Will the Real A.J. Burnett Please Show Up?
On Thursday Oct. 29 of last year, the Yankees were in an unfamiliar spot. The night before, they had lost the first game of the World Series in convincing fashion, dropping a 6-1 decision in Game One. For Yankee fans everywhere, it was frightening to be down 0-1 to a team like the Philadelphia Phillies.
Even more frightening was the fact that the Yanks were sending the enigmatic A.J. Burnett to the mound, a mostly inconsistent number two starter with a 13-9 regular season record. For most of the second half of the 2009 season, the Yankees were unsure of which version of Burnett would show up to pitch: the good or the bad.
Many even compared Burnett to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Burnett answered everyone by going out to the mound in Game Two dealing like he was playing blackjack in Vegas. He was able to adjust to the home plate umpire’s strike zone and eventually racked up nine strikeouts over seven innings of work. Not to mention the first 11 Phillies Burnett faced saw first-pitch strikes, indicating he was on top of everyone that night. The Yankees beat the Phillies 3-1 in Game Two behind Burnett’s stunning performance.
In Game Two of the World Series, it’s safe to say we saw “Dr. Jekyll-Burnett.”
However in Game Five of the fall classic, Burnett was forced to pitch on three days rest, with manager Joe Girardi “sticking with his horses in the World Series.” In other words, the Yankee skipper only used CC Sabathia, Burnett, and Andy Pettitte to start each game.
And in Game Five, we saw “Mr. Hyde-Burnett.”
The lanky right-hander only pitched two innings and gave up six earned runs on just four hits. He walked four batters and only struck out two. Burnett hit Shane Victorino in the first inning with a pitch that got away, which led to his downfall. Not long after the hit-by-pitch, Chase Utley came up and hammered a long home run to right field, putting the Phils up 3-1 after the first frame.
In the 2009 World Series, both versions of Burnett showed up. Now with the 2010 season right around the corner, which version of Burnett will we see?
If we were to go by his spring Training numbers to this point, we would have to say “Mr. Hyde-Burnett.” So far this spring, the Yanks’ number two man is 0-1 with an ERA of 9.00. He has given up eight earned runs on 14 hits in eight innings of spring training work. Burnett has also walked eight batters in those eight innings while only striking out six.
His spring training numbers are worse than Joe Biden’s mouth.
Yet looking at each game individually, it seems as though Burnett is not necessarily having a bad spring, just simply pitching as inconsistently as last year. On March 16 against Houston, he tossed only 2 1/3 innings and gave up one earned run on just two hits. The walks were a problem for him, as he issued four free passes, but he answered with two strikeouts.
It was not a terrible outing for a spring tune-up. It could have been much worse.
Then the next time out on Monday March 22, Burnett was mauled by the same team that crushed him in Game Five of the World Series. The Phillies touched him up for five earned runs on seven hits over just four innings. Burnett struck out four, but again showing that control is a problem he is facing, he walked three.
Some might be making an issue out of the fact that Jorge Posada will most likely be catching him this year, since his regular catcher last year, Jose Molina, is now a member of the Toronto Blue Jays. The battery claims to have no problems despite what everyone makes of the pair.
“I love to catch A.J.,” Posada told the New York Post in February. “We have never had any issues or problems. It happens in baseball, you do not pitch great all the time.”
Burnett stood on the same side as Posada, stating that “He never questioned Jorge and he never will.” He added that he only questions himself.
When the Yankees and Atlanta Braves were rained out in their exhibition on March 11, Burnett and Posada stayed late at George M. Steinbrenner Field and worked out under the stands in the batting cages. Burnett threw 51 pitches, five of which were curveballs. After the session, Burnett said,
“The fact that Jorge stayed with me meant a lot and we worked like it was an actual game. We made it as game-like as we could and we got a lot out of it, so it was a good workout.”
How the two respond in the regular season as constant battery mates remains to be seen, however.
Historically, Burnett has been a “first-half pitcher,” and proved that last season. In his first two starts last April, Burnett quickly picked up two wins and even took a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the Tampa Bay Rays on April 14. Although Burnett has that kind history in the past of coming out strong, he also proved last season that he can be dominant and shaky throughout.
In July of 2009, Burnett went 4-0 and the Yankees did not lose a game he started. Yet when August came, he quickly became a different pitcher. On Aug. 7, he went head-to-head with Josh Beckett in a classic pitcher’s duel. After that, he did not win a game in almost a month.
When Burnett is on, he can come up big. But when he is off his game, he has a tendency to come down hard. With the way his first year in pinstripes went and with how his second Spring Training as a Yankee is going, it begs the question:
Which Burnett will show up in April?