2010 Season in Review: A.J. Burnett

The Yankees’ fortunes always seem to be linked to A.J. Burnett. In 2009 he was the x-factor in the postseason rotation. Every Yankee fan had confidence that CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte would show up for October. A.J. was a different story. If the unpredictable righty could harness his stuff then the team was set. If bad A.J. took the mound the Bombers were in trouble. Fortunately, we got enough of a taste of good A.J. for the rest to be history.

That same scenario played itself out, in microcosm, in the 2010 ALCS. If the Yankees had won the pivotal Game Four they would’ve evened the series, with CC Sabathia taking the mound in game five. And who was starting that critical game? None other than Arkansas’ own Allan James Burnett. Once again, he was the ingredient to determining the team’s eventual success or failure. I sense a trend here.

The Yankees signed A.J. to be their number-two starter. His five-year, $82.5 million contract was heavily criticized at the time it was announced. Burnett was known to be erratic, and had a history of injury problems. For one season, however, Burnett more or less silenced his critics. He was worth 3.4 fWAR in 2009, or about $15.4 million, just about matching his salary. He was also a critical part of the Yankees championship run. He was never good on the road in the postseason, but he pitched exceptionally well in each of his three home starts.

Burnett also demonstrated an amazing unpredictable streak. Unlike Pettitte or Sabathia, pitchers who can keep a team in the game even when they are struggling, Burnett is a binary outcome. He’s either unhittable or he gets creamed. All of this made his 2010 that much more predictable:

A.J.’s splits show that his 2010 was a magnified version of any one of his erratic performances. It started well enough. He was brilliant in April, and sharp in May. But in June he was ghastly, 2009-Chien-Ming Wang bad. Although he managed to right the ship a bit in July, he unraveled again in August and September. In total, 2010 was Burnett’s worst season in the majors.

Burnett is a two-pitch pitcher, with a plus velocity fastball, and a curveball that is as enigmatic as the pitcher himself. His ability to get batters out stems from his curve. Although Burnett can air it out, running his fastball up to 96 mph, it actually rates as a below average pitch. In 2009, for example, it rated 14.4 runs below average. Although Burnett threw it a mile slower on average in 2010 (averaging 93.2 mph), its value barely budged, rating 14.3 runs below average this time. With such a weak fastball it should come as no surprise that the secret to A.J.’s success in 2009 was his curve, which rated 16 runs above average that season. His success flows from that pitch. And, just as he lived by his curve in 2009, he died by his curve in 2010. It fell from being devastatingly above average to just about four runs below average, leaving Burnett without a single plus pitch.

The sudden weakness of A.J.’s curve appears to be the primary culprit behind his ineffectiveness in 2010. Most of his peripherals were the same from 2009 to 2010, except that batters were far more inclined to swing at pitches outside the zone, and were making contact more. Anyone who has watched Burnett pitch knows his curveball breaks far out of the zone. In 2010, for whatever reason, batters were swinging at the pitch outside of the zone more, and connecting more. The results were bad.

The Yankees are inextricably linked to A.J.’s fortunes, and not only because the team owes him about $50 million more. If the Bombers manage to sign Cliff Lee, then A.J.’s ability to bounce back from his miserable season is the difference between the Yankees having a solid rotation and a spectacular one. If Lee slips away, then Burnett may be the difference between the Yankees having an average rotation or a better-than-average one.

Fortunately, it seems that Burnett only needs to do two things (although neither is particularly easy). Obviously, he needs to figure out how to make his curveball work for him again. This is his weapon and he has demonstrated already that he can succeed with only two pitches. But he also needs to learn to work in his changeup more. It’s not his best pitch, but it’s also not terrible, yet he only throws it two or three times a game. If Burnett is moving into a phase of his career when he can no longer count on the sharp break in his curveball then he will have to learn to mix in a third pitch, or go the way of the Dodo.

It pains me to say this, but I can’t help but like Burnett. He seems like a good guy, who plays a positive role in the clubhouse, and he is clearly upset when he fails, all of which are qualities that I appreciate in professional athletes. Unfortunately, this also means I’m naturally positive about A.J.’s chances. As erratic as he’s been, I believe he’ll bounce back. For all of our sakes, let’s hope my optimism is not misplaced.