Grading A.J. Burnett

You didn’t need to stay up on Monday night to know how bad A.J. Burnett was against the Diamondbacks. After his previous three starts prior, you probably could have guessed how his night would go. I was naïve to think that someone making $500,000 per start could shut down the worst team in the NL West. Stupid me.

It’s never good when a six-game West Coast road trip starts with a first-inning mound visit, and it’s never good when you are hoping your No. 2 starter gets drilled when he comes up to hit and has to be placed on the DL. But such is the life of a Yankees fan dealing with the frustrating A.J. Burnett.

If you missed the game, first off you’re lucky, and second off you don’t even need to see Burnett’s line from the game to find out just how bad he was. All you need to know are the pitchers who followed him out of the bullpen. That would be Chad Gaudin and Chan Ho Park. Yes, it was another egg laid by Allan James Burnett in what has become a trend every five days for the Yankees, and a costly one at that. Here is the supposed No. 2 starter on the Yankees losing four straight games and allowing 23 earned runs in 20 innings in June and doing his best Chase Wright impression by allowing nine home runs over that span. I guess $16.5 million a year just doesn’t get you what it used to.

Sure there are going to be plenty of people with Yankees blinders on that take offense to me saying such terrible things about a player on my team, but honestly, I take offense to the idea that Yankees fans can stand by this guy and say anything good about him. And if anyone has anything good to say about his on-field performance, I know what that good thing is going to be: Game 2 of the 2009 World Series.

I am well aware that A.J. Burnett won Game 2 of last year’s World Series after the Yankees lost Game 1. What about the rest of the postseason? Did we forget that Burnett was 1-1 with a 5.27 ERA in five starts in October and November last year? Did we forget about his Game 5 meltdown in the World Series when he allowed six runs on four hits and four walks in two innings of work, or does that start not count?

I will be forever grateful that Burnett was able to win Game 2 and prevent the Yankees from going into an 0-2 hole with the series shifting to Philadelphia. But it’s not like the man single-handedly carried us to a championship (that would be Alex Rodriguez and Hideki Matsui), and it’s not like he never has to perform well again because of one start last fall.

A.J. Burnett is perfectly capable of going off between now and his last start of the season and making June just a minor bump in what ends up being an outstanding season. The problem is he is also capable of continuing to be the worst starter in the Yankees rotation the rest of the way, and right now, it’s hard to think of him in any other light than what we saw on Monday night, June 16, June 10 and June 4.

It’s not like I didn’t see these types of starts coming from Burnett. We all saw them at times last year, and we saw them prior to his amazing 2008 season with the Blue Jays. Except, I saw them coming at Fenway Park and Tropicana Field. I didn’t expect them to come against the Orioles, Blue Jays and Diamondbacks.

Here is what I wrote about A.J. Burnett after his first start of the season at Fenway Park:

“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.”

And here is what I said about him when I ranked the Yankees starters in order of how much I enjoy watching them (Burnett ranked fourth, but he would be fifth in updated rankings):

“A.J. has two types of starts… 1.) The start where you start checking the inning and how many outs are left because a potential no-no is in the works and 2.) The start where he cruises for every inning except for one and allows three-plus runs that inning. A.J. will never give up a run here or a run there. It’s all or nothing with him. He is either going to try to burn out the P.C. Richard strikeout whistle at the Stadium, or have people heading for the exits with the game out of reach. He’s a nightmare for anyone that likes consistency or good strike-to-ball ratios, or for anyone that plays fantasy baseball. When he’s on, he can be the best pitcher on the planet with the best breaking ball in the league. When he’s off, expect every count to go full and free passes to be handed out.”

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 A.J. 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.

It was hard enough to watch all nine innings on Monday night that I wasn’t about to sit through the postgame show and listen to Joe Girardi tell us that A.J. “had great stuff in the ‘pen before the game” or that “his velocity and breaking ball were there, he just missed his location.” As much as I despise Ozzie Guillen, at least he would take A.J. to town after a month of losses with a three-team race now taking shape in the AL East.

But the real reason I didn’t watch the postgame show (other than the fact that I had just wasted over three hours of my life watching the Yankees lose 10-4 to the Diamondbacks) was because I didn’t want to see A.J. Burnett. I didn’t want to see him stand in front of his locker and tell reporters that “he sucked” and that “he needs to better.” Tell us something we don’t know. I’m glad that A.J. holds himself accountable (something Joba Chamberlain needs to learn to do and something that got Ian Kennedy a one-way ticket to Arizona), but being sorry on a night when you just made more than Phil Hughes will make all year isn’t enough. Go win a game for once. Go beat the 28-win Diamondbacks.

All weekend long I gave my friend Dusty a hard time because his beloved Dodgers were swept by the Red Sox and allowed the Red Sox to further close the gap in the AL East. After Monday’s loss, I expected a response from Dusty and sure enough at 11:14 a.m. on Tuesday morning, there it was … “The Yankees lost to the worst team in the NL West.”

Thanks, A.J. Burnett. Only another three-plus years of this …