Wednesday, August 31, 2011

It's good to have a Frankie

If you've followed the career arc of Francisco Cervelli even a little, you knew hitting a ball over the Green Monster during a pennant race was going to conjure up emotions he'd have zero ability to harness.

Cervelli, the Yankees' fiery Venezuelan reserve catcher, is like the unpredictable cousin you reluctantly bring to a work friend's party. You spend the next four hours praying he doesn't say or do something to put someone off, and when he inevitably does, you can't even get mad at him. It's just Frankie being Frankie.

Cervelli is a fringe player in every respect, and with Jesus Montero knocking loudly at the door, he may not be long for Yankee Universe. Hell, the team nearly traded him to the Pirates last month in a deal that would've brought back Brad Lincoln, a young right-handed reliever with a career ERA of 5.66. This tells you a lot in terms of where the catcher stands in his own organization.

But Cervelli has value to this Yankees team that goes beyond his middling talent level. When Cervelli steps on the field, he brings with him an attitude that's downright refreshing after two decades of buttoned-up Yankees baseball. It's always good to have that one guy who has the innate ability to piss off the opposing team and its fanbase. It makes rooting for your team more fun.

David Ortiz has made a career of taunting the Yankees and their fans with slow trots, pointing, bat flips, and all the general buffoonery that's come to define the Big Papi Experience. When he finally got drilled by a fastball following a particularly egregious home run celebration in July, Ortiz himself pointed out that the plunking was the direct result of a media blitz designed to put him in his place.

Ortiz is a pest, which coincidentally is the term NESN announcer Jerry Remy uses to describe Cervelli. He lived up to that name Tuesday night after an exaggerated slap of his hands as he touched home plate following his homer.

The slap was right under the nose of Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and it didn't go unnoticed by the always-personable John Lackey, who drilled Cervelli in the back his next time up. The benches cleared and both sides were warned.

"I don’t remember (what was said)," Cervelli said about the fallout of his HBP, according to LoHud. "A lot of Spanish. At that moment, I forgot my English. But it’s part of the game, I’ve got a lot of energy."

That he does, and it seems to be infectious. When Saltalamacchia reached on a disputed hit by pitch in the ninth inning, Girardi nearly blew the third-base umpire away with an angry tirade that got him tossed. It's good to see these things, and you wonder how much our crazy cousin has to do with it.

When asked about his signature fist pumps after Boone Logan's huge strikeout of Darnell McDonald in the seventh inning, Cervelli provided a brief answer that seemed to sum up his entire existence in four syllables.

"That’s Cervelli."

That's a third-person reference, people! He may not play like Rickey Henderson, but Cervelli's value is greater than the sum of his parts.

Dan Hanzus can be reached at or on Twitter @danhanzus.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Allan James brings the pain

A.J. Burnett has been so terrible for so long that it's easy to lose perspective on how wretched things have become.

If you recall, Burnett had perhaps the worst statistical season for a pitcher in the history of the franchise in 2010 (certainly the worst for a pitcher in his tax bracket). His 10-15, 5.26 abortion essentially assassinated New York's hopes of defending its title. This was supposed to be the No. 2 starter, an ace to handcuff with CC Sabathia. It can't be overstated how unacceptable his performance was.

This year — almost impossibly — he's been worse. After Friday night's wipeout by the awful Orioles, Burnett's record is 9-11 with a 5.31 ERA. To track down Burnett's last quality start (at least six innings, three or less earned runs), you have to trek all the way back to June 29 against the Brewers.

Burnett has just seven quality starts in 27 attempts this season, meaning he's been paid $2.36 million for every quality start if you choose to twist stats and money like a jerk (which, of course, I will). I'll remember this stat for rage purposes today when I'm robbing my local convenience store to pay rent.

This isn't Moneyball. This is Money-bawl-your-eyes-out.

By spring training, we were told to expect a new Allan James Burnett. As the story goes, A.J. had bought into the philosophies of new pitching coach Larry Rothschild, and was attacking the zone in a way he could not or would not do the previous season.

"There's still one out of every handful, but the difference is that I'm not thinking about it," Burnett said after a strong spring training outing against the Phillies on March 8. "I'm not wondering why that one out of every five or one out of every three happens. It's just, 'Get the ball and go.' Get the ball, trust yourself and make a pitch. I missed, so get up there and do it again."

It seems ridiculous that beat writers could hold a recording device in front of Burnett's face without cracking up now, but they weren't the only ones with a straight face. Joe Girardi was all in on the new A.J.

"Maybe in a way, A.J. feels like it's a fresh start," the manager said after that March start. "He's got a different pitching coach and a different catcher, so it's almost like going to a new team even though he knows it's not. The important thing is building those relationships."

Ah yes, the new catcher. In case you forgot, many of Burnett's past struggles were laid at the feet of Jorge Posada, the cranky old backstop who wasn't worth a damn anymore. Seems pretty silly, and more than a tad unfair now, doesn't it?

Girardi has developed a patience in Burnett that's not unlike the father who refuses to accept the fact that his son is a mess-up. He may be 34, still living on the couch, and unable to hold a job or girlfriend, but the old man sees the promise buried within.

I suppose this can be seen as a positive trait in a manager, especially in a town as reactionary as New York. But just like the dad who repeatedly defends the loser son, you can only stick your neck out so long before it's you who looks like a fool.

I thought about that during Girardi's postgame presser on Friday night.

"I’m frustrated for him," Girardi said. "You don’t want to see anyone struggle in this game. This game is hard. It’s tough to go through months like this, whether you’re a pitcher or a position player and you’re struggling and hitting .150 for the month. It’s tough; you’re frustrated for him. You want him to turn it around."

Due to Michael Bay-movie weather conditions that will necessitate doubleheaders, Girardi said the Yankees will stick to a six-man rotation that has Burnett scheduled to be on the hill Friday at Fenway Park. There's always the chance the Burnett the Yankees thought they were signing in 2008 shows up, the same Burnett who set the Yankees on the course for a championship with his clutch performance in Game 2 of the World Series in 2009.

But what's far more likely is another turkey shoot in Boston. Burnett will weave through an inning, perhaps two, maybe even three, before the combination of faulty temperament and an inability to harness his physical ability leads to a meltdown. Dustin Pedroia ill cap a five-run inning with a three-run homer over the Green Monster and Girardi will take the ball from Burnett, who will stalk off the mound with that mix of dejection and anger that we've become so accustomed to.

After the game, Burnett will say he has to get things right and Girardi will say he feels for his pitcher and believes he will get through this. Lather and wash. Rinse and repeat.

Dan Hanzus can be reached at or on Twitter @danhanzus.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Burnett benefiting from lowered expectations

The Yankees did what the Yankees do on Wednesday night — they hit homers, scored a ton of runs and covered up whatever shortcomings stood between the team and victory.

In a game where the lineup crossed the plate 18 times and the bullpen allowed one hit in 4 2/3 innings, it doesn't take a genius to figure out whose slack needed to picked up at U.S. Cellular Field.

A.J. Burnett has spent the 2011 season living under the radar. This is hard for any supposed No. 2 pitcher to do, let alone a No. 2 pitcher who gets paid by the New York Yankees. I guess this happens when you're coming off one of the worst statistical seasons in franchise history. In 2010, Burnett lost 15 games with an ERA well north of 5.00. His meatball to Bengie Molina in Game 4 of the ALCS all but sealed New York's hopes of a repeat.

Saying Burnett merely struggled is like saying the Ryan Reynolds-Jason Bateman body-switch movie only slightly lowered the artistic bar in Hollywood.

The result of such suckitude has been a serious temperance in expectations. Gone is the hope that a pitcher being paid $82 million could be a second ace. Yankees fans just hope he can get through a season without one of those 0-5 months that beat up bullpens and obliterate momentum.

Of course, Burnett doesn't deserve the slack he gets. Wednesday night provided us the perfect summation of everything that's wrong with the right-hander. From the first White Sox batter, it was clear Burnett had no stuff. He couldn't located his fastball and every curve amounted to a cement mixer. As CC Sabathia proves often, lacking your full artillery is no excuse for a bad night. Sabathia routinely pitches deep into games without his best stuff, as evident by his start that opened this series.

This is a concept that Burnett cannot or will not wrap his head around. To Burnett, bad stuff equals bad start and the hope things are better in five days. Burnett seemed resigned to this Wednesday, not showing an ounce of competitiveness until there was one out in the fifth.

That's when Joe Girardi came to get the pitcher who couldn't find a way to qualify for a win despite a 13-1 lead. It was 13-7 when he exited with runners on second and third. Burnett pushed the ball into Girardi's hand and stalked off the mound before the manager could even get to him. The YES camera followed him to the dugout, catching him as he ripped off his jersey and disappeared from view.

His final line told the story: 4.1 IP, 13 H, 7 ER, 3 K, 0 BB.

Despite all the chatter about six starters for five spots and Phil Hughes pitching for his job, Burnett remains teflon, completely safe despite subpar production. Burnett's job security was evident in a postgame presser where he seemed completely at ease despite the storm cloud that should be overhead.

“I get to go in five days,” Burnett said. “That’s about it. It was one of them days, man.”

Girardi defended his starter after the game, brushing off Burnett's aggro walk from the mound while pumping up the right-hander's body of work this season.

“He’s starting on Wednesday,” Girardi said. “His numbers aren’t that bad. If you look at the numbers of Hughes, I mean, Hughesy made one good start. We look at the whole year, and A.J.’s been decent for us.”

That's where we're at. The Yankees manager is covering for his No. 2 pitcher by pointing out the failures of his No. 3. It turns out that Burnett's 2010 season didn't stay there. The ripples of those 35 starts have carried over. The bar is near the ground now, warping the perspective of what should be expected from the "ace" behind the ace.

Dan Hanzus can be reached at or on Twitter @danhanzus.