Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The end of A. J. Burnett's time in pinstripes good for both Yankees and Pirates

The A.J. Burnett's tenure has concluded in New York and it will not be looked back upon fondly.

The pitcher came to the Yankees as a much-heralded free agent in 2009 and initially paid dividends -- winning a duel with Pedro Martinez in Game 2 of that season’s World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies on the way to the Yankees’ 27th championship. But, in 2012, on his final day as a Yankee, with trade rumors swirling about his eventual trade to Pittsburgh, every Yankee fan I spoke with wanted him gone for whatever we could get.

Burnett was never able to string all his talent together in New York for a significant stretch, and that’s what bothered me the most about him. He always had the stuff, and his K/9 (7.9 in pinstripes, 8.2 career) proved it.

But Burnett had a dark side to his pitching as well. According to ESPN’s Yankees blog, as compared to all Yankees who had pitched a minimum of 500 innings, Burnett had the second-highest ERA (4.79), the second-highest home runs per nine innings (1.25), the second most wild pitches (58), the fifth worst OPS allowed (.783) and the eighth-worst WHIP -- walks plus hits per inning pitched -- (1.45). The blog added, “he is the only Yankee pitcher to qualify for the ERA title and post an ERA above 5.00 in two separate seasons, which he did in 2010 and 2011.”

This came from a guy who compiled a 3.84 ERA over a 1367.33-inning career with the Florida Marlins and Toronto Blue Jays and won 18 games for Toronto in 2008.The numbers suggest three possible scenarios: that Burnett could not handle the pressure of pitching in New York; that Burnett simply peaked from 2004 to 2009 and the Yankees misjudged his ability to maintain his level of performance; or that some time in 2010 Burnett just lost his head and could no longer control his arm.

I am inclined to believe that each of these factors played a role in Burnett’s forgettable tenure with the Yankees. Something definitely changed when Burnett came to the Bronx. After joining the Yankees, his WHIP in each season with the team was higher than in any other season in which he pitched at least 100 innings and he threw more wild pitches than in any season outside New York.

Some players are not designed to handle the pressures and the 24-hour media cycle of New York, while other players thrive in its spotlight. Burnett is the counter-argument to Nick Swisher, who had underperformed in Oakland and Chicago before blossoming in front of Yankee Stadium’s short porch.

Thefailures don't tell the Burnett story completely though, because he had a decent season in 2009. It was the last time he approached an ERA of 4.00 (4.04) and he had a great seven-inning performance, giving up just one earned run, in the 2009 World Series Game 2, which took place at the Stadium in front of 50,181 crazed New York fans. Granted, he followed it up with a Game 5 performance in which he gave up six runs and had to be removed with no outs in the third inning. He could perform in New York, just not consistently. With Burnett it was always feast or famine.

Because of the sharp downturn Burnett’s career took once he became a Yankee, it is hard to say if his career might be jump-started by a change of scenery. Burnett had a good stretch from 2004-09, years when he was 27 to 32 years old. That is a normal peak for a pitcher. But with the way modern pitchers sustain themselves, there is still a chance that he could be rejuvenated in Pittsburgh. I feel he could he still go either way, which makes the deal on Pittsburgh’s end appear to be a good, calculated risk.

Burnett is owed about $33 million dollars for the next two seasons, of which the Yankees have agreed to pay $20 million. So Pittsburgh is only on the hook for about $6.5 million for two years for a pitcher who routinely is among the game’s best strikeout artists, who will eat up innings and, if he can stay focused and can improve without the pressure and disapproval of New York on his shoulders, might still be a viable front-end starter. The Pirates are looking like a breakout team candidate with young players like Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez ready to become stars and a staff that added Erik Bedard in the offseason. The addition of non-New York Burnett could be valuable if the team wants to make a playoff push for the first time since 1992.  

What we know is that Burnett does not work in New York. It remains to be seen if he can get his head back together with a change of scenery and become the pitcher he was in 2008 again. Even at age 35, I believe the potential is there and that this deal will work out for both Pittsburgh and New York. The Yankees free up cash to sign Raul Ibanez and Eric Chavez and get back two low-level prospects in the deal.

Like most New Yorkers, I am happy to have seen the last Burnett wild pitch in a Yankee uniform, but I hope he can change his legacy and be known as the last piece that brought together a playoff team for Pittsburgh. Maybe he can be a hero in Pittsburgh like he was in New York for one World Series game.

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