Burnett turnaround has Yanks hopeful

BY Bob Klapisch • April 19, 2011

He's holding the very same baseball, the strike zone hasn’t changed and the distance between the mound and home plate remains at its eternal 60 feet, 6 inches. So how is it that A.J. Burnett, despite the same equipment and dimensions, has morphed into a near-reliable starter?

The Yankees have a few theories, but they’re not looking all that deeply at the forensic evidence. “Let’s just say it’s a number of things,” general manager Brian Cashman said, using only slightly different language for: Leave well enough alone.

Crazy, isn’t it, that Burnett is 3-0 while CC Sabathia is still winless? The big left-hander’s ERA is only half of Burnett’s — no shock — but it’s noteworthy that Burnett’s strikeout-walk and strikeouts-per-nine-inning ratios are almost identical to Sabathia’s.

The Yankees were hopeful for this kind of bounce-back, for precisely the reasons they’d constructed in a best-case scenario this spring. Burnett has a new pitching coach (Larry Rothschild), a new catcher (Russell Martin) and a new outlook on his career, having smoothed out some of the at-home issues that distracted him in 2010.

“There are a lot of factors working in A.J.’s favor right now,” Cashman said. “It’s still very early, but we all had a feeling that he was capable of better things (than in 2010). Look at his history: He’s won a lot of games and has always been an innings eater.”

Just to give the turnaround some context, Burnett is coming off a 10-15 record with a 5.26 ERA, the worst by a starter with at least 180 innings in Yankee history. Additionally, his strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.86) was the lowest since 2003, off by nearly 50 percent from his best days with the Blue Jays.

Whether this run of respectability can be sustained is a separate issue, of course. The Yankees will get a glimpse of Burnett’s reliability Tuesday, when he takes the mound in the opener of a two-game series against the Jays. Currently, the Bombers are the only team in the AL East not under .500, so it’s not exactly a showdown. But Burnett needs to remain afloat while the rest of the rotation finds its footing.

Phil Hughes, after all, is just a memory now, on the disabled list with a dead arm. Bartolo Colon, who'll be 38 next month, has bumped Ivan Nova and will start Wednesday against Toronto. And 34-year-old Freddy Garcia, fresh off six shutout innings against the Rangers on Saturday, is now being counted on, too.

Can it all last? The Yankees don’t project miracles from this alignment. Internally, they expect Cashman to make an impact trade in July or promote super-prospect Manny Banuelos later in the summer.

“All he’s doing is kicking the can down the road,” is what one member of the organization said of Cashman’s current reliance on retreads.

The current backups are just that — pitchers close to their expiration date, including Kevin Millwood and Carlos Silva, both working under minor league contracts in Tampa.

So, for the meantime, the Yankees will take any dividend they can get, including those from Burnett. All the little signs of his renaissance keep popping up: His BABIP is down 39 points from 2010, which means opponents aren’t hitting the ball as hard. He’s stranded 73 percent of runners on base, up 5 percent, and he’s notched a 4 percent spike in first-pitch strikes. Swings and misses are up, too.

It’s a small sample size, true. But the Yankees will gladly take it.

Did the cut-fastball sabotage Phil Hughes?

 

The 24-year-old right-hander continues his search for the 3-4 mph that have mysteriously leaked from his fastball. A trip to the disabled list was designed not to treat an injury — the Yankees say there’s nothing wrong with Hughes’ shoulder or elbow — but to begin a longer-range regimen to rebuild arm strength.

It’s a safe, low-risk approach to an undiagnosed problem, but at least one scout assigned to the American League East believes the Yankees are missing a key element of Hughes’ decline: his reliance on the cut-fastball, which he ironically learned from the master, Mariano Rivera.

“You can just tell, (Hughes) fell in love (with the pitch),” the scout said. Trouble was, Hughes was unable to clone Rivera’s unique late break and might have unwittingly tried to compensate by increasing pressure on his middle finger.

Unlike Rivera, who throws his cutter simply by holding his four-seam fastball off-center, Hughes’ cutter required a slight snapping of the wrist, which might have traumatized his elbow, if ever so slightly.

The result was a decrease in velocity, not unlike what Jim Abbott experienced for his dependence on the cutter in the early '90s. Andy Pettitte had a similar result when his cutter/slider combo was dominating his arsenal in the early 2000s. Pettitte finally abandoned the pitch in 2005.

Hughes might have to do likewise, or at least throttle back. According to Fangraphs.com, one of every three pitches he’s thrown in 2011 has been a cutter, twice as many as he threw in 2010.

The Mets’ ticket woes

 

The Mets’ recent seven-game losing streak, during which they lost back-to-back doubleheaders to the Rockies and Braves, is hurting them at the box office. According to the New York Times, tickets are going for half-price at StubHub, the ticket exchange website.

The current homestand against the Astros and Diamondbacks isn’t likely to boost attendance or revenue, either.

“Those are breathtaking drops in value,” Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp, a sports marketing consultant, told the Times. “That has to be alarming for the Mets. And those tickets aren’t even sold yet. That’s frightening.”
 



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