The Case for A.J. Burnett? You Mean There Really Is One?


I was really surprised to check the stats an hour ago and find that the Yankees are second (to the Angels) in team ERA for the league, 3.57. (Boston is ninth at 3.89.) What’s all the more surprising is that the Yankees’ starting rotation for most of the season has consisted of C.C. Sabathia and a committee.

In the current Sports Illustrated, Joe Sheehan makes a detailed argument that the number two or three starter on that committee should be A.J. Burnett. “Fans’ sentiment in New York,” he writes, “runs roughly in favor of the younger pitchers” — that’s Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes, age 24 and 25 respectively — “staying in the rotation, a measure of how poorly Burnett is perceived.”

Whoa, there. Let’s stop for a moment. Burnett is “poorly perceived” by Yankee fans? I hardly think the problem with A.J. Burnett is how he’s perceived, but how he’s performed.

First, let’s talk about the Yanks’ pitching in general. If you, like me, were astonished to check the standings the past few mornings and find the Yanks ahead of the Red Sox, you might agree with ESPN’s Colin Cowherd, one of the more astute radio talk show hosts around. This from Wednesday: “You don’t need great pitching to win in baseball this year. The Yankees could win the American League with what amounts to pretty mediocre pitching, at least by the standards of other years. Ten years ago you needed great pitching. You don’t need it this year.”

I agree with half of that. I don’t see why pitching should be any less important now than 10 years ago — or 50 or 100. I think the Yankees are probably going to win the AL East and will probably take the pennant with mediocre pitching. But it would be more correct to say they’ve gotten very good pitching from otherwise mediocre pitchers.

And now let’s give Sheehan a chance to make his case on behalf of A.J. Burnett.

“Burnett has been durable, having yet to miss a start for New York,” Sheehan writes.

Yankee fans might counter that they’d have been happy to see him miss a few starts, particularly in August, but let that pass.

“His salary, raw talent, and flashes of excellence have led him to be judged against an abstract notion of what he should be …,” Sheehan writes.

Abstract notion? Burnett won 18 games in 2008 with Toronto before coming to New York — it is his only one of 10 major league seasons with more than 12 victories. In fact, his career record before coming to the Yankees was 87-76. But that’s better than he’s pitching for the Bombers. Why would it be unfair for fans to expect him to at least pitch up to his Toronto level?

Sheehan maintains that using advanced statistics — FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and xFIP (advanced FIP) — indicates that “Burnett is the team’s third best starter behind Sabathia and [Bartolo] Colon.” This strikes me as intolerably fancy. “There’s an argument,” Sheehan writes, “to be made that Burnett isn’t one of the Yankees’ best five starters, but you have to work very hard to make it …”

Well, I’m just not going to work that hard. Since A.J. Burnett came here, he’s started 91 games, averaged just 5.9 innings per start. He has completed just two games over that stretch. And — sorry to resort to old-fashioned stats, but this rather strikes me as the bottom line — has won just 32 games while losing 33. Keep in mind that he’s done this for the team that, over those three seasons, has been arguably the best hitting team in baseball. His ERA from 2009 through this week has been a lousy 4.61, which, coincidentally, happens be his ERA so far this year. He is 9-9.

Does anyone really doubt that Burnett’s won-lost record and ERA reflect his current level of effectiveness? Some, like Sheehan, suggest that, if Nova and Hughes are given spots ahead of him in the rotation, it’s simply because they’re younger. Let’s turn that argument on its head: A.J. Burnett is 34. If he were 24, like Nova, and were 32-33 over three seasons with a 4.61 ERA, would anyone think that he had much of a future?

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Allen Barra.