July 21, 2011
The BP Broadside
David Cone, All Is Forgiven
Watching A.J. Burnett frustrates the heck out of me. Now, keep in mind, I’m a very spoiled guy. For more than 10 years I’ve been paid to watch and write about the Yankees over at the Pinstriped Bible, and the Yankees have put out a consistently entertaining product in that time. Had I been hired to write the Kansas City Royals Bible, I might have jumped off a bridge by now, having lost the will to live after watched 1,198 losses in 2,040 games. I really have no right to complain about any single pitcher.
Yet, A.J. drives me nuts. Part of the aggravation derives from Burnett being a pitcher with great stuff but inconsistent results. On any given day, he may emerge from the bullpen with no-hitter stuff. More often, he emerges with very limited command of that stuff, and you know you’re doomed to watch a pitcher fight himself for six innings. In 2009, the first year of his Yankees tenure, he was actually effective more often than not, turning in 21 quality starts in 33 attempts, though he also had only a good-not-great ERA of 4.04 because of some spectacular meltdowns, particularly in key games against the Red Sox, who hit .291/.417/.608 against him, leading to an 8.85 ERA.
Last year, the wheels came off completely, but even then he would tease with better games. In June he had an ERA of 11.35, in July it was 2.00, in August it was 7.80. He wasn’t pitching hurt, he was just pitching A.J. And therein lies the other source of the frustration: The Yankees vastly overpaid to get Burnett and now they have to live with him. Compensated generously at $16.5 million per year through 2013, you might be able to trade him straight up for a lemon contract like Alfonso Soriano’s, but that’s about it. As a result of this, a young pitcher like Ivan Nova, no future $16.5 million man but a more effective hurler than Burnett can be at this time in his career, was banished to Triple-A.
This year, Burnett’s ERA+ is 98, which doesn’t seem too bad until you realize that he has made only eight quality starts in 20 tries, that his ERA has risen each month of the season, that he’s leading the league in wild pitches (despite the removal of Jorge Posada, who was supposed to be causing Burnett distraction with his inability to block the curveball in the dirt) and that with the exception of an April start against the White Sox and a June turn against the Indians, he hasn’t had any truly ace-like starts. More typical was his Monday start against the Rays (five innings, eight hits, four runs, six walks, four strikeouts), which was similar to his start against the Rockies, another one against the Red Sox, and so on. The Yankees are 10-10 in his starts, 47-28 (.627) the rest of the time. The Yankees were 11-6 in Nova’s starts.
Because the Yankees are a better team when Burnett isn’t pitching, they are still very likely to make the playoffs; our playoff odds report rated their chances at 94.1 percent through Wednesday. They could win a championship with that guy on the roster or even in the rotation. That got me started thinking: Who was the worst pitcher ever to have a regular role on a championship team?
Ask this question the wrong way and you get answers that are right in fact but wrong in spirit. By this I mean that the plain vanilla answer would give you a number of good pitchers having bad years, including David Cone, Jack Morris, and Dennis Martinez. The 2000 Yankees are one of the weakest of the club’s many World Series winners, and Cone was one of the reasons why, his command and stamina deserting him at 37 and leaving the former gunslinger with a 4-14 record and a 6.91 ERA. But Cone was hardly a Burnett; this was a pitcher who won a Cy Young award, had top-ten finishes in four other votes, and made five All-Star teams. This as opposed to Burnett, who has never been involved with either.
Burnett’s 4.19 ERA is 0.32 below league average. In the entire history of championship teams, there have been only 26 pitchers to throw 150 or more innings with an ERA that high. If you expand the cutoff to pennant winners, the population doubles plus a little more. It’s a lesson in how hard it is to win the big series while carrying a weak pitcher. When you consider all the pitching staffs of all the pennant winners, each with multiple hurlers of 150 or more innings, 60 is not a very large number.
The two worst ERAs on a championship team belong to Cone and Morris, whose 6.19 ERA in 1993 didn’t prevent the Blue Jays from getting to, and winning, the World Series, albeit without his picking up the ball. If you eliminate those two, the worst pitcher ever to receive a ring for work his teammates did was left-hander Randy Lerch of the 1980 Phillies. Lerch, career WARP 9.6, matched Cone’s 4-14 record while compiling a 5.16 ERA in a league in which the average hurler had an ERA of 3.61. Catnip for right-handed power hitters, Lerch had career rates of .385/.407/.962 against Gary Carter, .324/.405/.811 against Ron Cey, and .394/.412/.697 against Reds manager Dusty Baker, just to name a few of his most frequent nemeses. Actually, it wasn’t just right-handers; the left-handed Keith Hernandez hit .340/.419/.623 against him. When it came to the two-round postseason, manager Dallas Green opted to pass him by.
The list of mere pennant winners inserts one pitcher between Cone, Morris, and Lerch, Cubs righty Tex Carleton-1938 vintage. Carleton wasn’t a Cone or Morris, but he wasn’t a Lerch either, posting some very solid seasons in a short career, including 1937, in which by WARP he was the sixth-best pitcher in the National League. In 1938, however, he was the worst pitcher in all of baseball, not only recording a 5.41 ERA in a 3.78 league but also leading the circuit in hit batsmen and wild pitches. After a year in the minors, he came back up to have a good year for the 1940 Dodgers, pitching a no-hitter against the Reds.
After Carleton and Lerch, the list runs through Jason Marquis 2003; Jeff Weaver, also 2003 (unlike Cito Gaston with Morris and Green with Lerch, Joe Torre was dumb enough to use the guy, and it cost him the championship); Dennis Martinez 1983; the deservedly obscure Byron Houck of the 1913 A’s, who pitched well in the Pacific Coast League and drifted into film work; Kyle Kendrick 2008; and rounds out the top 10 with Al Nipper of the 1986 Red Sox. Houck’s 4.15 ERA in a 2.92 league was something special, but he was just passing through. No pitcher was as bad as Lerch both in a career sense and in the championship season.
Burnett isn’t quite in this group yet; he has his work cut out for him if he wants his career to be memorable for just its dollar-to-results imbalance. Will he get there? No, probably not. He’s too inconsistent even to be consistently bad for long enough to make his mark on history. Instead, he’ll weave his mediocre way through the rest of this season, and then the next, and also the one after. No, my life isn’t so bad; it’s not watching the Orioles or the Astros each day, but once in every five the ol’ blood pressure gets raised a few points. As long as I lay off the anchovies I’ll be alright.
I can’t say the same for the Yankees, not if they keep suppressing young talent because they sunk so much money into a feckless pitcher. Derek Jeter bats leadoff not because he’s a better candidate to do so than Brett Gardner, but because he used to be Joe DiMaggio; Burnett stays in the rotation over Nova (or about five other minor-league starters) because he’s owed a lot of money. How many times can you overrule talent until you finally lose a ring? We may find out, but… These are Kansas City Bible thoughts. Shhh. Shhhh. CC Sabathia starts today. Peaceful thoughts. Pass the anchovies.
Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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