Game One of this ALDS couldn’t have gone much better for the Yankees. CC Sabathia was sharp, every starter but Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano got a hit, including Alex Rodriguez who had a pair of RBI singles, the key end-game relievers (Phil Coke, Phil Hughes, Mariano Rivera, and the re-purposed Joba Chamberlain) got their postseason spikes dirty with a big lead and a day off to follow, and, most importantly, the Bombers extended their regular season dominance of Minnesota with a 7-2 victory. Yesterday, however, gave the exhausted Twins, who in the 25 hours before the first pitch of Game One had played 12 innings to save their season then flown half way across the country, a much-needed day of rest, and Game Two brings another Yankee starting pitcher with a lot to prove.
I was an outspoken opponent of the five-year, $82.5 million contract the Yankees signed A.J. Burnett to in December. With one of those five regular seasons in the books, Burnett has exceeded my expectations in just one way: he stayed healthy and took every one of his turns throughout the season. That’s no small thing, but the net result of Burnett’s 33 starts wasn’t quite what you’d expect from a $16.5 million pitcher, and there are still four more years in which Burnett could well validate my concerns about his injury history.
The contract doesn’t matter tonight. All that matters is how well Burnett pitches in his first postseason start, which is why Joe Girardi has opted to start Jose Molina behind the plate despite the huge drop in production he represents at the plate compared to Jorge Posada. Opposing batters have hit just .221/.307/.352 against Burnett with Molina behind the plate compared to .270/.353/.421 with Posada receiving him. Supposedly the difference is due in part to Burnett’s lack of confidence in Posada’s ability to block his sharp curve in the dirt, which results in Burnett failing to break the pitch off properly when throwing to Posada. Burnett led the league in wild pitches, and one would assumes a certain percentage of those were pitches Burnett thought Posada should have blocked.
Burnett’s breaking point seemed to come in his August 12 start, when, with Posada catching, he uncorked three wild pitches then refused to talk about the issue after the game, saying bruskly, “I’d rather not talk about the wild pitches.” Up to that game, Posada caught 13 of Burnett’s starts while Molina, Francisco Cervelli, and Kevin Cash caught the other ten, five of them coming when Posada was on the disabled list. After that August 12 start, Posada caught just three more of Burnett’s starts, while Molina caught seven. Burnett didn’t thrown another wild pitch after August 12, but two of the three times he pitched to Posada he was rocked, giving up nine runs in five innings to the Red Sox on August 22, and six runs in 5 1/3 innings to the lowly Orioles on September 1. Those were the last two Burnett starts caught by Posada.
That’s why Joe Girardi is sitting a .285/.363/.522 hitter in a playoff game in favor of a man who has hit .217/.273/.298 in 406 at-bats over the last two seasons. I believe Posada himself said it best when he said, in reaction to the news that Molina would be starting, “I just hope we win that game.” Burnett’s need for Molina behind the plate only adds to the pressure he’ll be feeling tonight in his first career postseason start (he was out following Tommy John surgery when his Marlins beat the Yankees in the 2003 World Series). The contract may not matter tonight, but Burnett will by trying to live up to it.
As for how he did in the regular season, Burnett’s aggregate line was actually no better than the no-name Twins sophomore he’ll face tonight:
A.J. Burnett: 4.04 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 2.01 K/BB, 33 GS, 21 QS
Nick Blackburn: 4.03 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 2.39 K/BB, 33 GS, 19 QS
Those lines are damn similar, with Blackburn holding the edge in the three key rate stats, which just goes to show how overrated Burnett really is. As for the 27-year-old Blackburn, his final 2009 line is almost an exact match for his 2008 rookie campaign, which means the Twins can now expect this sort of production from him. Blackburn’s WHIP is high because he led the league in hits allowed. Burnett’s is high because he led the league in walks with a career-high 97. That is also why A.J.’s K/BB is so low (because of all those walks, Burnett’s WHIP and K/BB this year were his worst since 2003, when he made just four starts).
Of course, Burnett and Blackburn are far from similar pitchers, as their strikeout and walk rates reveal:
Burnett: 8.5 K/9, 4.2 BB/9
Blackburn: 4.3 K/9, 1.8 BB/9
Better all those walks and strikeouts than all those hits, but you’d rather see a pitcher keep his opponents off the bases altogether.
Both pitchers finished the regular seaosn strong. In his last four starts (all with Molina catching), Burnett posted a 1.88 ERA, struck out 28 men in 24 innings, and allowed just one home run. In his last four starts, Blackburn posted a 1.65 ERA and walked just one man in 27 1/3 innings.
Blackburn last faced the Yankees on May 16. He took a 4-3 lead into the eighth inning of that game only to let the Yankees tie it up in that inning (and ultimately win it in extras). Burnett faced the Twins twice this year, both times allowing just two runs in six-plus innings, but walking ten in those 13 frames.
The Twins have made one tweak to their lineup tonight. Jason Kubel is DHing, Denard Span is in right, and Carlos Gomez is in centerfield and batting in place of the team’s no-name DH platoon. Alex suggests this is because the Twins want to run on Burnett, but while A.J. allowed 23 steals on the year, he and his catchers caught 34 percent of attempting basestealers, that compared to a 25 percent league average and Jose Molina and Jorge Posada’s matching (yes, matching) 28 percent throw-out rates.