According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, A.J. Burnett's career might be over. It was probably over at the end of this season anyway, but discomfort in his right elbow could portend an early exit, though the diagnosis of a strained flexor tendon gives him a chance of returning this year. Burnett has stated that if he doesn't absolutely need surgery, he will continue to pitch down the stretch: "It's just a matter of doing enough treatment and doing it where it's tolerable again and building up some pain tolerance so I can stay on the mound in the stretch run," he said to Bill Brink.
Whether it ends now or in a few months, A.J. Burnett had a great career. With a career 103 ERA+ in over 2,700 innings, he has accrued 29.3 rWAR and 43 fWAR. He has also won two world championships, one with the Marlins, one with the Yankees, and he was an All-Star for the first time in 2015.
For many fans in New York, Burnett has been a subject of scorn. Look, for example, at a Grantland piece done in 2011 from the perspective of a Yankees fan, Shane Ryan:
"Those words are painful to type. What it means, as you’ve figured out, is that for one day and one day only I’ll be rooting against the Yankees. I want A.J. Burnett to have a devastating professional disaster. It’s for the good of the team. I want the experience to be so sour that Girardi actually bans him from the clubhouse. I want the Yankees to build a bronze statue of that moment, and I want to buy a poster of the statue and hang it in my bedroom."
And despite the incredibly heated emotions, fans were generally right. Burnett had a horrendous Yankees career, even though his 2009 featured an 88 ERA- in 207 innings. In 2010 and 2011, he had an ERA+ of 83 in a combined 377 innings, and he was notorious for the "One Bad Inning" that would doom what could be great starts.
So, it's easy to remember the bad. But when you squint just a little bit, and with some added time, we as Yankees fans can remember the good. One of those things, surely, is his chemistry in the clubhouse. Part of what made the Yankees great in 2009 wasn't just their performance, but also the collection of personalities. Burnett was one of those, and he contributed by creating a tradition of pieing a player who would get a walk-off hit, an event that happened ten times that year. The New York Times even chronicled this phenomenon after the year ended:
"Mr. Burnett has said that in the early days of the season he worried that pieing would not be accepted as a tradition. He feared it was one of those things that was just not done at Yankee Stadium. 'I didn’t know if I should or not,', he told Fox Sports after the Yankees won a place in the American League Championship Series... He decided to go for it. And for the most part, despite its roots in slapstick, the pie-in-the-face routine has been accepted by fans, who have come to expect it, even demand it. One recently held up a sign that said, 'We Want Pie.'"
Despite the end of his Yankees career, 2009 was special. Consider, for example, the peak of his career. It was Game Two of the 2009 World Series, and he went up against now-Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez:
He tossed seven innings of one-run ball, striking out nine and allowing just four hits. His Game Five was a clunker, but it's hard to ignore that he was a key part of that championship crew.
He won a championship, but New York was never the right place for him. After his very poor 2010 and 2011, he was traded to the Pirates, and thrived in the last four years of his career (despite a brief detour to the Phillies) as his 100 ERA+ was quite good for a pitcher his age. Despite the disgust, A.J. Burnett was simply a very good pitcher who did not perform well with the Yankees, but as his career comes to a close, one cannot help but appreciate not only his full body of work, but the few great moments and memories he gave to Yankees fans.