Friend and colleague of mine, Larry Koestler, wrote a great article regarding A.J. Burnett earlier today. After examining each third of Burnett’s 2011 season Larry concluded that perhaps there was potential room for optimism. He writes:
I don’t know that the answer to the A.J. conundrum is as simple as “he needs to locate his curveball;” even if that does seem to have a disproportionate effect on his success/failures. I do know that A.J. Burnett has been and can be better than 5.00-plus ERA pitcher — we saw him turn in an above-average season two years ago — and if he’s still a Yankee come the 2012 season, he’ll have to figure out how to escape what’s become an annual rut and turn in a full season of league average pitching, at the very least.
Obviously, if A.J. could live up to expectations (or at least come closer to them), that’d be great for the Yankees. He’s being paid at a premium rate, and was hired to help bolster the rotation, not weigh it down. On a more psychological level, I’m sure A.J. also wouldn’t mind a few starts without hearing fans vocalize their discontent. Knowing that he helps the team rather than hinder it probably wouldn’t be a bad thing either.
Personally, I’d like to see A.J. find some success too. Aside from the fact the team benefits from any positive contributions he makes (and subsequently doesn’t have to suffer from poor production), I have always been allured by Burnett’s potential. I remember exclaiming to a friend prior to the 2009 season that, “A.J. was the quintessential X-Factor!” The rotation would look substantially different by having him on the mound behind Sabathia. Of course, at the time, I figured his biggest obstacle was staying healthy enough to remain on the mound — not a drastically reduced arsenal.
Back in 2008, A.J. had just logged 221.1 innings of 4.07 ERA ball for the Blue Jays. His 3.45 FIP and 3.51 xFIP both suggested his performance was even better. Between a legitimate 9.39 K/9 and a meager 0.77 HR/9 rate (not to mention a much more bearable 3.50 BB/9 rate), the decision to acquire him seemed much more palatable to me. By that point, he also had a reputation for being an AL East killer and a solid top of the rotation arm in terms of ” pure stuff.”
While I probably wouldn’t have bet on him repeating a 5.5 fWAR season in 2009, I absolutely felt that results comparable to his 3.2 fWAR from 2006 where completely in the realm of plausibility. Frankly, the possibility of having a strong 1-2 punch at the top of the order was really exciting, and desipite A.J.’s unpredictability, this kind of upgrade was probably worth the risk. At the time, I remember thinking, “to hell with the Braves; his services could be really helpful in New York.”
As it turned out, A.J. basically delivered what I had hoped for in 2009. Burnett pitched 207 innings along with a 8.48 K/9 rate, and a 4.04 ERA (4.33 FIP, 4.23 xFIP) — all good for a 3.5 fWAR. His 4.22 BB/9 and 1.09 HR/9 rates were inflated more than one would ideally like, but for all intents and purposes, Burnett was still a valuable member of the rotation (and as a bonus, he even gave us some postseason heroics). If you’re a believer of the Fangraph’s player value metric, you may also be surprised to know that A.J. was actually worth $15.9M which wasn’t all that far off from the $16.5M he was actually being compensated with. He may not have been the prototypical “number two” per se, but he wasn’t a black void by any means either.
I’m not sure really where I’m going with this other post other than to say A.J. has always been a rather alluring pitcher (at least to me). Moreover, I’ve always been fairly astounded in my utter inability to avoid getting suckered into believing that his potential could translate out onto the field positively with any kind of regularity going forward. Instead, all indications seem to reinforce the point that his one real consistent attribute seems to be in inconsistency.
Still, I agree with Larry’s premise that Burnett’s a better pitcher than the guy we’ve seen the past two seasons. While my brain keeps reminding me to let it go and stop investing energy in false hopes, my gut remains ready to believe. I want to see the 2009 A.J. make an appearance in 2012, and I want to see (at least for one more season) a rotation that is better off with him than without. I just can’t help myself; now will someone please tell me to snap out of it so I can move onto something that is less likely to end in disappointment.
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