The Yankees maintained their loose grip on first place in the American league Eastern Division Monday night despite being handed an embarrassing, 10-4 loss to the last-place Arizona Diamondbacks. Since the Tampa Bay Rays and the Bostons did not play, the Bronx Bombers retained a slim, 1/2-game lead on their division rivals.
That contest marked the fourth straight poor performance - and fourth straight loss - for starting RHP A.J. Burnett, whose once-sparkling 6-2 record and 3.28 ERA have ballooned to 6-6 and 4.83, respectively. Having a streak of four starts in which you allow nine homers and 23 runs in just 20 innings will do that for you, it seems.
The Yankees signed Burnett last winter, despite my impassioned pleas not to, though to be fair, my skepticism was based on Burnett's health, not his skills. In any case, in my frustration with Burnett's apparent inability to either throw strikes (at all) or throw strikes that batters would actually miss, I began wondering how it's possible that this man once won 18 games in a season. For that matter, how is it possible that the man won 13 games last year, when it seems that every time I watch him pitch, he allows six runs in five innings or something like that?
Burnett's troubles - or at least his inconsistencies - have been pretty well documented. The broadcast team on ESPN last night started describing their perceptions of Burnett, who seemed to be "frustrated" and "having mechanical issues" and "not on the same page" as catcher Jorge Posada, and so on.
Lack of focus, front shoulder flying open, bad karma...whatever. It seems that everybody has an explanation for how a guy who can consistently throw a baseball 94 miles per hour and has a curveball that dives toward the plate as though being suddenly pulled by an electromagnet can be so...so...mediocre.
They mentioned the supposed difficulty Posada and Burnett had last year in connecting with each other, though they didn't mention the specifics: That Burnett had a 4.96 ERA when Posada caught him in 2009 and a 3.22 ERA for anyone else. Granted, he pitched badly a couple of times in the playoffs with Jose Molina catching him, too, but still, that's a big difference. This year's even worse: 6.06 with Posada, 3.63 with Francisco Cervelli. (For the record, Burnett didn't seem to connect with Chad Moeller all that well either: 5.21 ERA).
There are other bizarre splits as well. Burnett is 3-2 this year with a 3.47 ERA when he gets five days of rest, but on normal four days' rest or on 6+ days, he's got an ERA well over five and a half. He's got a 3.46 ERA at home, 5.85 on the road. Last year's split was not quite as pronounced: 3.51 at home, 4.59 on the road. And this despite New Yankee Stadium's reputation as a hitter's park.
Or, here's a fun one: He's 3-0, 1.23 in day games, but 3-6, 5.97 at night. Maybe 7:05 PM is past his bed time? Probably just a fluke, since last year that split was reversed (5.38 ERA during day games, 3.14 at night). Most pitchers tend to do better at night overall, since hitters can't see the ball as well.
But perhaps the most glaring disparity is the one I mentioned first: How can a guy who wins about 15 games a year seem to be so terrible whenever I get to see him pitch? The answer is a simple one: Because he is.
Let me explain. I live in Pennsylvania, outside the usual area of the YES network, which means that I only get to see Yankee games when they're either on national TV (like FOX, TBS or ESPN) or when they're on the local New York stations that happen to get broadcast in eastern PA, like WPIX and WWOR. That means that I only see a handful of Yankee games each year, perhaps 20 or 30 at most. And, as I mentioned, it seemed to me that every time I saw Burnett pitch, he was terrible.
If it seemed that way, that's only because, well, he was:
2009-2010 National broadcasts (ESPN/TBS/FOX)If you include his postseason performances, which are all nationally broadcast, his numbers improve very slightly, to 3-7 with a 7.44 ERA, which, on a scale of one to ten, is still awful. Overall, Burnett has been more than twice as likely to surrender a home run on national television as he has been on local TV. He walked two more batters per nine innings, struck out two fewer and gave up about three and a half more hits per game. And of course he allowed more than twice as many earned runs.
GS Dec IP H ER BB SO HR ERA IP/GS H/9 K/9 BB/9 HR/9
12 2-6 66.0 85 61 38 47 15 8.32 5.5 11.6 6.4 5.2 2.0
2009-2010 Local NY Broadcasts (YES/WWOR/WPIX)
GS Dec IP H ER BB SO HR ERA IP/GS H/9 K/9 BB/9 HR/9
36 17-9 232.1 206 81 94 215 23 3.14 6.5 8.0 8.3 3.6 0.9
Including his postseason outings, that makes a total of 93.1 innings on national television, 17 games. It's not a small sample size, though perhaps not as large as I might prefer. And he was only able to provide a Quality Start in seven of those 17 games. Compare that to his locally broadcast work, where he made 23 Quality Starts in 36 outings, and you can see why someone like me may have gotten a skewed impression of his pitching acumen.
In short, Burnett looks every bit like a Cy Young candidate on local New York TV, or at least he looks like the $16.5 million workhorse the Yankees thought they were getting when they signed him last winter. But if you see him on national television? Well, let's just say they'd be hard pressed to justify letting him keep his rotation spot over, say, Kyle Davies.
Why is all of this important? Well, for one thing, Burnett's next start is scheduled for Saturday.
On the road. (@ the Dodgers)
On national TV. (FOX)
Since becoming a Yankee, Burnett is 2-5 with a 9.88(!) ERA in nationally broadcast road games. Lots of minor league clubs do fireworks after the game on the weekends. This game should have plenty of fireworks before that.