Yankees Need A.J. Burnett To Get His Head Straight

Great journalism from SI.com's Jon Heyman in the wake of A.J. Burnett's first outing of spring training for the New York Yankees on Wednesday.

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Great work there, Jon! Objective, insightful, choc-full of things we didn't know about the Yankee right-hander. A very helpful observation.

Thing is, Yankee fans already knew that about Burnett. They have, after all, watched the talented, but inconsistent Burnett for the past two seasons. Especially after watching the 34-year-old implode most of last season, going 10-15 with a whopping 5.26 ERA.

Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports pointed out that Burnett's career numbers are almost identical to those of Boston Red Sox ace Josh Beckett. Of course, no one questions how good Beckett is. With Burnett, the questions come because of the wild inconsistency that has marked his 12-year career.

"I’d stop short of saying he has self-doubt, but he doesn’t realize how good he is sometimes," said former Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland, who is now a special assistant with the Rays. "He knows the potential is there. He’s kind of just waiting for it to happen rather than just trusting it and making it happen."

"Eventually, whether it’s A.J. or anyone else, you can give them all the information and positive feedback, but they have to believe in themselves, throw every pitch with conviction. A.J. sometimes does not do that. It’s as if he’s saying, ‘Gosh, I’m not sure it’s going to work.’"

Burnett has great stuff. At 34, he still has a fastball that can top out in the upper 90s to go along with a devastating curveball. Thing is, even after those 12 seasons he is still what coaches call a "thrower." He doesn't pitch to spots. He doesn't change speeds. He doesn't cut the ball or sink it. He just throws his two pitches, and when he doesn't believe they are good enough the results are obvious. And awful.

Burnett is like a kid with Attention Deficit Disorder. One minute focused, on task and mowing down major-league hitters. The next, his focus broken, his pitches being tossed all over the lot and being hammered by those same hitters.

In his Spring Training debut Wednesday Burnett pitched two scoreless innings against the Houston Astros. New pitching coach Larry Rothschild has apparently tried to streamline Burnett's wild, leg-swinging delivery. Heyman said he didn't want to hear about the delivery change. In a way, I get that. Burnett's effectiveness in 2011 won't be about a change in his delivery.

If, however, Burnett winds up believing the change in his delivery helps him put the ball where he wants to then that helps those "above the neck" issues Heyman referenced.

The Yankees need Burnett, in the third year of his $82.5 million contract, to be the front-of-the-rotation guy they thought they signed. Not the unreliable guy they passed over for a playoff start in 2010.

Whatever it takes, Yankee fans just need to hope Burnett gets his head screwed on straight this season and pitches a lot more like the guy who went 18-10 for Toronto back in 2008, and a lot less like the wreck who pitches for the Yankees a season ago.

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