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Keefe To The City: A.J. Burnett Needs To Be Better Than Adequate

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A.J. Burnett reacts after giving up a home run to David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox who rounds the bases during their game on June 8, 2011 at Yankee Stadium. (credit: Al Bello/Getty Images)

A.J. Burnett reacts after giving up a home run to David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox who rounds the bases during their game on June 8, 2011 at Yankee Stadium. (credit: Al Bello/Getty Images)

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By Neil Keefe
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All of this trade deadline talk is getting me excited. Not excited in the “I can’t wait” way that the Jersey Shore Season 4 trailer gets me excited, but excited in the “I hope the Yankees get a front-end starter, so that they can increase their chances of winning the World Series” way.

Ubaldo Jimenez and Francisco Liriano headline a list of rumors that will grow in the next 12 days to the point that I will be checking every MLB trade related site and Twitter around the clock and will react like Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) when Aaron Green (Jonah Hill) destroys his heroin in Get Him to the Greek if neither of them work momentarily. That’s how exhilarating the trade deadline can be and with the Yankees actively searching for someone to compliment CC Sabathia (and possibly Bartolo Colon) to matchup with the other 1-2 punches around the league, I fully expect this trade deadline to be as good as currently and early advertised.

Technically the Yankees have enough pitching, but they really don’t have “enough” pitching. Currently they have a full rotation with CC Sabathia, Bartolo Colon, A.J. Burnett, Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes, and then Ivan Nova at Triple-A. If the playoffs started today, the Yankees rotation would probably be this:

Game 1: CC Sabathia
Game 2: Bartolo Colon
Game 3: A.J. Burnett

That’s not bad, but it could be better, and it’s not bad, but it’s scary. I went from the biggest Colon skeptic to his biggest fan over the last three-plus months, but in his last two starts he has looked like the Bartolo Colon I was scared of being part of the $200 million Yankees and not like the Bartolo Colon that looked like he set the calendar back to 2005. After winning three starts in a row with a DL stint for a hamstring injury between the second and third starts, here’s Colon’s line for his last two starts: 6.1 IP, 16 H, 13 R, 8 ER, 6 BB, 1 K, 2 HR.

So, that brings us once again to the guy who the 2011 season with the most to prove and the most to lose (even though his $82.5 million is guaranteed). He was described as the hinge in the rotation that could either have a solid season like he did in 2009 or the worst statistical seasons for a Yankees pitcher in history like he did in 2010. The Yankees didn’t need to be A.J. Burnett to be great entering this season entering, they just needed him to be good and wanted him to keep his team in games, which he struggled to do lots of times a year ago. But now with the Yankees hoping that clock isn’t really about to strike midnight on Bartolo Colon and that Freddy Garcia can keep using his “Pick a Card, Any Card” magic tricks to get major league hitters out, Burnett’s role and importance for the rest of this season is growing each time through the rotation and even more so as the trade deadline draws closer.

Last summer, not a start or week went by without me using WFAN.com to share my thoughts about A.J. Burnett. It peaked during his awful and winless June and then again when Joe Girardi decided to start him in Game 4 of the ALCS and decided to walk David Murphy to pitch to Bengie Molina.

Last June, following what is in the Top 3 of Burnett’s worst starts as a Yankee (against the Diamondbacks in Arizona), I decided to create a three grade scale to measure and determine the levels of A.J. Burnett meltdowns since they occurred so frequently. Here they are with the examples used last year:

Grade 1
Example: June 10, 2010 vs. Baltimore (http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/BAL/BAL201006100.shtml)

Getting through the first inning with A.J. Burnett is key. If you can get through the first, there’s a chance he will be able to get you through a lot more. A.J. is usually good for allowing at least one run before the Yankees have time to get on the board, but if he can hold the opposition scoreless so the Yankees can take an early lead, you’re in good shape. The problem is you aren’t out of the water yet since there isn’t a lead that is safe with A.J. on the hill.

The meltdown usually starts once the Yankees have given him a lead and he feels it necessary to give it right back. Andy Pettitte did a lot of this in the second half of 2008 before we later found out that he was injured. A.J. Burnett might be the only pitcher that I don’t feel confident with getting out of an inning unscathed with two outs and no one on. Once he gets those first two outs, things can unfold pretty quickly. And when they do, you can no longer control a Grade 1 implosion from becoming …

Grade 2
Example: April 23, 2010 vs. Angels (http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/ANA/ANA201004230.shtml)

If AJ doesn’t come with his best stuff (which he never does anymore), then there is without a doubt going to be an inning where he allows at least a three spot.

Most starters prepare for games with the mindset that they are going to go out and win the game for their team. A.J. goes out with the idea that he is going to throw a perfect game. The only problem is that after that first walk, he starts to think, “OK, the no-hitter is still intact.” Then after that first hit, he thinks “Well, now I am just going to strike out every hitter.” It’s this mentality that gets A.J. Burnett in trouble. Instead of pitching the way he finally learned how to under Roy Halladay at the end of his Toronto days, A.J. becomes the oft-injured pitcher he was in Florida, trying to knock down the catcher with his fastball like Steve Nebraska. A.J. Burnett isn’t capable of limiting damage and working through men on base the way Andy Pettitte has made a career of doing, and he isn’t capable of working through a game without his best stuff the way CC Sabathia can grind through a start. It’s all or nothing with A.J. Burnett and when it’s nothing, it turns into this …

Grade 3
Examples: May 9, 2010 vs. Red Sox (http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/BOS/BOS201005090.shtml) and June 21 vs. Diamondbacks (http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/ARI/ARI201006210.shtml)

This is what we saw on Monday and what we have seen for most of June. It’s like an uncontrollable California forest fire. You think A.J. has had his bad inning for the night and that he will enter cruise control, only to have the game unravel in a matter of pitches (on Monday night it took 15) and once that second crooked number starts to take shape, there is no stopping it until he is removed from the game. The only problem with that is that the game is out of hand by this point and likely out of reach for the offense, so the “loser” relievers (I call them this because they only pitch when the Yankees are losing and also happens to be prime examples of the word) like Chad Gaudin and Boone Logan and Chan Ho Park start to get loose in the ‘pen.

Now A.J. is nowhere as bad this year as he was last year. He has a winning record and a respectable 4.19 ERA. The meltdowns haven’t come nearly as much in 2011 as 2010, but that level of trust with him is still not there and I don’t know if it ever will be. The problem is that level of trust needs to grow between now and the end of September in the event that the Yankees don’t get another starting pitcher. And as of now, they haven’t gotten one and it doesn’t look like they are really going to given Brian Cashman’s recent quotes on the situation (though the deadline is 12 days away, I wouldn’t expect anything else out of his mouth for him to tip his hand), so A.J. Burnett’s value to this team is going to increase on August 1 if that’s still the case.

The thing about Burnett is that I can’t blame him for his contract. If Cashman wanted to give him the fifth year that no one else would at $16.5 million per year, you can’t blame him for accepting it. Why wouldn’t he take that deal? And I understand that he stands there and takes his losses like he should in front of the media and in front of the cameras, and that he seems to be an important clubhouse presence and someone who genuinely cares about winning and wants to succeed. All of those things are nice, but at the end of the day it’s his performance on the field that matters and only that.

A.J. Burnett doesn’t suck. Well, not completely. He’s not as bad as Jaret Wright was or as much of a bust as Carl Pavano was or as crazy as Kevin Brown. He is what he is. He’s a .500 pitcher with a 4.00 ERA who sometimes will be lights out and sometimes be lights on. He doesn’t suck. He’s just inconsistent.

At 8-7 with a 4.15 ERA before Monday night’s game against Tampa Bay, Burnett has basically been on pace with his career numbers (.524 winning percentage and 4.00 ERA). Considering his career season average is a 13-12 record and 4.00 ERA, he’s been the A.J. Burnett that the Yankees knew they were going to get. But not it’s time to not pitch like he has his entire career, it’s time for him to pitch like a front-end starter, or a starting pitcher that makes $500,000 start (just don’t pitch like John Lackey who makes the same).

On Monday night, Burnett got his first start of the second half against the Rays to begin a four-game series, in which the Yankees can take the Rays out of the division race and the wild card. With all of this talk about the trade deadline and Jimenez and Liriano and any other name that will be rumored over the next two weeks, I decided to write down my thoughts as I watched Burnett pitch for the first time in the second half. Here’s how it went.

First Inning
The most important thing I have found out about A.J. Burnett in his two-plus seasons with the Yankees is that the first inning is the most important inning. If he can put up a zero in the first, he can usually get you through a few innings before his patented and inevitable “Crooked Number Inning.”

A.J. Burnett has a 1-0 lead to work with. The problem is that A.J. Burnett hates pitching with a lead. As crazy as it sounds, you’re almost better off having the score be 0-0 until the bullpen can take over, so that Burnett can keep the focus needed to keep the game scoreless rather than thinking, “OK, I have a lead. I don’t have to be ‘perfect.’”

Johnny Damon walks on five pitches. That’s never good. The Rays played a 16-inning game last night, and by the end of the game, the Yankees equipment was already outside the Red Sox clubhouse before the Red Sox were out of it. The Rays are tired. Make them swing.

Ben Zobrist lines a 1-0 fastball into right field and the Rays are set up with first and second and no one out. Tropical Storm A.J.’s winds are picking up and he has thrown seven pitches.

Evan Longoria is hitting .185 at Tropicana Field, but he smokes a first-pitch fastball into the gap for a double. Two runs score, and the lead is now gone. Just like that. Three hitters, eight pitches and it’s 2-1 Tampa Bay. A.J.’s fastball is finding the middle of the plate every time it’s thrown.

Burnett starts Casey Kotchman (How is Casey Kotchman batting cleanup for any team, let alone an AL East team?) with two curveballs, and then throws a 1-1 fastball, which is hit up the middle. Longoria gets held at third with not outs and all four Rays have reached base in the first. Tropical Storm A.J. has been upgraded to a hurricane. I thought maybe the Yankees’ 1-0 lead would see the second inning, but Burnett’s patented “Crooked Number Inning” happened in the first inning when it usually happens in the fourth inning (20 IP, 14 ER, 6.30 ERA).

Burnett gets a gift from Mark Teixeira as Tex turns a beautiful 3-6-3 double play, holding Longoria at third base. Even though Mark Teixeira is turning into Jason Giambi at the plate, he’s still Mark Teixeira in the field.

And after that gift, Sean Rodriguez chops one a little past the mound, Burnett fields it then throws it away using the same motion that Happy Gilmore’s caddy used to throw a rock in the pond in the movie. Why can’t pitchers do normal things like throw a baseball to anywhere other than a catcher from the mound, or run the bases in interleague? It’s like once they step off the mound and are asked to throw a ball to first base their brain just lets out an atomic fart and chaos ensues. Rodriguez reaches and Longoria scores to make it 3-1. This sucks.

Justin Ruggiano hits a grounder to Eduardo Nunez and in my head I quickly create odds for the result of the play (He throws it away: -120. He throws it to Teixeira: +140). He makes a good throw and the inning is over.

Second Inning
Robinson Chirinos swings at the first pitch (a fastball) and doubles to center for his first hit in the majors. A.J. isn’t fooling anyone with that fastball. Not even a kid with zero major league hits to his name. If Luis Ayala is doing anything other than thinking about coming into this game, he might want to start preparing.

Burnett bounces back with a seven-pitch strikeout of Elliot Johnson. He threw him two fastballs and one was bunted foul and the other was fouled off. His fastball location has been terrible, but his curveball is getting him his outs as Johnson went down swinging on one.

Damon goes down swinging on a curveball as well, and he only saw one fastball in the five-pitch at-bat and it was thrown for a ball. No more fastballs!

OK, maybe we need some fastballs. Burnett has completely abandoned the pitch and just walked Zobrist on four pitches. The sequence went curve, changeup, curve, changeup.

Burnett starts off Longoria with a curve and a change and they are both outside the zone. On 2-0 he goes to his fastball and it’s fouled off. Another curve and a fastball out of the zone and Longoria walks on five pitches. Burnett has now walked three hitters in 1 2/3 innings. The bases are loaded, and Hurricane A.J. is back in the second inning.

Larry Rothschild goes out to the mound to give Burnett a breather since I’m not sure there is really anything you can say here. “So, you might want to start putting the fastball in better spots…”

I don’t know what Rothschild said, but it didn’t work. Burnett goes curve, fastball, curve to Kotchman and he singles on the second curve to make it 4-1. Derek Jeter made a great diving play to his right to keep the ball from going into the outfield, but his throw to Robinson Cano at second wasn’t in time. Bases still loaded, and B.J. Upton is due up and all I envision is his little left ankle turn and a fastball ending up 20 rows back in the left field seats.

On a 1-0 pitch, Burnett throws Upton his fastball and it’s smoked to left field and at first I thought it was gone (and I think so did Ken Singleton), but Brett Gardner makes the catch to end the inning, and keep the deficit at three runs.

Third Inning
Rodriguez singles to lead off the third and things just don’t seem to be getting any better for Burnett.

Scratch that. Rodriguez is picked off trying to steal second and Burnett has one out and no one on base! I would like to say something about the Rays and their “thinking outside the box approach,” but that is the first time I have ever seen a runner get caught stealing against Burnett and his carefree approach to runners on base. I guess I can’t blame Joe Maddon for taking a shot at rattling Burnett even more.

Ruggiano takes a called third strike on Burnett’s curveball, which is all he has tonight. That’s two outs and no one on. There is a chance we could se Burnett face the minimum here since a 1-2-3 inning is clearly out of the question.

Think again. Chirinos walks and now has a double and walk in two plate appearances in the majors. He must be thinking, “Umm, this is pretty easy.” Don’t worry, Robinson, you don’t get to face A.J. Burnett every game. Things do get harder in the majors. Much harder.

Johnson grounds out to end the inning. A scoreless inning! A zero on the scoreboard! Progress!

Fourth Inning
Damon grounds out on the sixth pitch of his at-bat, and Zobrist grounds out on the first pitch he sees. That’s two outs on seven pitches, and Burnett is now one out away from his first 1-2-3 inning of the night.

And like clockwork, Longoria walks to extend the inning and prevent A.J. Burnett from a perfect inning.

Casey Kotchman remembers he’s the Casey Kotchman that’s been on five teams in eight seasons and he flies out to right and Burnett has now thrown back-to-back scoreless innings.

Fifth Inning
Upton strikes out and Rodriguez grounds out to Nunez (always a scary moment). One out away from that elusive 1-2-3 inning!

Ruggiano doubles to end Burnett’s bid at perfection, but Chirinos finally makes an out on a grounder to “Close Your Eyes” Nunez to end the inning. So much for that perfect on-base percentage, Chirinos.

Sixth Inning
OK, this is why people question Joe Girardi, and it’s acceptable to question him…

It’s the sixth inning. The Rays lead 4-2. A.J. Burnett has thrown 97 pitches and has one pitch working tonight that he can throw for strikes and get outs with. The Yankees still have nine outs to mount a two-run comeback if they can hold the Rays at four. The problem is that Burnett has thrown three scoreless innings in a row. Why is that a problem? That’s a problem because either he has actually found a groove, or he has just booby-trapped the sixth inning in making Girardi think that everything is fine and he can stay in the game. Girardi ALWAYS stays with Burnett too long. ALWAYS. He seems to have a longer leash with Burnett than anyone not named CC Sabathia. With the No. 9 hitter due up and then back to the top of the order, I can see Girardi letting Burnett have a chance against Johnson, and then going to the bullpen for the top of the order.

Johnson grounds out, and there’s one away, and Burnett is staying in to face Damon.

Damon singles and that should do it for Burnett, who battled his way to the sixth inning when it looked like he might be done after the first inning. A rare grind-it-out effort From Burnett.

Wait a minute … wait a minute … that’s not it for Burnett!  Girardi has a 12 and the dealer is showing a 5, but Girardi’s hitting anyway. Burnett will face Zobrist.

Zobrist walks on five pitches. I didn’t see that one coming. Here comes Hector Noesi … one, possibly two hitters too late.

Longoria flies out and Kotchman walks. The bases are loaded with two outs and the game is the on the line with B.J. “I’m Going to Make the New York Media Second-Guess Girardi Tonight” Upton due up.

Upton strikes out looking, and Joe Girardi’s decision making is justified. Kind of.

Burnett’s final line for the night was 5.1 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 6 BB, 4 K. Surprisingly enough, I picked the perfect start to write down my thoughts during a Burnett start. I watched him struggle, I watched the game nearly put out of reach, I watched him be dominant with his curveball, I watched him pitch out of trouble, I watched Girardi stay with him too long and I watched one thing you never ever, ever, ever see with A.J. Burnett … I watched him grind out a start without his best stuff. All of these things add up to what A.J. Burnett is: inconsistent. Not awful, not bad, not great, not even good … just OK. Decent. Mediocre. Fair. Average. Adequate.

Burnett could have gone out and pitched a no-hitter or he could have left this game in the first inning and turned the ball over to Luis Ayala and destroyed the bullpen for the four-game series. Or he could have done exactly what he did and given the Yankees a less-than-quality start but kept the team in the game, and I would still think the same thing: The Yankees need another starting pitcher by July 31, or they need A.J. Burnett to be better than he’s been as a Yankee. I’ll take either one.

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

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