A.J. Burnett Pitches Well, Goes On Bad List

A.J. Burnett of the Pittsburgh Pirates reacts to the fans after pitching into the eighth inning against the Kansas City Royals during interleague play at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pirates defeated the Royals 3-2. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Does A.J. Burnett, pitching well this season for the Pirates, go on the list of good pitchers who just couldn't handle pitching for the Yankees?

After the 2008 season, A.J. Burnett became a free agent and wound up getting a huge contract.

This made sense. In the previous three seasons, Burnett posted a sub-4.00 ERA with three times more strikeouts than walks; in 2008, he actually led the American League in strikeouts per nine innings.

Burnett signed a five-year, $82.5-million contract with the New York Yankees.

I don't remember what I wrote about that, at the time.

Here's what I wrote three years later -- just a few months ago -- when Burnett had bombed with the Yankees, and there were rumors they might trade him (along with a pile of cash) to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Garrett Jones:

Burnett's biggest problem in each of the last two seasons was home runs. He gave up 56 of them, fourth-most in the majors and all three guys ahead of him pitched more innings. Yankee Stadium is an excellent place for left-handed-hitting power hitters; Pittsburgh's PNC Park is unfriendly to lefty-hitting power hitters. It would be foolish to suggest that pitching half his games in Pittsburgh will automatically restore Burnett's once-formidable powers. But maybe Yankee Stadium is Burnett's red sun, and there's a yellow sun where the Monongahela and the Allegheny become the Ohio.

So what if Burnett pitches better as a Pirate? If he pitches better, he'll be both effective and cheap -- because the Yankees will be paying most of the freight -- and thus desirable to contending teams this summer, particularly considering that he's under contract through 2013. If he pitches better, and especially if he pitches well, the Pirates might then flip Burnett in July for a couple of prospects ... which is more than they could ever get for Garrett Jones.

Would I trade for A.J. Burnett, were I the Pittsburgh Pirates? That's impossible to answer without consulting my scouts and my doctors, and it's really early in the morning and I can't get any of those lazy bastards on the phone. But depending on how big a check the Yankees are willing to write, I sure would give it some serious thought.

The Yankees didn't get Garrett Jones -- which was smart of them, as it's turned out -- but they did get a couple of nondescript minor leaguers while writing a (virtual) check for 20 million. Which, considering Burnett's $16.5-million salary in both 2012 and '13, left the Pirates on the hook for only $13 million.

Which seemed about right to me. I figured the Yankees should pay at least half of Burnett's salary.

Heading into his Friday-night start against the Tigers, Burnett has a 3.52 ERA and leads the second-place Bucs with seven wins. Unless he gets hurt, he should be at least decent through next season, and the Pirates will more than get their money's worth.

Which will result in A.J. Burnett being added to a legendary but unenviable list: pitchers who joined the Yankees as ballyhooed veterans, struggled terribly, then pitched well again after leaving the Yankees.

For a long time, the most famous example was right-hander Ed Whitson.

After the 1984 season, in which he went 14-8 with the pennant-winning Padres, Whitson signed a six-year, $4.4-million deal with the Yankees.

In those days, $4.4 million was actually a lot of money.

Whitson got off to a horrible start in 1985; through 11 starts, he was 1-6 with a 6.23 ERA. The fans at Yankee Stadium were, of course, merciless. To his credit, Whitson did turn things around; in his next 10 starts, he went 6-1 with a 2.47 ERA.

But he couldn't keep it going, and rang up a 7.34 ERA in his last nine starts (oddly, the Yankees won eight of those games). Even worse, late in the season he got into a brawl with manager Billy Martin, who suffered a broken arm and got fired after the season. When Whitson got off to a rough start in '86, the Yankees traded him back to the Padres. And though it took him a while, eventually Whitson pitched better than ever.

(A couple of years ago, Whitson discussed at some length his Yankee tenure, with ESPN New York's Ian O'Connor).

Just before spring training in 1994, the Yankees traded three young players to the Phillies for left-hander Terry Mulholland. In his last four seasons, Mulholland had gone 50-43 with a 3.52 ERA and a 2.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

In his first season with the Yankees, Mulholland went 6-7 with a 6.49 ERA.

That was his only season with the Yankees. The next year he went back to the National League and pitched just as poorly; it wasn't until 1996 that Mulholland began to get his career back together.

I don't think you can blame that on pitching for the Yankees, though. Mulholland really was never the same pitcher that he'd been, even though he hung around forever afterward. Like a lot of pitchers, Mulholland probably just couldn't handle the usual wear-and-tear on a pitcher in his 20s.

Next on our list: Carl Pavano.

After going 18-8 with the Marlins in 2004, Pavano signed a big free-agent deal with the Yankees. In four years, Pavano managed to start 26 games and posted a 5.00 ERA.

The fans were not pleased, and there were whispers about Pavano's lack of toughness. The truth, most likely, is that he simply wasn't healthy during those four years. Magically or not, once his contract expired he got healthy again, and won 40 games over the next three years.

Next was Javier Vazquez. Never a big winner but always a good pitcher, Vazquez finished 2009 with a 4.19 career ERA and a 3.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He wasn't old, and he was coming off his best season.

As a Yankee, Vazquez's fastball speeds dropped off the cliff; worse, his ERA was 5.00, his strikeout-to-walk ratio easily the worst of his career.

After one year in pinstripes, Vazquez signed with the Marlins, his fastball soon got healthy and he finished 2011 with numbers right in line with his pre-Yankees career.

And now, Burnett. Who teamed with Vazquez in 2010. You think those guys ever cried on each others' big shoulders?

How has Burnett bounced back this season?

He's throwing exactly as hard as last year. His strikeout rate is actually down, which you wouldn't expect considering he's now facing pitchers two or three times in most games. Or for that matter, the Red Sox and the Blue Jays a few times every season.

But the home runs are way down.

More fundamentally, he's just a different pitcher. In his three seasons with the Yankees, Burnett threw 58 wild pitches; twice, he led the league in that category. This season, he's not going to throw 10 wild pitches.

It's cheap and it's easy and maybe it's not fair. But A.J. Burnett just might be one of those pitchers who just shouldn't pitch for the Yankees, whether because he gives up too many fly balls to left-hitters, or because of something that only he and his sports psychologist can know.

Update: The first version of this article had salary numbers reversed, with the Pirates paying the majority of Burnett's salaries in 2012 and '13, rather than the Yankees.

Also, Kenny Rogers belongs on the list of pitchers who thrived before and after pitching for the Yankees. When Rogers joined the Yankees, he had a career 3.88 ERA, 1.84 strikeout-to-walk ratio. During his two seasons as a Yankee, Rogers' numbers were 5.11 and 1.2 K/BB. In the three seasons after leaving the Yankees, his ERA dropped to 3.95, K/BB back up to 1.83.

Rogers might be the best example of all, and I'm not sure how I missed him.

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