Laying an Egg

You never know what you’re going to get when it comes to A.J. Burnett, a sterling performance like he gave the Yankees in Game Two of the World Series, or an implosion like he gave them in last night’s Game Five. Through his first four postseason starts this fall, he’d allowed just eight runs, four of them within his first 12 pitches in an ugly first-inning meltdown in Game Five of the ALCS. Last night’s performance echoed that rough start. From today’s piece at Baseball Prospectus:

The Yankees begain the game in a hole because Burnett laid an egg, surrendering six runs in two-plus innings. Pitching on three days’ rest, he was unable to match the brilliance of his seven-inning, one-run Game Two start, not because of fatigue — his average fastball and curveball velocities were higher according to Brooks Baseball — but because he was unable to fool the Phillies with his curveball, in part because home plate ump Dana DeMuth’s strike zone wasn’t as wide as that of Jeff Nelson. Breaking down the breaking balls thrown in the two starts:
Game  Tot  Ball  SS  SL   F   I
Two 45 20 8 7 7 3
Five 16 10 3 0 2 1

For the unfamiliar, SS is strikes swinging, SL is strikes looking, F is foul balls, I is in play. Whereas Burnett generated not-in-play strikes on 22 out of 45 curves in Game Two (49 percent), he did so on just five out of 16 (31 percent) in Game Five, none of them called strikes. Five of his nine strikeouts in Game Two ended on a curveball, three swinging and two looking, as compared to one of his two walks. He got just one strikeout via curveball (swinging) last night, and two of his four walks.

The result was a nasty, brutish and short start that left the Yankees in a 5-1 hole by the time he departed. [Chase] Utley’s homer, which followed a Jimmy Rollins single and a Shane Victorino hit by pitch on a bunt attempt, came on just his eighth pitch of the night. After escaping the second inning unscathed, he walked Utley and Ryan Howard — never, ever a good idea — to start the third, then yielded RBI singles to Jayson Werth and Raul Ibañez. That was enough for Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who called upon David Robertson. He retired both Pedro Feliz and Carlos Ruiz, but the latter’s grounder scored Werth to give the Phillies a formidable five-run lead.

Utley has been unreal in this series, tying Reggie Jackson’s 1977 World Series record of five home runs. Until his first-inning blast, however, all of them — indeed, all seven of the Phillies’ homers in the series — had been solo shots. Colleague John Perrotto had a nice piece on Utley at BP today.

The Yankees had their chances against Cliff Lee, chipping away at the 6-1 lead until it became 8-5. They even brought the tying run to the plate twice in the ninth inning, only to have Derek Jeter ground into a double play and Mark Teixeira strike out. The series now comes back to New York, with Pedro Martinez slated to take on Andy Pettitte, the latter on three days’ rest. Of course, the Yanks’ decision to use a three-man rotation is under scrutiny:

Burnett’s short-rest implosion raises the inevitable question regarding the Yankees’ three-man rotation plan for the series. [CC] Sabathia wasn’t terribly sharp on three days’ rest in Game Four, throwing fewer pitches than in any of his other postseason outings, and yielding more than two runs for the first time. He’ll go on three days’ rest again in Game Seven if the series goes that far. While the Yankees haven’t officially announced that Andy Pettitte will do the same in Game Six, they have little alternative. Potential fourth starter Chad Gaudin, whom some suggested should start Game Five to keep Burnett on regular rest, simply isn’t cut out to face the Phillies’ lefty-heavy lineup:
         ——————————vs LHB———————————     ———————————vs RHB——————————
2009 .296/.408/.415 14.4 0.98 .224/.293/.380 27.2 3.29
Career .293/.389/.433 11.1 0.84 .249/.318/.409 23.4 2.80

That’s a ticket to a beatdown right there, given that Gaudin can’t even strike out as many lefties as he walks. In last night’s roundtable, other readers suggested the Yankees do a so-called bullpen game for Game Five; again, a bad idea given that it’s inadvisable to punt a World Series game by expecting the lion’s share of the innings to come from the bottom half of the team’s pitching staff. Prior to last night, none of the Yankees’ non-closers — Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Alfredo Aceves, Robertson et al — had given the Yankees more than three outs without allowing a run since Game Three of the ALCS; thus far this postseason only Hughes and Robertson had done so even once. That the Yankees got three such efforts last night from Robertson, Aceves and Hughes doesn’t mean they could have done so out of the gate, as those were low-leverage innings with at least a three-run deficit each time.

No, the Yankees are without realistic alternatives to the three-man plan because of earlier failures on the part of Girardi, pitching coach Dave Eiland, and general manager Brian Cashman. They handled Chamberlain so poorly that they got a 7.69 ERA from him over his final 11 starts. They dickered with Sergio Mitre, who gave them nine starts with a 7.16 ERA. Cashman could have dealt for Jon Garland during the post-deadline waiver period just as he did Gaudin (Jose Contreras, Scott Kazmir and Carl Pavano, the other starters of note to change teams during August, weren’t fits for a variety of reasons, most of them obvious). He could have dealt for a more reliable fourth starter at the July 31 deadline. He didn’t, and because of that, the Yankees reached this stage with just three reliable starters. The record of such starters isn’t exactly promising, as I pointed out in my preview: coming into the year, short-rested starters in the wild card era had made 86 postseason starts, averaging just 5.4 innings per start, with a 4.59 ERA, a 21-34 record for the starters, and a 31-55 record (.360 winning percentage) for their teams. Still, given the experience of the Yankees’ big three on pitching on short rest (30 starts, an average of over six innings per, and a collective ERA under 4.00), it was hardly the worst plan in the world. Putting as many innings as possible in the hands of your top pitchers is what wins championships, and the Yankees are still win away from doing so.

According to Clay Davenport’s Monte Carlo simulations at the BP Postseason Odds report, the Yankees still have an 83 percent chance of winning the series based upon the home field advantage and the actual starting pitchers involved. That may be overstating things, since the program can’t see who’s on three days’ rest, but the odds are still in New York’s favor.


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