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A Toast to A.J. Burnett and Putting First Things Last

I’m having one of those days where I am suffering from the free-floating blues, although in truth they’re not buoyant enough to float and given the damage I’ll do today if I actually attempt to communicate with my fellow humans, they’re definitely not free. Yet, I have a job to do, so just run a tab for me, okay?

I’ve noticed quite often this year that broad generalizations about pitcher performance are made without reference to the lower levels of offense this year. We got used to a very high level of offense—4.78 runs per game in 2008 (American League), 4.82 in 2009. Things cooled a bit last year, dropping down to 4.45, and this year things are down again, to 4.29.

When you look at a A.J. Burnett or an Ivan Nova, you have to take that into account. After a rough opening to the season, Nova settled down and posted a 4.37 RA in his last dozen games before being demoted. He allowed more hits than innings pitched, walked three batters per nine, and allowed a below-average 1.2 home runs per nine innings. In short, he wasn’t as good as his 3.60 ERA during the same period suggested.

The same thing goes for Ol’ Eternal Contract, A.J. Burnett. In his last 12 starts, his RA is 4.68. We can marvel at how he’s been able to do that while maintaining an opponent’s batting average of .211, and yes, it’s his high walk and home run rates that are the culprits here. I’m not advocating policy based on those numbers, because Burnett’s never-ending gobstobber of a deal makes him a fixture. The main point is that there hasn’t been a lot to chose from between Burnett and Nova, but as with so many decisions the Yankees are making this year, the outcome of the season takes second place to decisions that were made impetuously some time ago—Derek Jeter’s contract, Jeter’s career hit total, Burnett’s contract. The art of winning pennants in modern baseball is complicated by commitments. You want to get married again, but you can’t until the divorce papers come through.

It must have been so much easier when Ed Barrow could simply release a guy who wasn’t performing and career milestones weren’t worth big money. Early Wynn actually changed teams with 299 wins for the simple reason that he had nothing left to offer at 42 except an appeal to sentimentality. He was released by the White Sox and signed by the team of his glory years, the Indians. He was put in long relief and made the occasional spot start. When the win happened, if it happened, was not a big deal. Attendance for his 300th win was 13,565 almost all of whom probably had no idea that they were going to witness a great pitcher put himself into the Hall of Fame. Al Simmons, Sam Rice, Rogers Hornsby all coughed out with 2900-something hits. No one noticed.

Phil Hughes’ start on Wednesday is so important (I accidentally typed "impotent," which as you’ll see may be closer to the truth). With some good work, he could give the Yankees the bravery to deemphasize Burnett further as we careen towards the trading deadline. Again, I’m not sure what the actual mechanism is for this to happen. The Yankees owe Burnett another two and a half years of pay, totaling over $41 million. No club, even a well-off contender looking to fill out the back of a rotation, is going to take on that kind of load, or half of it. That’s a lot of money for the Yankees to carry, and even for them there would be a cost in terms of some other player not acquired—even not here, Burnett would be here, so he might as well stay. But that doesn’t mean he has to pitch as a starter. The money is gone regardless if he’s in the rotation or is the world’s most expensive (and likely crankiest) Buddy Carlyle replacement. And of course, he would still be around to try again if one of the other starters breaks down again.

But like I said: impotent. Such disruptive practices worked for the Yankees in the 1950s, when they went a good five years, all of them winning, with no starting rotation, but they are unthinkable in this era. See, it wouldn’t work now because… because… Well, it just wouldn’t. Because the media would rip them if they tried it and didn’t work, probably. Better to avoid that then aggressively pursue a pennant, better to look clean and lose than win messily.

And who knows? Maybe Burnett will figure out how to hold down the walks while continuing to do those things that have worked for him. Until then, the Yankees are 8-10 in his games, 4-8 in his last dozen. Hey: everybody tries.