As the Yankees slump deepened over the past ten days, the fears of fans were laid bare. Some people attacked Girardi’s bullpen and bench management while others were simply frustrated by the fact that the entire offense had seemingly decided to slump at the same time. Another common fear about this year’s iteration of the Yankees was the starting pitching, which has looked at times like it will be CC, hopefully Andy, and pray for runs. Enter AJ Burnett. While Phil Hughes’ start against Tampa a few days ago was good, Burnett performed admirably last night and is making a strong case to be the 3rd starter in the ALDS.
Observationally, Burnett looked good last night. Over 7 innings he allowed six hits and only walked one batter, striking out five. The return of the strikeouts and the lack of walks is particularly encouraging. Two of his earned runs came on home runs, one to Adam Jones in the fourth inning and one to Andino in the seventh inning, and the Orioles never really sustained a strong rally against Burnett. He worked with his familiar arsenal of fastball and curve, throwing 67 fastballs and 38 curveballs, and got very good results on the curveball. Despite throwing it for a strike only 58% of the time, he got 5 swinging strikes on the pitch. Burnett has had difficulty with his curveball all year. It’s long been his best pitch, even one the best curveballs in baseball, but this year that hasn’t been the case. The Fangraphs’ Pitch Type Value chart shows that his curveball has essentially fallen off the cliff this year, so getting it back as a viable strikeout pitch could mean big things for Burnett. Another notable aspect of his outing was his declining pitch velocity as the game went on. From this chart on Brooks Baseball, we can see that he clearly tired towards the end of the game:
In fact, Andhino’s home run in the seventh inning came off a 92 mph fastball, his 100th pitch of the game. The location was decent enough, mid-level and on the inside corner, but Burnett just didn’t have the juice on the pitch to blow it by him. It’s possible that Girardi would have already pulled Burnett if this had been a playoff matchup, but Burnett may also benefit from a day or two of extra rest down the stretch. He’s now thrown 175 innings on the year, on top of 234 (postseason included) in 2009 and 220 in 2008, a very heavy workload for someone once considered fragile and injury-prone.
Chad Jennings had an interesting note on LoHud last evening about AJ. Burnett and Girardi had an open-door meeting after last night’s start. Girardi didn’t comment on it, but Burnett said that it was about “turning the page” and putting the past results behind him. “I can’t erase my record or my ERA, stuff like that,” Burnett said. “But I can definitely get to where I’m supposed to go.” It’s just a postgame quote, but Burnett has been a much better pitcher lately. In his last four starts he’s thrown 24 innings with a 4.50 ERA, striking out 24 and walking 10, and one of those starts was rain-shortened. Having him back on track for the 2010 playoffs would be a gigantic boon for the club. If he’s able to take the reins and become the 3rd starter for the ALDS, it’s possible the club could move Hughes to the bullpen for that series and save him for the next round. Burnett has a few more starts before the end of the year to make his case, and he’s moving in the right direction.
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