Keefe To The City: Frustration With A.J. Burnett, Yankees’ Rotation
By Neil Keefe
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I didn’t want to write about A.J. Burnett again. I really didn’t. I even held off an entire day after he pitched before writing about him — but now everyone else is writing and talking about Burnett.
It’s just not fair that so many are getting their say in on my favorite person to write about and it’s making me feel like a little like Ben Affleck’s character (Fred O’Bannion) in Dazed and Confused.
So I’m grabbing the paddle and getting my whacks in on the most popular 8-9 pitcher on the planet: Ladies and gentlemen, A.J. Burnett!
After watching the Yankees on Tuesday and Wednesday night, you can’t help but to think about the near future and the postseason — and who’s going to pitch in the playoffs and who’s not. Right now we know two things: (1) The Yankees are going to the postseason and (2) The Yankees don’t know what their October rotation is after CC Sabathia.
I thought Brian Cashman was going to make this easier and trade for a front-end starting pitcher at the trade deadline because that’s what he essentially promised after losing out on Cliff Lee when he talked about staying “afloat” until July 31. But he didn’t. I don’t want to say he lied even though he kind of did. But he does have an excuse since the only real front-end starter available was Ubaldo Jimenez. Giving up Jesus Montero, Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances and Ivan Nova for him just wasn’t worth it for anyone not named Felix Hernandez.
Back on that forgetful night in December when Lee chose the Phillies over the Yankees, I wrote that Brian Cashman failed to execute his Plan A for the postseason and there wasn’t a Plan B or Plan C. And now we’re seeing the result of Lee choosing the team that chose Roy Halladay over him at one time, like a Jerry Springer guest going back to their unfaithful lover while the studio audience boos. We’re seeing what I was scared of eight months ago when Lee turned down less money (when you don’t factor in the taxes and cost of living and whatever else people like factor in) and when Andy Pettitte saw this and thought, “CC and … A.J. and … Phil … and … umm … I think I’m going to stay home this year, guys. My family needs me.”
The Yankees still have to play 47 games. Making the postseason isn’t exactly as much of a lock as Jorge Posada not making the postseason roster, but it’s going to take some historically bad play down the stretch here for the Yankees to not win the division or the wild card. But since there is still A LOT of time left in the regular season, I’m not ready to talk to about the postseason rotation and how I would build a rotation after CC Sabathia. I’m ready to talk about the regular season rotation and how I would build a rotation after CC Sabathia.
We all know the six-man rotation has to stop, but it doesn’t matter what the fans think. What matters is what CC Sabathia thinks, and he has already hinted at the idea that this doesn’t make him happy. And it would be a good idea to make your ace and one true trustworthy starter who has the option to pitch somewhere else next season happy. The problem is Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi are scared to make a decision about the six-man rotation. Either that or they don’t really know what decision to make. Or maybe it’s a little bit of both.
There are essentially three starters (Burnett, Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes) for two spots in the rotation. Sabathia, Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia have earned rotation immunity, so it comes down to the two youngest Yankees starters and the fourth-highest paid person on the team. Seems like a fair fight, right?
The Yankees, especially Cashman and Girardi, preach winning. I listened to Cashman in January in person talk about how his job is to put a winning team on the field above all else, and why he can’t be friends with the players. He said that his bosses demand a winning product and a championship and it’s his job to deliver. And Girardi, well, it was only four days ago that he told Posada that he is going to put the best lineup on the field and that Posada currently doesn’t fit into that plan. Now, Posada is relegated to hanging out on the dugout steps during games and trying to break into other conversations like the lonely old guy at the bar looking for someone to talk to him.
So, knowing that the Cashman and Girardi ONLY care about winning and will do WHATEVER it takes to win, this decision seems like a rather easy one to me: A.J. Burnett is out of the rotation.
It’s not like this is a decision made hastily or without a large sample size. This is a decision based on lots of results. But to be onboard with taking the Yankees’ most ineffective starter and putting him in the bullpen (for now), you first have to identify and understand the two common misconceptions about him.
1. He has “great stuff.” Every time I hear this is it’s like someone pulling their nails from the top left corner to the bottom right corner of a chalkboard. It makes me cringe and hate baseball. Am I watching a different game than everyone else when Burnett pitches? Am I really taking crazy pills like Mugatu? What’s so great about an 8-9 record and 4.60 ERA? Is it because he throws hard? Is it because he has a curveball that drops off the table that has led to a league-leading 15 wild pitches, or basically the equivalent of throwing an entire inning of wild pitches?
Sabathia and Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez and Tim Lincecum and Justin Verlander have GREAT stuff. A.J. Burnett has the type of “great stuff” that Jeff Weaver had. The only reason Weaver isn’t pitching in the league anymore is because no team was stupid enough to give him $82.5 million.
2. He has the ability to throw a shutout. I LOVE this one. I LOVE IT! I LOVE that people think because once in a while when the night is right and the temperature is perfect and the lineup is just bad enough and the stars align, A.J. Burnett pitches a great game.
I understand that you need swing-and-miss stuff in the postseason, but you also don’t need free-pass stuff in the postseason and under .500 stuff and 4.60 stuff. So, if you’re going to tell me Burnett has the ability (which I don’t think he does) to shut down the Red Sox, Rangers, Angels, Tigers or Indians in a must-win game, you better be able to tell me he also has the ability to put the Yankees in an inescapable hole before they even hit for the first time in the game.
But aside from Burnett’s frequent meltdowns, is what’s going on his head and the delusion inside that head that he believes he is better than he is. On July 19, I wrote:
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.
This still holds true. Burnett does stand there after losses and takes questions from the media regarding his latest letdown, but is anyone actually listening to his answers? It’s more than just him saying he wants to try and have “fun” on the mound since pitching in the majors and making $82.5 million apparently isn’t enough fun for him to get his rocks off.
Let’s look at and dissect some of the answers that Burnett gave after his start on Tuesday:
“Before the sixth, I kept my team in it the best I could. And that’s what I’m going to continue to keep doing.”
It’s always something with Burnett and everyone is always making excuses for him. He’s always talking about if he “could have one pitch back” or that he “only made one mistake” or that “he left it all on the field.” You know who uses the line “I left it all on the field?” People who lose.
Burnett pinpoints the place where he stopped pitching well and started pitching like a guy who makes $500,000 per start whether he’s good or not. But hey, EFF IT! Only the first six inning matter and if you did “the best you could” well, I can’t argue you with that. Except there’s no place for who did their “best” on the scoreboard. Just runs, hits and errors.
“I wouldn’t change a lot.”
Oh, OK! You wouldn’t change the double you gave up to Hall of Famer Jeff Mathis. Or how about the 50-foot curveball you threw to Erick Aybar with a runner on third? Well, if you wouldn’t change them, I can’t argue with that.
“I haven’t won in a long time. I think I’ve pitched a lot of games that I could have won. I think a lot of things are out of my hands and are out of my control. I’ve given [up] three runs in  of my starts. If that is not good enough to win, I don’t know what is.”
When I went out to eat for my dad’s birthday on June 29, I kept looking over my sister’s head to try and see the TV at the bar at the restaurant to check the Yankees-Brewers score. A.J. Burnett was pitching. I didn’t think that when he won that game that night I would still be waiting for him to win another one 43 days later.
This is my favorite part. Burnett says the way he has pitched should be good enough to be undefeated or at least close to undefeated and then tries to sneaky throw his offense (currently the 2nd best offense in baseball) under the bus. The Yankees have scored more runs than 28 other teams, so yeah, it must be the offense’s fault!
He’s right, he’s give up three runs or less in 14 starts (it’s actually 15). But did you notice that he didn’t say that in those 15 starts he failed to go six innings in or that he didn’t mention the three times he has given up six or more earned runs? Why did he forget to mention that just last Wednesday he had a 13-1 lead to work with in Chicago and couldn’t even get through five innings and qualify for the win? 13 hits in 4 1/3 innings to the White Sox? If that is not enough to get you kicked out of the rotation, I don’t know what is.
“I’m going to stay positive. I threw the ball well tonight, I kept my team in it.”
If that is throwing the ball well, I don’t want to know what throwing the ball poorly is. OK, that was the last one of those.
Burnett did keep his team in it. Kind of. He needed Mike Scioscia to get kicked out of the game and then the Scioscia’s coaching staff to decide that Fernando Rodney vs. Derek Jeter was a better idea than Dan Haren vs. Derek Jeter. So, he kept his team in it, and then hit a parlay.
Do any of these answers to the media sound like someone who thinks they need to work harder, or change something, or do anything to be a better pitcher? Does this sound like a guy who thinks anything is wrong?
Do I know for sure what Phil Hughes is going to bring as part of the rotation going forward? No. But I know that in his last two starts during this audition phase he’s allowed two earned runs in 12 innings and put 13 men on base. And in Burnett’s last two starts, he’s allowed 11 earned runs in 11 1/3 innings and has put 23 men on base.
Do I know for sure that Ivan Nova is going to keep pitching this well and with this much confidence? I’m going to say “no” for the sake of the flow of this, but I actually think he will. But I know that Nova is 3-0 (and 2-0 in August) in three starts since being re-called from Triple-A after being wrongfully sent down and is second on the team in wins. And in three years in New York, Burnett has as many August wins as me. He’s 0-8 in 13 August starts for the Yankees.
In all honesty, A-Rod is going to come back from the disabled list and the Yankees are going to send Hector Noesi down and move Hughes to the bullpen. Why? Because that’s the easiest move for them to make and creates the least amount of headlines and allows for their $82.5 million man to keep his rotation spot.
No, it’s not ideal to have your Opening Day No. 2 starter making $16.5 million hanging out with your Opening Day designated hitter making $13.1 million on the bench and playing the “I’m Going on a Picnic” game or the “Movie” game in the dugout. But Cashman and Girardi have already made one hard though correct decision. They keep saying they only care about winning and putting the best team on the field. Let’s see if they mean it.
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