Did you wake up this morning thinking that A.J. Burnett must be having the worst season of any pitcher to start regularly for a Yankees team that made the postseason (not that this team has made the postseason yet, but they will)? You might be right.
Only six pitchers have pitched as many as 180 innings with an ERA below league average on a Yankees postseason team. There are four simple reason for this:
- Good teams, by definition, don’t have as many bad players as average or poor teams.
- Good teams get to be good teams by refusing to tolerate poor performances.
- Good teams often have the depth to repair their weaknesses before they cause significant damage.
- A.J. Burnett is having a spectacularly bad season.
It’s not that the best Yankees teams never had a bad pitcher, but they had the resources to banish him to the bullpen or someplace even more unpleasant once he had proved himself wanting. The 2010 Yankees haven’t done that with A.J. for obvious reasons. Even if they had the depth, which they arguably do, their hands are bound by the endless highway that is Burnett’s contract.
Here is the Sextuplet of Doom, the guys that got carried. Note that these are raw ERAs; they’re not park-adjusted. However, I’m doing the pitchers a favor. Prior to New Yankee Stadium, the various versions of Yankee Stadium Classic had a bias in favor of pitchers. I’ll give you the adjusted ERAs so you can see what I mean (courtesy of Baseball Reference, long may she wave). I’ll also give you Baseball-Ref’s wins above replacement, so you can see how these pitchers relate to each other.
By this measure, Burnett is the "most carried" Yankees pitcher of all time. If we drop the innings requirement to 150, the list expands to 14 pitchers, and Burnett drops from the worst pitcher on the list to the third-worst:
|Sad Sam Jones||1926||4.98||4.02||-0.96||161.0||78||-1.0|
What is fascinating about these lists is that these were generally good pitchers who had gone astray. Randy Johnson is a sure Hall of Famer. Mike Mussina should get there, and David Cone deserved better than he got from the voters. Sam Jones and Bump Hadley were variable, but both had some excellent seasons that, if they weren’t Cy Young-worthy, rose to the All-Star level. Javier Vazquez has had roughly five excellent seasons (just none for the Yankees). Until physical and substance-abuse problems took their toll, Dwight Gooden was a national sensation. The point is, most of these pitchers have high points on their resume that justify the low points.
That’s not true of Burnett. But for 2002, he’s idled around a sub-3.0 WAR mark. From 2004 to 2009, he was very consistent in that regard, averaging 2.5 WAR a season, with a low of 1.9 (2004, an injury year) and a high of 2.9 (2005 and 2008). Stretched out to 34 starts, he averaged 3.6 WAR, but he only got to 30 starts three times in the six seasons. Given that these starts missed due to injury were likely given to pitchers who were far worse than Burnett was at the time, it is entirely fair that he not be credited for what he might have done had he pitched—the missed starts were part of the cost of employing him at the time. There is nothing wrong with that—it’s even kind of good, given that, until now, you pretty much knew what you were and weren’t going to get from Burnett. The problem is, he’s being compensated at a level far greater than his actual abilities merit, and being asked to be one of the top starters on a championship-caliber team. I know he has two rings, but he’s a complementary part, not a star.
Now he’s not even a complement, but a burden, a handicap the 2010 Yankees have had to overcome to achieve their goals. He may snap back, perhaps in the postseason or in one of the many seasons remaining on his contract. Whatever happens, it is time to stop pretending that he is much more than a rotation cog. He is not an ace. He has never had that kind of season and at 33, he never will.