Saturday, August 28, 2010

An enigma wrapped in a riddle

Through the dog days of August, the lull in the calendar where the heat builds, the football season hasn't quite started yet, and the baseball season is a grind, there comes a time where sports fans get too critical. Brett Favre helped to fill some of this year's void and focused hatred. Tiger Woods aided in a similar fashion. Even the FIBA basketball games have been a thing to discuss, mostly because of who is not on the American team, rather than who is. Yet through it all, I still feel it necessary to ask myself one baseball question that I could not sweep under the rug like so many others: is A.J. Burnett the worst value in the history of sports?

Of course this seems like a bit of an overstatement. After all, Burnett had some good years to warrant his Yankees contract. In fact, earlier this season, The Hardball Times ran an article about the biggest fantasy disappointments of the year and Burnett made the list. This website expected big things from him, and they weren't alone. For some reason, A.J. Burnett fooled most of the country into thinking he was actually a good pitcher.

Now I pride myself on never overreacting to sports, especially baseball. The season is so damn long, I don't even look into making a fantasy trade until May or June. When a proven player struggles, there is no reason to panic. Proven players always reach close to what is expected of them. Sometimes they have a poor year, sometimes a great year, yet usually the end stats of every season approach the mean. For example, I have not worried a single day about the production of fellow Yankee, Mark Teixeira. Sure his batting average is not where it was expected to be, but his numbers get to where they usually end up. So I wouldn't be so inclined to be upset with Burnett if I had a feeling his numbers would reach what is expected of him.

No wait, let me rephrase that. I wouldn't be so inclined to be upset with Burnett if I had a feeling his numbers would reach what everyone seems to unrealistically expect of him. A.J. Burnett is the epitome of a sports one-hit wonder. He had a couple seasons that weren't bad. He had a couple seasons that were bad. And he had one very good season, 2008, and it is not even worth calling it a great season. He's barely over .500 for his career. His career BB/K is barely over 2. And for being thought of as a stud strikeout pitcher, he has only struck out 200 batters in a season twice. Where is the evidence that Burnett has ever been a great pitcher who is under-performing, rather than an average pitcher who can throw a complete game every now and then?

I'm going to now pull a Bill Simmons by referencing my own comments from another platform and pretend like I'm not repeating myself: I recently tweeted that I would rather have Stephen Strasburg for the rest of this season than A.J. Burnett. For the non-baseball fans out there, Strasburg is done for the year. But the exaggeration of that statement is not too far off. There is never a Burnett outing where I expect him to last six innings anymore. 8 earned through 3.2 seems like the norm nowadays. The Yankees recently announced they would give rookie Ivan "Super" Nova another start, in replace of the struggling Javier Vasquez. The Super Nova certainly deserved another start, but even with Javy pitching so poorly, I'd have rather seen Burnett get bumped to the pen. And that has nothing to do with who I see pitching better from a relief role. I'm just really tired of see Burnett take the mound.

When the Yankees signed Burnett prior to last season, I wasn't thrilled. The money didn't matter at all, but I couldn't understand the fascination with the player. He was averagely mediocre last year but we won the World Series so it's all water under the bridge. Now, a season later, his performance is still sort of irrelevant. He's been dreadful and the Yankees still have the best record in baseball. And yet, what if he wasn't on the team? After all, the Yankees are tied for their division lead. They are by no means guaranteed a playoff berth with a 78-50 record. Burnett is responsible for 12 of those 50 losses. He lost every start he made in June. He hasn't won a single decision in August either. He has a negative WAR rating. WAR stands for Wins Above Replacement. It is a formula to determine how many wins a certain player is worth above a completely average replacement player. It is not a perfect stat of course, and yet it still measures success. A.J. Burnett owning a negative WAR implies he has hurt the Yankees more than if they had replaced him with any remotely coherent minor leaguer.

Last year, the Yankees employed a three man rotation come playoff time. They could do something similar this season with Sabathia, Pettitte (who returns in two weeks hopefully) and Hughes. This is anything but ideal, and yet it worked well enough a year ago. In the end, they'll go with who they can trust and I don't see that being Burnett. Hopefully he turns things around, but then we'll still have to come to grips with him having a guaranteed contract through the 2013 season. Talk about bang for your buck. At least he's good at pieing people in the face.

(Image taken from

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