Keidel: A.J. A Beast Of Burnett For Yankees

By Jason Keidel
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Does a guy ever really get on your nerves? Perhaps you nod yes when thinking of my columns.

Well, I’m not sure about you, but I’m sick of parsing the primitive thoughts of an overpaid, underperforming, prima donna with a body by God and brain by Cable Guy. I’m talking of course, about Allan James Burnett.

It’s bad enough we’ve gelded these great arms with pitch counts and pop psychology. (How’s them Joba Rules goin’?) We must now pamper these pitchers because they hold all the cards (no, that wasn’t an A-Rod reference), wrapped in guaranteed contracts longer than the Irving Picard’s invoice. You can’t cut ‘em, so coddle ‘em. Maybe once A.J. Burnett hugs his inner child we’ll finally see a man on the mound, not this grumpy but obscenely gifted pitcher brooding after another bad outing, a guy whose opponents say is the filthiest pitcher on the planet yet takes the mound every fifth day with an incongruous, .500 record (9-9 this year, and 119-109 for his career), 4.61 ERA, while leading the world in wild pitches (15).

Joe Torre’s genius was in assuaging his aging stars while nursing the Core Four into stardom. Though no one doubts Torre’s baseball brain, it was the wand he waved while he weaved disparate egos into a singular mantra, that principle trumps personalities, that winning supplants the superficial. Victory became the ultimate statistic. Don Shula once said the only stat he followed was on the scoreboard. Essentially, if the team gets theirs, you’ll get yours.

It just takes a lot more semantic dexterity to convince the player these days, which is paradoxical when you consider that they have it exponentially better than their predecessors, who almost always had offseason employment because their baseball salaries didn’t pay all the bills. Back then, the World Series meant a lot more than a world championship; it was a much-needed monetary nest for the rest of winter. World Series checks are merely tip money now, but ask Yogi Berra (who got 11 of them as a player) how much they meant in, say, 1951.

Oddly, Joe Torre was the beneficiary of this nouveaux athlete: a maddening hybrid of man and child. Back when Torre wore the mask, they paid you for play, not for your thoughts. There was a distinct, masculine dignity to sports before “feelings” became as important as hits, homers, and strikeouts. We can’t just pay you millions to play a kid’s game and expect you to do so with quiet grace. Today’s athlete now needs – beyond a phalanx of bodyguards, masseuses, personal trainers, chefs, and nutritionists – a roaming Tony Robbins to tell him everything is okay. And it doesn’t hurt to have an encyclopedic recall of Sigmund Freud’s structural model of the psyche.

Enter A.J. Burnett, who comes off as a caricature, a victim of his sublime skill and dwindling will. He talks under a crown of spiked blonde hair and endless tattoos, which creep up his sleeves like some baseball doppelganger consuming his soul, his drawl and droopy cadence bring to mind a man who doesn’t get it and/or doesn’t care to. It’s as though he were a teen given a superhero’s power yet none of the adjunctive training and wisdom to harness it. If each pitch from his divine right arm were a hand grenade, it would blowup during his windup, just as he slowly raised his glove up to his face.

Sometimes things are simple. And no matter how many times you, his manager, general manager, or mother pat his padded butt, dangle the stick and carrot accordingly, the answer is easy: he sucks. And the best way to get us off his back is to…stop sucking.

There’s no doubt that no matter how great an athlete is, he’s human first, and that the laws of physics are metaphysics are pliable but still apply, even to stars. But baseball is a zero sum game, unlike film, painting, or literature, where the art and artist are viewed through subjective lenses. Unlike many vocations, there is a clear winner and loser in team sports because we keep score. And Burnett’s stats blink over his locker like a “Vacancy” sign.

The only reason he’s still a starting pitcher for the New York Yankees is he’s making over $16 million per season. Perhaps you’d like to see Ivan Nova take his place permanently. Perhaps you’d like to see one of the renowned “Killer B” pitchers to get a taste of the majors. Perhaps you’d like to see anyone but Burnett on the mound. But the Yankees have nowhere to hide him. He’s useless in any location and a nuisance in the rotation.

Joe Girardi wraps Burnett in platitudes about confidence and momentum. “It probably feels really good,” Girardi said of Burnett’s first August win in pinstripes, against – you guessed it! – Kansas City. Even against the dreadful Royals (50-73), Burnett surrendered 10 hits in just over 5 innings. “He’s thrown some games I thought we could have got him wins and we didn’t,” Girardi said. The manager must say that in public, but no one knows better than Girardi that Burnett, on the mound, is as trustworthy as Julian Assange. That’s a small problem in August, while the Yanks make their march toward the playoffs, but it could be a catastrophe of pitching atrophy in October.

“Upside” is a new, nauseating mantra, like many corporate slogans that slide down the decades. In the 1990s it was Proactive. “We need to be proactive on this, Jason,” one of my former bosses used to say, long before I swapped a suit and sweaty commute for a latte and a laptop. She said it to me because her boss said it to her, and that boss got it from one of those meetings on one of those high floors our elevators never quite reached, where they craft the corporate lexicon.

Over the last decade it has been going forward. “What do you plan to do, Jason, going forward?” is a phrase that leads me to lighter fluid and a matchbook. Going forward? As though there were another direction to travel, with time as the path and measurement.

So A.J. Burnett, based on his electric arm and eclectic mien, and his history of dominating the Yankees and Red Sox (before he came to New York, of course), was seen as a pitcher bursting with the aforementioned, overrated commodity (upside).

At what point does it become downside? At what point does A.J. “I can only beat the Royals” Burnett become a burden?  When is it acceptable – particularly for a franchise like the Yankees – to employ a pitcher who has just one August win in three years (and just got it two days ago)?

If it weren’t for a few flashes in 2009, when he actually contributed to a World Series title – though his ERA was 7.00 during that Fall Classic – Burnett’s got a lot of Oliver Perez in him. No, he doesn’t have Ollie’s penchant for pounding the Denny’s dinner buffet, but all the psychological bona fides of a bust are right there. He’s soft, stubborn, not so smart, and super-sensitive.

Or maybe he’s simply getting fat on cash. Indeed, the more money he makes, the worse he pitches. He made $9.6 million in Florida while pitching to a 3.73 ERA. He made $28 million in Toronto and left with a 3.94 ERA. And while in the middle of an $82 million deal in New York, he’s got a 4.61 ERA. (Yes, your ERA is bound to jump in the American League, but not a full run per season in your prime.) Last year he produced the worst season (10-15, 5.26 ERA) for a starting pitcher in Yankees history, and then starts this year by barking at reporters, ordering them not to remind him of 2010. It’s 2011, you see, and we’re always going forward.

Unless you’re A.J. Burnett, where forward and backward are obscured, where the numbers lay but never lie, like the $16 million he makes this season. He’s the first to hop out of the dugout, pie in hand, sneaking around and stalking the player with the game-winning hit, and then smashing the shaving cream into the unsuspecting face of his teammate. Yet it’s Burnett who always winds up with pie in his face, a sullen stroll from the mound to the showers under a shower of boos from those who are sick of his inflated pay and deflated pranks. If only he took the same care of his curveball that he does those creamy concoctions he mashes into men who have actually accomplished something. Maybe then the joke wouldn’t be on Burnett.

Feel free to email me:

  • grobert

    a j burnett was, is, will always be an inferior pitcher….aka he stinks…never saw him pitch more than an inning or three where he wasn’t bombed off the mound. compare his stats to sandy coufax (who made a lot less while getting a lot more outs)ut

  • dachmuse

    Man, talk about hitting the nail on the Pinhead!

  • JK

    Heh. Indeed, Robert. The best part about it is I bet she’s a bot. What I don’t understand is why it was programmed to spam sports sites. This is hardly her demographic.

    • Jonas Altman-Kurosaki

      You don’t wanna ch’eck it out Jason? I am an older gentle man who digs anyone who refers to herself as being “a 26 years old nurse.”

      • JK

        You s’ound cute, J’ona’s. Call me @ 800 555 1212.

  • dabooch

    The key to AJ Burnett is to pull him out before the damage insurmountable…that’s up to Girardi. Rule of thumb is pull him out after 5 no matter what, if he makes it that far. Don’t trust him to give you six or seven because he will blow up. As he walks his first batter it’s time to get someone up and start soft tossing. Girardi should sit him down go over this strategy and never look back.

    • JK

      Fair enough, dabooch. But did the Yankees dish out $82 million for a five-inning pitcher? Doesn’t Burnett at least owe the team a solid six?

      • Jonas Altman-Kurosaki

        Darn, my comment didn’t get posted. The gist of it was that of course Burnett owes the team six innings. The Yanks don’t have a strong enough bullpen beyond Robertson and Rivera to hold down the fort for four innings every fifth day. It just doesn’t work that way. Five innings to qualify for a win is fine, but there’s a reason that a quality start requires six – and even then, the “quality” isn’t really that high. Clint Hurdle said earlier this year that the Pirates don’t consider a quality start the way it’s defined, saying something along the lines of, “we expect our guys to go out and give us seven every game.”

        Unfortunately for the Yankees, though, as has been discussed, the cards are really in Burnett’s hands right now thanks to that huge contract and his inability to make it through the second and third times through the order with any kind of effectiveness. We’ll see what happens but whatever does, I can’t imagine that it’d be in the Yankees’ best interests.

    • lydiass

      You hit the nail on the head by contrasting today’s athletes and those of yesteryear. AJ is the personification of the idiosyncrasies of today’s “modern” athlete. I am a 26 years old nurse, young and beautiful. Now I am seeking an older gentle man who can give me real love , so i got a username Annababe2011 on—a’ge’l’es’s’da’te. C óM—it is the first and best club for y’ounger women and older men, or older women and younger men,to int’eract with each other. Maybe you wanna ch’eck it out or tell your friends.

  • JK

    Sorry, gang. I’ll fix that. But Peepee, of course, was looking for something to hate, wasn’t he? Hater in da house! ;)

  • Peepee Hands

    Wow someone really misread AJ’s win loss record is 119 and 109. If it was 306 and 302 we would be talking about how AJ (Future Hall of Famer) having another dominant season.

    This guy nearly ranks up there on Pavano type failures for B-Cash.

    • Jonas Altman-Kurosaki

      Ha, I just looked it up – looks like you put his Games-Games Started instead of Win-Loss, Jason :P Doesn’t change the credibility of the article, though.

      • JK

        Then again, what can we expect from someone hiding behind the handle, “Peepee Hands”?

  • Kurt Spitzner


    • JK

      Indeed, Mr. Spitzner. Like I was telling Jonas, I don’t think Burnett is quite as dumb or numb to reality, but he’s close. When Perez skipped that trip to Walter Reed he basically signed his own, baseball death certificate. Not even Burnett would do that. But the symmetry between them is startling. Each forgot how to pitch once they got paid big bucks.

  • Robert Richardson

    His best year was with Toronto in ’08 (18 -10) at the age of 31. He was barely over .500 in the 9 years previous to ’08. Sure his stuff looked good at times but looking good doesn’t translate into wins. I’d rather win ugly. Did Cashmen think that he would improve that dramatically after the signing at the at of 32 ??? It was an $82+ million roll of the dice that came up snake eyes.

    • Jonas Altman-Kurosaki

      I don’t think Cashman thought Burnett would improve so much as he thought the Yankees’ offense would be enough to cover Burnett’s bad spots and let the guy rake in a few 15-win, mid-4 ERA seasons. I don’t think he could’ve seen last year coming though, especially after that “renaissance” at the beginning of the season. Or was that this season? It all kind of blurs into one when you think about that guy’s Yankee career.

    • JK

      You’re both spot on. What I’d say, Robert (to piggyback Jonas), is that the Yanks expected at least what he gave Toronto, Instead, he’s been exponentially worse, including a 5.67 ERA in the playoffs while leading the planet in wild pitches. By any reasonable measure – particularly his salary – he’s been a bust. If your primary point is that the Yanks should have expected this, I dig it. But I thought he would be much better than this.

  • Jonas Altman-Kurosaki

    AJ’s realistic potential can be summed up in one box score: On May 12, 2001, he threw a no-hitter, striking out seven and walking nine despite only 129 pitches, also hitting a batter and throwing a wild pitch. Did he get helped out by the Pads’ hitters at all? Absolutely. But the bottom line is he managed to throw a no-hitter.

    I’m really glad you mentioned Oliver Perez in this article. I’d just made a similar comparison yesterday – to a very passionate and educated Yankees fan – and he shook his head. The only reason that the two are different is this: AJ, on a good day, when there’s a full moon a-comin’, he’s wearing his lucky rocket ship underpants and his hair is spiked in just the right way, still has that great stuff and there’s no denying it’s still there somewhere. With Perez, though, the velocity was completely kaput, his movement was dwindling and let’s just say there’s a reason he’s not even succeeding for AA Harrisburg right now.

    The Yankees would never release Burnett. There’s too much pride involved in admitting you’ve made an investment so bad that you’re willing to eat the rest of it for nothing – like the old expression, no news is good news, no outing is a good outing for Burnett. The Yanks might try to trade him, but their best option would’ve been if the Dodgers still had Andruw Jones’ huge contract hanging over their faces. The situation is a little different than the Bradley-Silva one that presented itself a few winters ago, which was really a no-brainer and a low-risk mediocre-reward deal for both sides. As it stands right now, no other team besides the Yankees have a bust that’s making $16m a year (and a Bay-AJ Mets-Yanks deal would make no sense).

    One page the Yankees could possibly take from the Milton Bradley book is getting AJ a shrink. However, I’m not sure he’d take too kindly to that and it’d probably hurt him more than help him. I know that it was a heck of a lot easier for the Mets to eat the contracts of Castillo and Perez this season since no one in this regime was involved with those signings, but at this point, it’s time for the Steinbrenners and Cashman to ignore Burnett’s “upside” going forward and admit that one good apple doesn’t make a difference in a sea of bad apples. Whether to release A.J. Burnett now or after the playoffs is beside the point, but as long as he doesn’t so much as toe a rubber in October the Yanks will be in OK shape.

    • JK

      Indeed, Jonas, I was looking for an analogous New York pitcher and he was right in front of my face the entire time. Burnett is Perez redux, sans the belly and bad English.

      But I don’t think Burnett would have pulled a Perez and skipped the trip to Walter Reed. That’s about as bad a move a pro athlete has ever made without breaking the law. Google “Three Blind Mets” when you get a shot. I really lay into Perez, Castillo, and Beltran for that one.

      And you’re right that Cashman has too much pride to part with Burnett. It means he admits that it was yet another of his porous pitching acquisitions (like Kei Igawa, Kevin Brown, Jaret Wright, Kyle Farnsworth, etc.). If another team takes a chance on Burnett, the Yanks will be forced to eat at least $10 million of his annual salary.

      • Jonas Altman-Kurosaki

        I think the Yanks would be totally fine with eating that if it means they can pawn the guy off and actually get something in return. Trades dent a GM’s ego a heck of a lot less than DFAs/releases do, and the Yankees more than anyone are a team that can afford to eat most or all of Burnett’s contract if it means getting a new player – at any level of development – in exchange for AJ pitching elsewhere.

    • Jonas Altman-Kurosaki

      I guess the only caveat is weighing Burnett’s “upside” against the potential “downside” for Garcia and Colon as they toil on into September and October.

  • JK

    Good points, Robert. I can’t be a hypocrite, so I’ll admit that I liked the signing at the time. His stuff is startling, and he always waxed the Yankees. But had I known what a head case he was, I would have not been so ardent in my support of the signing.

    • Jonas Altman-Kurosaki

      Similarly, as a Mets fan, I was just fine with the albeit expensive contract the Mets gave Ollie after ’08. Why not? The guy had better stuff than anyone else on the market not named CC and he’d just won 15 games for us in ’07.

      • Jonas Altman-Kurosaki

        True, but Perez had already bitten the Big Apple and handled it fairly well. He was more like a dormant volcano, just waiting for the right contract to come along and set him off in an ugly two year-long explosion that buried Minaya and the Mets with failure like Pompeii.

      • JK

        Exactly, Jonas. You never know which players will implode once they bite the Big Apple.

  • Robert Richardson

    You hit the nail on the head by contrasting today’s athletes and those of yesteryear. AJ is the personification of the idiosyncrasies of today’s “modern” athlete. The only “upside” to him is no off field controversies. Which is saying that he is all downside on the field. $16 million annual for this ??? I shook my head at his signing and I am tired of shaking my head ever since. At what to point do we move on?

    • JK

      Wow. Robert, did you see how that daily porno spam girl turned your remarks into a solicitation? Jonas and Kurt have a valid gripe that their comments can’t clear the automated filter, yet this lydia creature bombs every column I write. Heh.

      • Robert Richardson

        I want to meet this … Lydia (and a nurse too!!) LMAO !

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