It was never a question of skill with Burnett, the quality of his stuff was never in doubt.
When the Yankees signed the right-hander to a five-year, $82.5 million deal in December of 2008, they knew they were getting a guy who, with a blazing fastball and unfair curveball, had led the league in strikeouts the previous season. They also knew that he had a bit of a tendency to be wild, as in “leading the league in wild pitches”-wild one season.
But during that same year, 2002, Burnett also led the league in shutouts. Perhaps most tellingly, he threw a no-hitter in 2001 in which he walked nine batters and hit another for good measure. Burnett was a virtual walking paradox –his stuff Dr. Jekyll, his control Mr. Hyde — but he was ultimately successful in stints with the Marlins and Blue Jays.
That is, until he went to New York — and it became apparent that with A.J. Burnett, it was more a question of mental makeup.
After a typically Burnett-ian first season in 2009, in which he went 13-9 with 195 strikeouts and a 4.04 ERA but led the league in walks and wild pitches, Burnett suddenly imploded.
Over the next two seasons, Burnett posted ERAs of 5.26 and 5.15, WHIPs of 1.51 and 1.43, and a combined win-loss record of 21-26. He led the league in hit batsmen in 2010, and then walks in 2011. Even the regular ace up his sleeve, the strikeout, failed Burnett — his strikeouts per nine innings plummeted to 6.99 in 2010, his worst mark since 2001. They climbed last year back to a respectable 8.18 per nine, but that was still his second-lowest rate since 2006.
In plain English, Burnett was an unqualified disaster. In advanced statistics, it was even worse. The Wins Above Replacement statistic measures how many wins a player adds relative to what a league-average player would contribute. In 2010 and 2011, Burnett actually contributed a total of 0.6 wins less than a league-average pitcher would have contributed, according to ESPN.
So for $33 million in those two years, the Yankees had effectively bought themselves a below-average player who actually took away a win from the team each year.
It’s not often that a pitcher so talented can become so bad so quickly. Burnett turned age 33 and 34 in those years and his average fastball velocity was down from previous years — then again, it had been declining ever since 2007, and it was still zipping along in 2011 at a sprightly 92.7 mph. So a regression because of age was not the likely culprit.
Burnett had always been a study in contrasts, and playing in New York clearly brought out the Mr. Hyde side of his pitching personality, suppressing the Dr. Jekyll beneath an onslaught of wincing batters trotting to first and balls screaming to the backstop.
There seemed to be only one answer to the puzzle, and it was one trotted out many times over the years to explain away sudden dives in production on certain teams — some players simply cannot handle playing in a major market.
Burnett said as much in an interview with Newsday, after being dumped off by the Yankees to the Pirates for virtually nothing in return this past offseason. With New York even agreeing to pay $18.1 million of the $31 million left on his contract, it was plain the organization wanted nothing more to do with him.
“In my first start [in Pittsburgh], I walked the bases loaded,” Burnett recalled. “Imagine what that place would have sounded like over there. Maybe a few words came out of the crowd here. It’s different. You’re just a little less on edge.”
And Burnett’s performance in Pittsburgh has only solidified the thinking that New York just was not a good match for him.
In 19 starts, Burnett is 13-3 with a 3.27 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 102 strikeouts. Take out an abominable 12-run, 2 2/3-inning outing against the Cardinals in May and his ERA would stand at 2.45, which would be good for fifth in the league.
Most notably, however, he’s tamed his wildness. He’s walking a mere 2.69 batters per nine innings, well below his career average of 3.73. He’s thrown only three wild pitches and hit only three batters, in comparison to combined totals of 28 and 41 in the previous two disastrous years.
It seems obvious, then, that A.J. Burnett is happiest and most productive in an environment far from the cacophonic din of a major market like New York. After all, his best years have come while playing in Miami, Toronto and Pittsburgh. You can say quite a bit about all three cities, but they’re not baseball-crazy locales — at least not in the mold of New York, Boston and Philadelphia.
So as long as Burnett stays away from the echo chambers that are the I-95 powerhouses and others like them, and continues pitching in relative relaxation with his newfound control, Dr. Jekyll may have finally replaced Mr. Hyde for good.