Ever since Friday’s ALDS opener was suspended by rain, the specter of A.J. Burnett has hung over the Yankees like the Sword of Damocles. Now, with their backs to the wall, the team’s worst fears have been realized. Not only is Burnett making a postseason start that seemed improbable just a few weeks ago, but if he doesn’t pitch well, there’s a good chance the Yankees season will be over.
The Yankees have played 367 postseason games covering 71 series and 50 seasons. To say that the franchise’s October history is extensive would be an understatement. However, in all those games, only two have featured a starting pitcher for the Yankees with a higher regular season ERA (minimum of 100 innings) than the 5.15 rate Burnett will carry to the mound in tonight’s ALDS game 4. The last time the Yankees entrusted such an unlikely candidate with a playoff start was the fourth game of last year’s ALCS. Who was the pitcher? None other than A.J. Burnett.
Although it wasn’t an elimination game, the Yankees entered game 4 of the 2010 ALCS also needing Burnett to draw them even, but it proved to be too much to ask. Burnett, who posted a 5.26 ERA during the season, surrendered five runs over six innings in a 10-3 loss that pushed the Yankees to the brink of elimination. This time around there is no margin for error. If Burnett turns in a similar performance tonight, the sword will fall.
Misery loves company, so joining Burnett in the exclusive club of ineffective starters given a playoff start for the Yankees is Irving Darius Hadley, better known as Bump. A journeyman right hander, Hadley joined the Yankees in 1936, and emerged as the team’s fifth starter. After going 14-4 with an ERA+ of 108, Hadley capped off his season with a 2-1 victory in the third game of the World Series.
The following year, Hadley was given a more prominent position in the rotation, but he struggled for most of the season. Despite having a respectable 11-8 record, the right hander posted an inflated ERA of 5.30 (85 ERA+), which made him a curious choice to face Carl Hubbell in game 4 of that year’s World Series. It was a short-lived experiment because Hadley didn’t make it out of the second inning. In total, the right hander surrendered five runs in 1 1/3 innings as the Yankees suffered the only blemish in their 1937 World Series victory over the Giants.
Yankees’ Postseason Starters with a Regular Season ERA or ERA+ Worse than AJ Burnett’s 2011
|Bump Hadley||1937||178.1||85||5.30||WS||4||L 7-3|
|Bob Turley||1956||132||77||5.05||WS||6||L 1-0|
|Catfish Hunter||1977||143.1||84||4.71||WS||2||L 6-1|
|A.J. Burnett||2010||186.2||81||5.26||ALCS||4||L 10-3|
Note: Based on a minimum of 100 innings pitched.
If ERA+ is used as the barometer, Burnett and Hadley don’t stand quite so alone. In fact, they are joined by good company. Bob Turley and Catfish Hunter each started a postseason game for the Yankees despite having regular season ERA+ rates of 77 and 84, respectively.
Turley, who wrapped four strong seasons around a lackluster 1956 campaign, was still given a World Series start despite posting an abysmal ERA of 5.05. Although he lost his game 6 start, Turley rewarded manager Casey Stengel’s confidence by surrendering only four hits over 9 2/3 innings in a 1-0 loss.
When Catfish Hunter joined the Yankees in 1975, the future Hall of Famer was in the midst of a winning 20 games in five consecutive seasons. However, by 1977, the veteran was showing signs of a decline. That year, Hunter went 9-9 with a 4.71 ERA, but he was still entrusted with a World Series start. Billy Martin couldn’t have been pleased with that decision because the former Cy Young surrendered five runs in 2 1/3 innings. Luckily for Martin, Hunter’s poor start was a distant memory by game 6, when Reggie Jackson polished off the Dodgers with three homeruns in the clincher.
As the Yankees stare down elimination in Detroit, Joe Girardi will have no choice but to hope A.J. Burnett can do what Hadley, Turley, Hunter couldn’t.Despite all the trials and tribulations during the regular season, Burnett can still salvage his year by coming up big tonight. If the sword drops, however, it would not only end the Yankees’ season, but possibly Burnett’s Yankee career. Stranger things have happened, but if Burnett is going to pitch well tonight, he’d be well advised to not look up.