Friday, September 18, 2009

Yankees still wait to learn Burnett's true identity

As a baseball season reaches its final month of regular season games, you should be able to tell what you have in a first-year player.

You usually know well before that.

We figured out by the All-Star break that Mark Teixeira was well worth the investment. Same goes for CC Sabathia. Nick Swisher was a bit more tricky, but as the summer wore on it became clear we had a productive goofball in the fold.

But then comes the curious case of Allan James Burnett.

We still have no idea what to make of the talented right-hander, now 29 starts deep into his first season with the Yankees. Can you honestly say you have any clue which Burnett will show up tonight against Felix Hernandez and the Mariners?

Will it be the guy who one-hit the Mets at Citi Field in June, the same guy who, during a 12-start stretch, was baseball's best starter? Or will it be the guy who allowed six-run innings to the Red Sox in April, the White Sox in August, and the Orioles in September?

There is no gray with Burnett, only black and white. Either excellent or atrocious.

Maybe this is what Burnett always was. If you throw out 2008, (18-10, 234 K season in Toronto) a walk year in which he was basically pitching with a "For Sale" sign on his back during the second half, he's been a remarkable ordinary pitcher in his career.

Check out his numbers in seasons he's made at least 25 starts:

  • 2001: 11-12, 4.05
  • 2002: 12-9, 3.30
  • 2005: 12-12, 3.34
  • 2007: 10-8, 3.75
  • 2009: 11-9, 4.33

Yes, win-loss records can often be misleading—Royals ace Zack Greinke, for example, has eight losses hung on him with a 2.14 ERA. But with Burnett, you get the feeling he earns that .500 record. He has this season, anyway.

A lot of that has to do with his temperament. When things are going well, and batters are waving feebly at his curve ball, he can cruise easily through seven innings. But when things aren't falling into place, when he can't spot the fastball, or when Posada gets in his face one too many times, he can project the appearance of a pitcher who checks out.

When Andy Pettitte admitted this week that the ache he felt in his shoulder was the same discomfort that wrecked his second half last season, a shiver shot up the spine of every Yankees fan. There is no hiding Burnett in a postseason series anymore. There never really was, but a banged up Pettitte removes any security blanket.

Burnett was supposed to be the security blanket this season, the guy who would line up behind Sabathia and Wang and quietly do his job. Things are different now, and the stakes are about to change in a big way.

A strong outing against King Felix would be a positive sign tonight, but in the end it's October that will reveal how this plays out. Only then will we find out what we have in Allan James Burnett.

Hopefully by the time we learn it won't be too late for the Yankees.

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