminated with a loss in Game 4 on Tuesday, but they might as well be. The five-game series against the Rangers I was worried about in the ALDS ended up happening in the ALCS after the Yankees split the first two games. Cliff Lee started Game 1 of the best-of-five series on Monday and now he is waiting to start Game 5 of the series, if the Yankees can get it there. I don’t know if I can physically and emotionally handle the Yankees coming back to force a Game 7 only to have Lee strike out another dozen Yankees and sprint off the mound after seven-pitches innings knowing that the Yankees were so close to acquiring him three months ago.
I want nothing more than the Burnett enthusiasts to tell me after Game 4 that I was wrong. I want to be wrong. I want A.J. Burnett to pitch well and I want the Yankees to win Game 4, the ALCS and the World Series. But like Winnie Gecko warns her fiancé Jacob about her father, Gordon, in Wall Street 2, “He’s not who you think he is Jake. He’ll hurt us,” I am reminding you of who A.J. Burnett is and what he is capable of.
I was hoping for a couple of Yankees fans to kidnap Burnett last night the way Mike O’Hara and Jimmy Flaherty kidnap Lewis Scott before the Celtics play the Jazz in the NBA Finals in Celtic Pride, but it looks like that didn’t happen. So now I have to believe in A.J. Burnett. I have no other choice.
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