Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Game 153: Growin' Up

It's getaway day at the Big A, and I can't imagine the Yankees are too sad to leave it behind for the time being. With a playoff berth clinched and a win in Anaheim finally to their credit, Joe Girardi is giving some of the regulars an extra day off heading into tomorrow's off day. Jerry Hairson Jr subs for Alex Rodriguez at third. Jose Molina catches his second game of the series and will try to control the Angels' running game. Johnny Damon gets a day off, with Melky Cabrera in LF and Brett Gardner in CF. And with a lefty on the mound, Shelley Duncan gets his first start of the year as Nick Swisher grabs some pine. Wisely, Hideki Matsui, who has been destroying left handed pitching this year, remains in the weakened line up as the DH.

Old friend Scott Kazmir takes the hill for the Halos today. He's 2-0 in two starts against the Yanks this year, with a 2.63 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, and a 10:1 K:BB in 13.2 innings of work. Those two outings aside, Kazmir was having a downright bad season for the Rays. He has battled injuries throughout his career, including missing a month this season, prompting some to question the wisdom of the Angels making a deal for him on August 29th.

It's been a great deal so far. Though he's just 1-1 in four starts since the trade, each outing has been a quality start. He's pitched to a 1.42 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, and held opponents to a .540 OPS. The sample size is small, and he's benefited from a very pitcher friendly .247 BABIP, but for the time being at least, it would seem that the 25 year old Kazmir is back on track.

Looking to stay back on track for the Yankees is A.J. Burnett. Since the start of August, he's had some very bad starts. However, last Friday in Seattle, Burnett allowed just one run in seven innings of work, sparking hope that he's corrected whatever issues were causing his recent poor performances.

Prior to his start last Friday, Burnett had this to say: “I’m throwing the ball where I want to for the most part. You eliminate a couple of mistakes and everything’s great.” At the time, it was a bit of a tough statement to hear. Chris H at The Yankee Universe took him to task over it, and I included it in a link around here with a snide comment of my own attached to it. One start certainly doesn't prove Burnett prophetic, but if he is in fact back on top of his game, it wouldn't be the first time he's proven somewhat clairvoyant.

The low point of Burnett's season came in Boston on June 9th, when he lasted just 2.2 innings, allowing 10 baserunners and 5 runs (3 ER). After the game, Burnett copped to his struggles to that point in the season, saying his season to date was:

“Terrible. Glimpses of greatness but I’m not very consistent right now. I’m not a negative guy, so I’m not going to beat myself up over it. But when I do get on that run, it’s going to be impressive. I promise you that.”
It was a boastful, bold, and potentially risky statement at that point, but he backed it up, going on a tear that saw him go 7-1 with a 1.68 ERA and 1.17 WHIP over his next eight starts. Hopefully his statements last week and his start last Friday are indicative of another stretch of him putting his money where his mouth is.

Early in his career, Burnett had a reputation as a bit of a malcontent, culminating with the Florida Marlins excusing him from the team in late September 2005, following remarks he made that were critical of the organization. 28 years old at the time, it ended Burnett's Marlins career and prompted him to issue a fairly mature apology. That off-season, he signed with Toronto, where he had three good seasons. But more importantly, Burnett became a teammate of Roy Halladay, who Burnett credits with helping him mature as a pitcher and a professional.

By all accounts, Burnett has been an outstanding teammate and a positive influence in the clubhouse. Aside from his role as resident pastry chef for the littany of Yankee walk-offs this year, he's credited with being a big part of the team building that's happened over the course of the season, dating back to spring training. Burnett's chief protege has been Joba Chamberlain, who is seemingly always at the side of Burnett and/or CC Sabathia in the dugout. While the trio is likely talking pitching most of the time, young Joba should take some notes on poise and public relations from the two consumate professionals.

Chamberlain has spent much of the season making comments not all together different than what we heard from Burnett in June and again last week. While there may be some sort of double standard at play, there are two key differences here. First, Burnett has a track record that Joba has yet to develop. Second, and more importantly, Burnett backed up his comments with an extended stretch of dominance. Chamberlain had a three start stretch in late July where he was excellent and has been decidedly and frustratingly inconsistent otherwise. Yet start after start we get the same canned comments alternated with excuses: he had too much rest, there was a hitch in his delivery, etc.

I've not given up on Joba Chamberlain. 23 year old pitchers struggle. On top of that, he's being put through a very public experiment right before our eyes as it relates to his innings limit. It's been a unique and difficult situation to handle. The extra rest and truncated starts probably haven't helped him at all. The hasty transition to the rotation last year may or may not have contributed to the shoulder injury that may or may not still be impacting Joba this year. Some of Joba's off the field issues may or may not be creeping between the lines with him. His meteoric rise to the Majors and instant celebrity may have stunted his development as both a pitcher and a professional.

But the bottom line, as Brian Cashman laid out yesterday, is that Joba has to produce. And when he continues to fail to produce while trotting out the same wooden answers time and again, it becomes very frustrating to listen to as a fan.

Anyway, this preview has gone well off the rails. I'll finish by saying this. I can accept the inconsistencies better if there were more accountability. At some point in his career A.J. Burnett decided to grow up. Joba Chamberlain now has more than two years of Major League service time on his resume. He turns 24 today. He'd be wise to take the advice of fellow birthday boy Bruce Springsteen and to follow the example of fellow pitcher A.J. Burnett, and get to growing up soon.

I stood stone-like at midnight suspended in my masquerade,
I combed my hair till it was just right and commanded the night brigade,
I was open to pain and crossed by the rain and I walked on a crooked crutch,
I strolled all alone through a fallout zone and came out with my soul untouched,
I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd but when they said "Sit down" I stood up.
Ooh-ooh growin' up.

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