There have been numerous great Yankees over the years with distinctive nicknames. The Iron Horse, The Bambino, Joltin' Joe, and Mr. October are just a few that spring to mind. I would like to suggest a new one for A.J. Burnett.
To say that the Yankees' righthander had an off year is like saying Lady Gaga enjoys flashy clothes. His pitching statistics stunk worse than the East River in 2010. Burnett tied his career high giving up twenty-five HR and his ERA was a putrid 5.26. Even worse he gave up the second most hits of his career (204) and that was pitching almost thirty-five less innings than his worst total in 2008. Up until last season Burnett's WAR averaged around three but plummeted to -0.1 in 2010. Add in the nineteen batters he plunked last year and a H/9 ratio of 9.8, and you have a season more forgettable than Ashton Kutcher's last movie.
The question at the forefront of Yankee fans and front office members alike is can Burnett return to form in 2011?
Unfortunately I believe the answer is yes. I say unfortunately because Burnett's "form" if anything is to be consistently injured and inconsistent. If you analyze Burnett's career track record the picture becomes alarmingly clear. Here is a pitcher that except for his last year with the Blue Jays (surprise a contract year!) has never won over twelve games. Additionally, barring that 2008 season with the Jays, Burnett only managed to start over thirty games once. AJ's ERA continues to hover around the four range with a career average of 3.99 and his WHIP has gotten worse every year since 2007. One wonders how the Yankees were able to swallow the Kool-Aid after the 2008 season and decide to pay this guy $16.5 million a year through 2013. Burnett's agent didn't just turn chicken*&^% into chicken salad, he turned chicken*&^% into Porterhouse steak.
Watching Burnett pitch last year it seemed to be the same issues over and over again. His control was awful, (as evidenced by the nineteen hit batsmen) he was constantly leaving balls up in the zone which translated into more extra-base hits for opposing hitters, and the release point on his pitches seemed to change from game to game. Aside from his mechanics, it was patently obvious that Burnett was psychologically reeling as well. Unlike other players on the staff like Sabathia and Pettitte, Burnett couldn't seem to shake off a bad inning or a bad game. Things just snowballed until he was eventually left off the playoff roster for the ALCS.
To be fair, much like lawyer television commercials, past results do not guarantee future outcomes. However, Baseball Reference and Mike Jaggers-Radolf of Yankeeist may be able to put Burnett's future numbers somewhere--eh em--in the ballpark. Although BR has three main similarity scores for a player, the most vital and relevant is the one that measures players who have similar career totals, not for their entire careers, but up to the current age of the active player. (AJ in this case has just turned 34). Any score over 950 is considered a close match with 1000 being a perfect match.
The results are not heartening.
Pete Harnisch is the closest with the rating of 967. That is terrifying considering that Harnisch's age thirty-four season was also his last season, where he posted a career worst ERA+ of 73. His unpredictability, inconsistency, and injuries also eerily mimic those of Burnett's. The year pitcher Ken Hill turned thirty-three he also posted numbers similar to Burnett's but at age thirty-four had a career low 81.2 innings pitched and an ERA+ of 71. By thirty-six he was out of baseball. Even current Milwaukee Brewer Randy Wolf mirrors AJ Burnett's stats. Both are of the same age, had seasons where they regressed in 2010, and had injury problems.
Perhaps the Yankees had Burnett firmly in mind when they fired pitching coach Dave Eiland last November. At thirty-four and with the deck stacked against him, Burnett has one hell of a task on his hand. Let's hope new pitching coach Larry Rothschild is up to the challenge. It's not going to be easy. After all, he's got a whole coop full of chicken feces to turn into sandwich spread by April.