Goodbye to A.J. Burnett and His ‘Great Stuff’

The Season 4 finale of The Office has one of my favorite scenes in the show’s history. That scene is when Toby leaves the office for Costa Rica and Michael’s bids him farewell by singing Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger” with the new title “Goodbye Toby” and new lyrics tailored to Toby.

I have always envisioned myself singing the song with the title changed to “Goodbye A.J.” on the steps of Babe Ruth Plaza before a night game at the Stadium with Yankees fans crowded around singing and celebrating the trade or release of A.J. Burnett. Burnett is no longer a Yankee, but it’s the middle of February and there are no games to be played at the Stadium until April, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to rent a backup band and belt out my own rendition of Supertramp’s hit in the Bronx.

I have written for since Feb. 1, 2010 and I have written more words about A.J. Burnett than anyone other sports figure. (Type “Neil Keefe A.J. Burnett” into Google if you think I’m kidding.) I have dedicated entire columns to him, made a system for measuring his starts and grading his performances, referenced him in columns about the Rangers and joked about him in columns about the Giants. I have used his name in every possible way and want to thank him for the countless material and also for Game 2 of the 2009 World Series. Since there won’t be a performance in Babe Ruth Plaza, I decided the next best thing was to go back through all of my columns about A.J. Burnett over the last two years and share some of my favorite moments from my columns about him.

April 7, 2010
Watching A.J. Burnett pitch is harder to watch than the scene in Casino where Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) and his brother Dominick are beaten within an inch of their lives by baseball bats and then buried alive. Sure it’s only one start, but it’s not like we didn’t also see this last year. Burnett is either going to come within reach of a no-no or have a start that includes that one letdown inning. On Tuesday, he had the latter and the letdown inning was the fifth.

June 22, 2010
This time I decided to take what I have learned about A.J. Burnett since he became a Yankee and take it out a step further. I think its necessary that we have a unit of measurement for Burnett’s starts and a way to categorize his many meltdowns and losses. So like the Richter scale, here is a way to measure another type of natural disaster: A.J. Burnett meltdowns.

Grade 1
Example: June 10 vs. Baltimore

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 vs. Angels

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 vs. Red Sox and June 21 vs. Diamondbacks

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.

The entire scene is enough to make you think about picking up your remote control and throwing a two-seamer right through the TV screen, or at the very least it’s enough to make you make yourself a strong cocktail.

September 1, 2010
“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.”

October 1, 2010
I thought A.J Burnett could be good down the stretch (well, maybe it was more of hope). I thought he could turn around what has been the worst season of any Yankee pitcher since David Cone when 4-14 in 2000. I said I wouldn’t say anything negative about him for the rest of the season. I gave him a chance, but he took the mound in Toronto with his ALDS roster spot on the line and gave the Blue Jays a chance to pad their 2010 stats in the final week of the season. So like Stevie Janowski once said, “I have tried to be your friend, but you will not listen to me, so you invited this monster.”

It’s obvious at this point that A.J. Burnett is in denial about his abilities. Maybe it’s because everyone around him tells him he has “great stuff” like delusional parents telling their kid that they are the best despite the truth. Since June 1, Burnett has made 21 starts and has won four of them. He’s 4-13 over that time with a 6.67 ERA, and is now 23-24 with a 4.64 ERA in 65 starts as a Yankee. If I’m Joe Girardi and I’m managing for a championship and for a hefty contract this offseason, the last person I want deciding my salary for the next few years is a pitcher who found a way to lose at least 15 games for a 94-plus win team.

Here is Burnett’s line from Monday night’s loss:

2.1 IP, 7 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 1 BB, 1K, 2 HR

Now, here is a quote from Burnett following that pitching line:

“Joe’s going to make a decision on his own. 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.”

Does that sound like a pitcher who lost for the seventh time in 11 starts and who has just one win since September 28th? That’s right, one win in 65 days. Give him the ball, Joe!

What’s even more puzzling than Burnett thinking that losing in the regular season at $500,000 a start, are the words he chose to describe his current state of mind.

“I don’t have anything to prove. He saw what I did last year in the postseason.”

Yes, A.J. Burnett won Game 2 of the World Series, and it was a must-win game for the Yankees. But let’s not forget he started four other games in the postseason and either lost or earned no decisions. Not to mention his meltdowns in two potential clinchers (Game 5 of the ALCS and Game 5 of the World Series).

Here is Burnett’s line from Game 5 of the ALCS:

6 IP, 8 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 3 BB, 3 K

And here is his line from Game 5 of the World Series, a game in which the first four Phillies reached base and had a 3-0 lead before Burnett recorded an out:

2 IP, 4 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 4 BB, 2K, 1 HR

And in case you forgot, here is how Game 5 went down for Burnett, batter by batter:

First inning: Single, hit by pitch, home run, walk, strikeout, groundout, groundout

Second inning: Strikeout, groundout, walk, pop-out

Fourth inning: Walk, walk, single, single

So, yeah we all saw what you did in the postseason last year.

October 19, 2010
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.

and more from this same column…

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.

July 19, 2011
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.

August 11, 2011
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.

and more from this same column…

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 [14] 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.

August 22, 2011
At the end of Good Will Hunting, Ben Affleck’s character (Chuckie Sullivan) tells Matt Damon’s character (Will Hunting), “You know what the best part of my day is? The ten seconds before I knock on the door ’cause I let myself think I might get there, and you’d be gone. I’d knock on the door and you just wouldn’t be there. You just left.”

I live this every day. You know what the best part of my day is? Every day when I sign online, or go on Twitter, or turn on the TV or the radio ‘cause I let myself think that I will see the headline or hear the phrase, “A.J. Burnett removed from Yankees rotation.” I’m not foolish enough to think that I might hear, “Yankees release A.J. Burnett” because of the money he is owed this season and the $33 million for the next two years. But I let myself think that maybe, just maybe he will be sent to the bullpen and given the Jorge Posada treatment in that he doesn’t fit the team’s plan in putting the best team on the field. I think we’re getting there.

Burnett faced 12 batters. Eight of them reached base. Five of them were named Ben Revere, Trevor Plouffe, Danny Valencia Rene Tosoni and Luke Hughes (they are still named those names too). This isn’t the Red Sox, Rangers or Tigers or a team that has postseason aspirations. This is a team that outside of Burnett’s start scored five runs total in the other three games of the series. It’s a team that is 16 games under .500 and 13 games out of it in the weak Central. Let’s face it: The Twins suck.

But no one sucks when A.J. Burnett is pitching. Here’s how Burnett’s night went on Saturday:

Sacrifice Fly
Home run

One last time … Ladies and gentlemen, A.J. Burnett!

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