Keeping Score

Rejoice, Yankee Haters: A.J. Burnett Could Pitch the Team Out of the Playoffs

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Nick Laham / Getty Images

A.J. Burnett, #34 of the New York Yankees, pitches against the Boston Red Sox on September 25, 2011 at Yankee Stadium

If you’re a baseball fan who enjoys nothing more than the New York Yankees falling on their faces in October, tonight has the potential to be special.

On Monday the Detroit Tigers, behind impeccable ace Justin Verlander, topped the Yankees 5-4 in Game 3 of their American League Division Series. The win gave Detroit a 2-1 advantage in the best-of-five series. Of course the Yankees, and their $197 million payroll, have the talent to mount a comeback. But they face a serious obstacle. Facing elimination, New York is throwing A.J. Burnett in tonight’s Game 4.

Before the 2009 season, the Yankees signed Burnett, a skilled though inconsistent starting pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays, to a five-year, $87.5 million deal. In his first season in the Bronx, Burnett was mostly a blessing. He pitched well enough in both the regular season (Burnett had a 13-9 record, with a 4.04 ERA) and in the postseason; his strong Game 2 start against the Philadelphia Phillies evened up the World Series, which the Yankees eventually won. Maybe most importantly, he helped loosen up the Yankees clubhouse that year. After last-inning New York wins, he started a new tradition: let’s throw a pie in the face of the hero! Yankees fans ate it up. Haters hailed it as cheesy, childish, and just plain annoying.

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Now, the pies are being tossed at Yankees management for signing this guy. He’s been awful the past two seasons. This year, Burnett finished with an 11-11 record, and a 5.15 ERA, second-worst in Yankees history for pitchers who made at least 30 starts. The Yankee pitcher who made at least 30 starts with the worst single-season ERA? Burnett, in 2010, at 5.26.

Among the 107 pitchers who threw 150 or more innings this season, Burnett ranks 101st in ERA, according to Fangraphs.com, a baseball statistics site. In 2011, Burnett walked 3.92 batters per nine innings. That’s the 8th worst rate among those 107 pitchers. Want to measure Burnett’s performance by one of those fancy-pants sabermetrics stats espoused by Moneyball? According to metric called Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), which strips out statistics like hits allowed and E.R.A., which often depend on whether a pitcher’s fielders can catch a batted ball, Burnett is the seventh worst starting pitcher in baseball. Among the 86 starting pitchers who have thrown 300 or more innings, combined, over the past two season, Burnett ranks 84th in FIP.

So you can’t blame Yankees fans for going beserk right now (if you know any Yankees fans, NewsFeed suggests you casually ask, “How you fellin’ about A.J. tonight?” Enjoy the reaction). To make matters worse — or better, if you love rooting against the Yankees — Burnett has opened himself to even more mockery. During his session with the press yesterday, Burnett referred to himself in the third person.” I’ve had good games and bad games, but you can’t count me out,” he said. “I’m going to bring everything I’ve got and just let A.J. loose out there.”

Cue the laughter. And only a rare strong start for Burnett, or a Yankees offensive explosion against Detroit starter Rick Porcello (luckily for New York, no Bob Gibson) will stop it.

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Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @seanmgregory. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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