If AJ Burnett is indeed on his way to Pittsburgh as recent rumors seem to suggest, it will mark the end of an uneven and overall disappointing tenure in pinstripes. Burnett was signed prior to the 2009 along with CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira, with the purpose of bringing a World Series championship back to New York after 8 years of failure. AJ, coming off a career year in Toronto in which he led the AL in strikeouts and dominated the Yankees and Red Sox, was supposed to slot in as the #2 man in the Yankee rotation. This offseason spending spree essentially was an extension of George Steinbrenner’s middle finger to Bud Selig and the rest of the league, telling them that the Yankees would continue their high-spending ways regardless of the protests of their competitors.
In his first season in pinstripes, Burnett delivered on the high expectations. He wasn’t quite as dominant as he was for Toronto the previous season, but overall he went 13-9 with a 4.04 ERA in 207 innings, striking out over 8 batters/9 innings. His health and durability, a major question upon signing the contract, did not prove to be a problem, as he provided some stability at the front of the rotation.
Although he wasn’t great in the 2009 postseason, he turned in 3 outings of 6+ innings and 2 or fewer runs in his 5 starts, including a highly important Game 2 out-dueling of Pedro Martinez in the World Series (with the Yankees trailing the series 1-0). Although AJ was not a worldbeater in his first season, he was definitely a solid addition to the rotation, and without him the Yankees would likely not have been in position to win the World Series title.
Unfortunately, the good start to AJ’s Yankee tenure did not last. 2010 and 2011 were absolutely nightmarish seasons as his fastball velocity dropped, his home run rate increased, and he seemed to have the frustrating penchant to melt down when something began to go wrong. Based on his peripherals one might be tempted to say that AJ was getting unlucky (especially last year when his strikeout rate jumped back over 8 after falling to 7 in 2010), but 2 years of piss-poor pitching was too much to overlook. AJ’s sky high home run rate was not the result of bad luck, but instead, the result of declining velocity and poor location of his fastball.
The backlash against AJ for his was severe, and at a point the antipathy expressed toward him appeared to reach Pavanoan potentials. I always found myself being somewhat of an AJ apologist, citing his durability as an example of his continued usefulness to the team, and hoping that his meltdowns were more the result of a correctable mechanical or psychological issue as opposed to legitimate physical decline. But the reality is that AJ was simply that bad, pitching a full season for the Yankees with an ERA over 5 is inexcusable, to say nothing about 2 such seasons in a row.
Despite his nightmarish 2010 and 2011, AJ still managed to have his moments both on and off the mound. He showed signs of life this past September, fanning 11 in 6 innings of 2-run ball against Seattle and limiting a collapsing Boston squad to 2 runs in 7 2/3 innings of work. Despite his struggles, he seemed to be a solid citizen in the clubhouse, lightening the mood by bestowing shaving-cream pies on players who got game-winning hits (and sometimes hitting the dearly departed Kim Jones with a little friendly fire).
Outside of his clutch performance in Game 2 of the 2009 World Series, my most enduring memory of Burnett may very well be the “I believe in AJ” meme that made its rounds on the Internet prior to his Game 4 start in the 2011 Division Series matchup with the Tigers. Although AJ was placed on the playoff roster only to work as a reliever (most likely, a long man), he was drafted into duty as the Game 4 starter due to the suspension of Game 1 (which created havoc for both teams’ rotations).
Not surprisingly, there was a lot of negativity about AJ starting a crucial playoff game, and very few fans seemed to have any confidence in him. The Yankees trailed in the 5-game series 2 games to 1, and a loss would send the Yankees home. Despite the multitude of reasons to be pessimistic, Yankee fans around the blogosphere, twitter, etc somewhat ironically banded together, inspired by Tyler Wilkinson’s great photoshop. The “I believe in AJ” movement was in part a mockery of Joe Girardi’s earlier statement in which expressed confidence in Burnett, but at the same time, was also a chance for Yankee fans to put aside their snark and negativity and hope that, when it mattered the most, the big guy could pull himself together. As despised as Burnett had been by many Yankee, their cynicism was, for one night, turned into support.
Burnett validated this belief. He certainly didn’t set the world on fire, but he made it through 5 2/3 innings while surrendering only 1 earned run, allowing the Yankees to romp to a 10-1 victory and setting the stage for a winner-take-all Game 5. As bad as AJ had been over the past 2 seasons, I will always remember the times when he was able to step up in crucial situations and d together a big performance. It would be a little much to call his tenure in pinstripes a success (evidenced by the fact that the Yankees are basically trying to give him away for nothing), but there were certainly some great moments interspersed in an otherwise disappointing Yankee tenure.
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