Over the last year or so, I’ve realized that my ardent commitment to statistical analysis in sports has come at the cost of my youthful fandom. I remain a dedicated supporter of my teams, but some of the unadulterated enthusiasm has faded away. For example, when Robinson Cano rips a double on the first pitch of an at-bat, I can’t help but shake my head at his impatience instead of applauding his play. When Joba Chamberlain pitches a good game, I’m not only happy because he’s given the Yankees a quality performance, but also because this means I’m one small step closer to being right about his proper role in the major leagues. In short, I’m rooting more for me to be right than for the athletic displays themselves. It’s a bit of a somber realization, but I’ve come to accept its permanence.
Until recently, this change had all but done away with age-old question “who’s your favorite baseball player?” Ten years ago, I would have said Derek Jeter. Five years ago, it would have been Gary Sheffield. If you asked me in the last year, I would have blinked at you quizzically and named the Yankee with the highest WARP, because he would have contributed the most to my favorite team. But now, strangely enough, I have an answer to that question, and it’s largely without a statistical bent. A.J. Burnett is my favorite baseball player and he is, to my great trepidation, the key to the Yankees’ postseason chances.
My reasons for choosing him are nothing short of egocentric. I enjoy and root for Burnett because I see a great deal of myself in him. As many of you know, Burnett has some of the best stuff in baseball (“stuff” being an industry term for a pitcher’s movement and velocity). He’s got an electric fastball with natural life and sink, and a tight curveball that can make hitters look ridiculous. These two pitches are so good that he rarely resorts to a third. Burnett’s career-long problem, however, has been his apparent inability to harness his ability consistently. He walks too many batters and recently has been prone to giving up the home run. Often, you can find Burnett working himself into entirely self-inflicted trouble, only to emerge relatively unscathed largely because of his natural ability. When he takes the mound, you’re reasonably sure he’s not going to throw a no-hitter (which he has done before, walking nine) , but you can’t rule it out like you can with nearly every other pitcher. He has never been great, and at age 32, it seems likely that he never will be. But I find his relentless battle with himself and against the expectations that come with great talent to be captivating in its humanity, and more than a little comparable to how I often feel about myself.
During today’s Orioles-Yankees game, broadcasters Michael Kay and Al Leiter spent nearly the entire second inning talking about my newly-minted favorite player. As is often the case with Burnett, the discussion focused on his unspectacular record (wins alert!) versus his spectacular stuff. Kay was fairly hard on Burnett, repeatedly questioning Leiter for an explanation. Leiter, on the other hand, went easy on him, saying that Burnett isn’t done “figuring it out.” There are valid points to both sides, but neither gentleman said what needed to be said: Burnett is what he is.
Like all baseball fans do, Kay sees Burnett’s tremendous ability and wonders when he’s going to harness it. Leiter believes that Burnett, at 32 years old, is still developing his mental approach to pitching. I admire their combined optimism, but it’s simply unjustified. Burnett is a good-but-not-great pitcher. He’ll throw, on average, about 170 innings every season, during which he’ll walk too many batters but strike out enough to keep his team in the game. He’ll put it all together for a few starts and you’ll think that maybe, just maybe, he’s turned the corner. Then he’ll go back to his wild ways. At the end of the season, his ERA will be around 4 with a bunch of strikeouts and a bunch of walks. And despite the bad rap he occasionally gets, there’s value in that kind of performance. The key, however, is understanding that that’s what you’re going to get when your team enlists his services. He’s a tantalizing player, making him a risky proposition. That’s A.J. Burnett, and more than likely, that’s how he’ll always be.
Frighteningly, Burnett is also the key to the Yankees’ playoff run. As we know, there are certain factors that become especially important in a short series. Starting pitching, relief work, and defense play up in the postseason. The Yankees’ bullpen and defense are not my concern; the starting pitching is. C.C. Sabathia is as reliable as any pitcher in baseball. After that, the picture is murky, in large part because of Burnett’s huge variance in performance. If Good A.J. shows up in October, then it’s going to be very difficult to beat the Yankees. If the Yankees get Bad A.J. (a close second behind Bad Eli in the most devastating alternate on-field sports personality hierarchy), then they’re going to have difficulty advancing. Rarely do I think things are so simple, but this is an exception.
I will be rooting exceptionally hard for A.J. Burnett in the playoffs, both because he incredibly important to the Yankees’ chances and because of his story. But I don’t know which possible outcome I fear more: an appearance by Bad A.J., or the suffocating New York media lambasting Burnett for not pitching like an ace when, in fact, he has never done so.