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August 22, 2011
Highly paid A.J. Burnett has been annoyingly average—but he still deserves a spot in the Yankees' surprisingly effective rotation
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August 22, 2011

Not Good, Just Grate

Highly paid A.J. Burnett has been annoyingly average—but he still deserves a spot in the Yankees' surprisingly effective rotation

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The Yankees were the most recent team to dabble in the evil that is the six-man rotation, recalling 24-year-old righthander Ivan Nova at the end of July to pitch one end of a makeup doubleheader, then keeping him around without demoting anyone. After three turns through the group—a modified six-man, really, with ace CC Sabathia staying on normal rest and everyone working around him—manager Joe Girardi now wants to get back to a five-man rotation. That seems to pit Nova, Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett against one another for two spots. Reclamation projects Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia have been the team's best starters aside from Sabathia, and neither they nor career starter Burnett, 34, has the relief experience that Nova and Hughes, 25, do.

Fan sentiment in New York runs strongly in favor of the younger pitchers staying in the rotation, a measure of how poorly Burnett is perceived. Signed to a five-year, $82.5 million contract before the 2009 season, Burnett has been durable, having yet to miss a start for New York. The results, however, have been less dependable (a 4.61 ERA in 542 1/3 innings through Sunday). He's been, on the whole, an average starting pitcher. But his salary, raw talent and flashes of excellence have led him to be judged against an abstract notion of what he should be, a point forcefully—and correctly—made by Yankees G.M. Brian Cashman last week. Burnett measures well against Nova when you more carefully examine his numbers. The veteran has the higher 2011 ERA (4.60 to 3.85), but the gap closes when you look at advanced statistics. Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP, which evaluates a pitcher using walks, strikeouts, hit batsmen and home runs allowed) scores it 4.26 to 4.67 in favor of Nova. Go one level deeper, to xFIP—which assumes a pitcher will have a league-average home run per fly ball rate—and Burnett is the team's third best starter behind Sabathia and Colon. "Frustrating" isn't an evaluation, it's an emotion, and it's driving too much of the discussion.

There's an argument to be made that Burnett isn't one of the Yankees' five best starters, but you have to work very hard to make it, essentially evaluating Nova, Garcia and Colon based just on 2011 while giving Hughes a pass for his injury-plagued season. Hughes's work since coming off the DL in July has been acceptable, with a 4.28 ERA; he's struck out just 15% of batters. Burnett has a better strikeout rate (20%), the primary evidence that he's still the better starter.

The fact is, staying with a six-man rotation presents a roster conundrum for a bit more than three weeks. Once rosters expand in September, Girardi can carry all the starters he wants. What this decision will herald is a Yankees postseason rotation that is led by Sabathia and Colon but will be a mystery thereafter. Burnett may be as popular in New York as congestion pricing, but he's pitched better than he's been given credit for and should stay in the team's rotation.