Evaluating AJ Burnett and the Yankees in Game 5

AJ Burnett had the chance to be the hero last night and failed in grand fashion; that’s the obvious story of the game.  But what really went wrong for AJ?

The biggest issue Burnett faced was the he couldn’t command the left side of the plate – the inside pitch for lefties, outside for righties – because his fastball had late tail on it that brought it back over the middle.  The most glaring example of this lack of command was Utley’s first inning homerun.  That pitch should have been inside but ended up right down the middle.

Burnett was able to command the other side of the plate though with both his fastball and curveball.  It was this curveball, thrown outside (or “backdoor”) to lefties, that was his bread and butter in Game 2.  He still had that pitch working last night with one important difference: the umpire wasn’t calling it a strike.  He threw three of these pitches to Howard in the 1st inning that resulted in a walk.  If you look at the pitchFX data for that at-bat, you’ll see that two of them were just off the outside corner while one of them was clearly a strike.  In theory this is only one missed strike call, but the problem is, the umpires had been giving that corner all series and in fact continued to give it later in the game.  If you look at pitchFX for Teixeira’s at-bat in the 9th, you’ll see he had strike 1 called on a pitch well off the plate.  That strike call would seem to be in-line with the norm for the series, but shows that AJ was indeed getting squeezed.  With no command of the other side of the plate, Burnett was left without any real weapons to attack the Phillies’ hitters with.

The umpires have taken a lot of criticism this postseason for calls that have obvious consequences on the field: Mauer’s “foul ball” should have placed him on second, Howard’s catch that was really a trap should have loaded the bases with 1 out, etc.  However, balls and strikes are really the most important calls any umpire makes during a game.  It’s impossible to know how Burnett would have done had the umpire maintained a large strikezone throughout the game.  Maybe he still would have failed and maybe Teixeira still strikes out even if he gets ball 1 on the first pitch.  But it’s naive to think that these calls don’t have a gigantic impact upon the game.

Of lesser importance, but still worth mentioning, is the HBP of Victorino in the 1st inning which became a run.  If you look at the location of that pitch, you’ll see it wasn’t all that far off the plate.  In fact it was closer to the zone than some pitches that were called strikes.  Yet Victorino was allowed to take first despite only being hit because he squared into the ball.  Yes, I’m sure it hit (and hurt) his hand, as Buck and McCarver mentioned incessantly, but the ball could just as easily hit the bat because he had the bat in the strike zone.  That is a foul ball.  If it isn’t, shouldn’t Brett Gardner always square to bunt and try to have it hit him?

Of course, all this aside, the Yankees still blew their share of opportunities.  Phil Coke just flat-out served up a pair of homeruns to the exact lefties he is on the team to get out.  I can’t imagine he pitches again in this series unless the game is in hand.  Coke’s fastball is straight and he doesn’t throw his breaking pitch for strikes.  If you’re Chase Utley, what pitch would you be waiting for?

The Yankees looked like they’d have a 9th inning rally in them, but Jeter did the only thing he absolutely couldn’t do and grounded into a double play, which gave all the momentum back to Philly.  You could see the atmosphere in the stadium changing before that, as fans started to expect a bullpen meltdown.  Teixeira, despite the dubious strike call, looked pretty terrible at the plate – how did he not know Madson would go changeup there? – and hasn’t looked quite right all playoffs.  With Damon and A-Rod both heating up, Teixeira could be the key to the Yankees putting up a big inning in Game 6.

At the end of the day, the Yankees have to be pleased to be heading home up 3-2 and encouraged by their offense getting to Cliff Lee and Phil Hughes having a good outing.  Still, it’s always frustrating to lose a game where you score 5 runs off the other team’s ace.  All that will be forgotten pretty quickly though if the Yanks get it done at home in Game 6.

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