Has the real AJ Burnett shown up yet?
In the wake of yet another disappointing outing last night, his second of the season against the Boston Red Sox, AJ Burnett has yet to justify the 5 year $82.5 million contract that Yankees gave him over the winter. It was a deal that reeked of desperation when it was signed, dropping $16 million a year on an injury-prone pitcher in a buyer’s market.
In truth, Burnett’s overall numbers over his previous five seasons have been above average, but it’s been a series of peaks and valleys. He has posted good to great numbers against AL East teams like the Yankees and Red Sox for the past three seasons, yet has fared far worse against teams like Detroit, Texas, and Minnesota. That disparity gave Yankee fans (and apparently some Yankee players as well) the impression that AJ could handle New York and the big games to come against Boston and Tampa Bay.
I can’t tell you about Burnett’s mental makeup and I don’t really think it matters. I think if you looked at Burnett’s numbers objectively before the signing, you had to see that Burnett was an up and down pitcher. Consistency has never been his calling card and neither has good health. What we’re seeing from Burnett should not be a surprise.
Comparing his stats from 2009 through yesterday’s game to 2008 around the same date bears this out a bit:
The numbers that stand out, as usual, are the home runs and K/BB ratio. Interestingly, those extra 7 home runs are the number of home runs he’s given up in homer-happy Yankee Stadium.
We can’t blame the new digs for Burnett’s issues. He’s also given up 5 on the road and has started six games each in friendly and unfriendly venues. Maybe Yankee Stadium has caused a few more home runs but it can’t be blamed for his K/BB or HBP.
What’s more interesting is looking at the pattern of innings pitched versus the following season’s performance:
Both times Burnett has had a season over 200 innings, he has come down with an injury the following season and seen a raise in ERA. It’s worth noting that in 1999, he threw 120.2 innings in the minors, making his total between big and little clubs that season 163 IP, about 44 IP above his previous season and 108 IP higher than his 1997 total. After throwing his highest total innings ever in 1999, he had a sharp decline and injuries in 2000.
And that seems to be the pattern with Burnett: he pitches a high inning count, becomes ineffective and gets injured, builds his innings up while battling injuries until eventually, his inning count is high again. Rinse, repeat.
The Yankees shouldn’t be surprised, then, that after posting a career high 221.1 innings in 2008 that Burnett hasn’t been sharp or consistent. They also shouldn’t be surprised if he happens to come down with an injury over the next two months and only throws 120 innings this year.
It will be tough for Burnett to make good on the contract the Yankees lavished upon him. It’s not his fault as his numbers show.