The MLB season is a marathon, but it tends to end with more of a sprint. Realistically, 162 games are probably enough for us to figure out who the best team is, but simply awarding a championship to the team with the best record lacks drama. So instead a team’s entire season, no matter their regular season success, can go down the drain in a 5-game series and a mere 11 wins are required to win the World Series. This arrangement doesn’t always reward the best team (see St. Louis Cardinals, 2006).
So the challenge becomes trying to win enough games while still preparing your team for that final sprint. This is an amazingly tough thing to do, especially when you consider the ways that seasons can change.
Early on this season, the Yankees had a bullpen that was pretty terrible and an offense that wasn’t getting contributions from key guys. Yet, they stayed in first place because their starting pitching was nothing short of brilliant. CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes, and yes, even AJ Burnett were all dominant. Javier Vazquez had a rough start, but once AJ started to fall apart, Vazquez put together a few really solid weeks.
Fast forward to now. Phil Hughes has been a little inconsistent, as he heads into uncharted territory for him in terms of innings pitched. Pettitte missed the majority of the 2nd half with a groin injury. Vazquez reverted back to beginning of the season form. And as we all know, AJ Burnett seems to have completely fallen apart, mixing in a few okay starts with a bunch of abyssmal ones.
Yet the Yankees have, for the most part, kept winning. Their bullpen has become perhaps the best in the league and many of their offensive players who were struggling have bounced back. This is now a much different team than it was in April, even if most of the players are the same.
What we’ve seen here really is a regression to the mean. Mark Teixeira is too good of a player to not recover from his early season slump. The same goes for David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain (and even Kerry Wood, which is why that was such a great trade). Players like Hughes and Brett Gardner, while still enjoying good seasons, certainly did not keep up the ridiculous early season pace they were on.
Naturally, this brings me back to AJ Burnett, who really is the topic of this post. After 6 starts, he was 4-0 with an ERA below 2. That didn’t hold up – as expected. The last few months though, he has been about as bad as he could possibly be. Now he’s due for a regression the other direction.
We may not see it this season, which is why if there was the option, it would be great if the Yankees could just go with the hot hand in the postseason. However, when it comes to finding a 4th starter, there is no hot hand. So if you’re the Yankees, you probably have to roll the dice on Burnett, the guy who has a track record.
The Yankees gave Burnett close to $90 million because they thought he had the stuff to be a dominant starter. Now they have to hope that, like Teixeira earlier in the year, Burnett is simply too good to continue to be this bad. (And just in case, it might not be a bad idea to have Vazquez or Ivan Nova ready and waiting.)