Through the first two innings of Wednesday night's game against the Orioles, A.J. Burnett put together a real Granny Gooden effort*, one in which he navigated the opposing lineup with all of the grace of an elderly woman on an icy staircase. Though he didn't allow a run, the enigmatic righty threw no less than 53 pitches over those two frames, yielding two hits and a walk and throwing a pair of wild pitches that moved runners in scoring position. With two outs and two on in the second inning, Burnett called pitching coach Larry Rothschild to the mound to help him through a mechanical issue. Though he escaped the jam by getting Robert Andino to ground out, he appeared headed for one of those miserable nights which the Yankees suffered all too often last year.
The Yankee offense rose to the occasion, staking Burnett to a 6-0 lead in that span, chasing O's starter Chris Tillman after pummeling him for nine hits, the biggest of which were a three-run homer by Alex Rodriguez and a two-run double by Robinson Cano. For the next four innings, Burnett cruised, retiring 12 out of 14 hitters using just 41 pitches, as few as six in one inning. He generated swings and misses with his curveball, and threw strikes with his changeup, looking like the $82.5 million model in the catalog. The Yankees rewarded his effort by extending the lead to 7-0 via a fifth-inning solo homer by Jorge Posada, who snapped an 0-for-19 slump in the process.
Burnett retired Adam Jones via a one-pitch at-bat to start the seventh, but from there things quickly unraveled. Mark Reynolds doubled, and Matt Wieters followed with a two-run homer to put the Orioles on the board. Andino — he of the career .270 OBP and six percent walk rate — walked, and then Brian Roberts homered as well to cut the score to 7-4 and to send Burnett to the showers.
Perhaps it was a pitch count nearing and passing 100 on a night so unpleasantly cool and damp that the Yankees announced that ticketholders would be treated to a future freebie, and perhaps it was manager Joe Girardi giving his starter too much rope with a seven-run lead. In any event, Burnett's final line (6.1 innings, seven hits, four runs, two walks, five strikeouts) didn't quite reflect how well he pitched. He netted the win — David Robertson, Rafael Soriano and Mariano Rivera stifled the Orioles over the final 2.2 innings — but didn't qualify for a quality start. That's a matter of accounting, but in terms of tracking a pitcher's success at keeping his team in games over the course of a season, no less a meaningful one than the W.
As frustrating as it may have been for the rout to turn into a parade of A-list relievers, Monday's day off and Tuesday's rainout had everyone in the bullpen plenty rested. Such occurrences aren't particularly commonplace in the Yankees' universe, however. Baseball Prospectus tracks such situations as occurred on Wednesday night via a stat called Blown Quality Starts (BQS). As explained in the annual, a blown quality start
...measures games in which the starter delivers a quality start through six innings before losing it in the seventh inning or later by allowing runs to give him four or more. That said, a BQS is not necessarily an indictment of the manager's abilities or tactics — a number of factors, ranging from excellent offensive support to extremely poor bullpen support, can lead a manager to leave his starter in a game after he has thrown six quality innings. Conversely, the decision by a manager to "bank" quality starts by restricting his starters to only six innings can have downsides as well, as it increases his bullpen's workload and increased the opportunity for the pen to blow a game in which the starter was cruising.
While one can find BQS references on the BP site well back into the last millennium, our teamwide data only runs back to 2005. During Girardi's first three years at the helm, the Yankees have ranked among the better teams in this regard, both with regards to a minimal number of such occurrences and a low percentage of quality starts (here removing the distinction between earned and unearned runs) which were ultimately blown:
Given the perpetual prowess of the Yankees' offense and the occasionally uneven quality of their rotation (whose 228 quality starts ranked 20th during this span), it's surprising how well the Yankees have fared in this department under Girardi, whose occasional penchant for overmanaging his bullpen led Steve to dub him Coffee Joe. For comparison's sake, during the final three years of Joe Torre's tenure, the Yankees ranked 12th in the majors in quality starts (227), tied for 14th with 19 BQS, and ranked 13th in the percentage of such starts blown at 7.7. Furthermore, such occurrences were less than half as frequent during Torre's Dodger days, while in Girardi's lone year with the Fish, they had 86 quality starts and six blown quality starts, for a percentage of 6.5.
Then again, it's worth remembering that last season's League Championship Series turned on Girardi's surprising willingness to go a bridge too far with a much less confident Burnett, who had been strafed for a 6.61 ERA in August and September, then out of circulation for two weeks. He was one out shy of a quality start when he yielded a three-run homer to Bengie Molina following an ill-considered intentional walk to David Murphy.
Through three starts this year, Burnett has a beefy 4.76 ERA, primarily because he's allowed three home runs in 17.1 innings. But because he's missed more bats (8.3 K/9) and issued fewer free passes (2.6 BB/9) than last year, he's kept the Yankees in every start, and they've won all three.
The shaky ground on which the current rotation rests makes this quality start/blown quality start an area to watch over the course of the season. Accounting matters aside, if Burnett and his mates pitch as well as he did last night, the Yankees should be fine, but Girardi will need an even more deft touch than usual to know when to push Burnett, Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia, and when to pull them.
*term courtesy of pal Nick Stone