Most pitchers have a middle ground. Some days, they are lights out awesome and no one can touch them. Some days they just don’t have and get shelled.
And then their are some days when a pitcher might not have his best stuff—he can’t quite hit his spots or one of his pitches is flat—but he struggles through. He “guts” out a decent performance. A veteran, like a CC Sabathia, or Andy Pettitte has learned how to do this over the course of their career.
A.J. Burnett has not.
Burnett continues to either be flat out dominant or completely awful. There is hardly any middle ground with him. And on any particular night there is no way to tell what he has.
In his last start, Burnett gave up 8 runs in 4.2 innings. His two starts before that, A.J. pitched a total of 11.1 innings of no-run ball. Out of 22 starts this season, Burnett has 6 starts of at least 5 innings of no-run ball. Burnett also has 5 starts where he didn’t make it to 5 IP. His ERA in those starts: 15.2. All of this leads to an extremely mediocre ERA of 4.93. Not quite what 16.5 million should be bringing to the table.
Burnett’s arm speed and movement are still pretty good—he’s always had electric stuff—but electric stuff or not, the man is just a two pitch pitcher.
Yes, there has been a lot of talk about a change-up, as there has been in the last two spring trainings. However, Burnett trusts it so much, he throws it a whopping 2% of the time. So, he’ll bring it out against Casey Kotchman in a 7-1 game, or against Josh Bell as a larf. But the start-to-start bread-and-butter of A.J. Burnett is fastball and his curve. And if one of them doesn’t work....
In other words, with only 2 pitches, Burnett doesn’t have the tools to potentially “gut out a win. He’s giving the batter a very limited arsenal to fear. If his curve isn’t working, sit back on A.J.’s fastball. And vice versa. There’s no slider for him to fall back on. No Forkball. No Palmball. No Slider, Splitter or Screwball. No Change to speak of. Nothing.
And doesn’t it seem odd that, 11 years into his career, he’s left himself this predicament. His fastball is starting to slow a touch—it’s rated an -8.0 wFB on Fangraphs.com—and, as a result, batters aren’t as fooled by his curveball—a -4.9 wCB on FanGraphs.com. How could he not by age 33, have not learned a cutter or a Vulcan change?
This is a recipe for disappointment. As Burnett ages and his arm speed slows even further, he will need deception and movement even more. And he has nothing prepared. Nothing. And the Yankees now need to think of that, not only for season to come, but as they head towards this October.
Because think of this fact: In 5 starts against Boston and Tampa this season—the 2 best run-producing teams in the AL behind the Yankees—Burnett’s ERA is 8.28. He’s lasted 5 innings in those games.