Commentary

What ails A.J.? Begin at the top

'It starts with his head,' coach says of emotional -- and talented -- Burnett

Updated: July 23, 2010, 4:28 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

A good barometer of how fed up a team is with a player is how much it's willing to tell the truth about him. No embellishments, no excuses -- just the unvarnished truth.

A.J. Burnett reached that point with the Yankees after lasting just 13 batters Saturday, then cutting both hands when he smacked a clubhouse door in anger after he was removed in the third inning of a 10-5 loss to division rival Tampa Bay.

If it was just a first-time meltdown, Burnett's antics might've been received differently. But Burnett is notoriously streaky. Whatever fig leaf Burnett had when he went 0-5 during pitching coach Dave Eiland's absence for personal reasons has been taken away, too. The conjecture back then -- maybe there was something mechanically wrong with Burnett's delivery that Eiland would've spotted -- isn't protecting Burnett now that he's still struggling with Eiland back.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Burnett
Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesWhen things start to go wrong, Yankees righty A.J. Burnett can be his own worst enemy.

The Yankees think they know what's wrong with Burnett heading into his start Friday against Kansas City. It's the same thing that usually goes wrong with him.

"It starts with his head," Eiland said.

Not his mechanics. Not his velocity. Not the mix of pitches Jorge Posada is calling.

"When his head's not right, then his body won't follow," Eiland said, reiterating the point. "But his head goes first. Then his body gets all out of whack."

Always the mind first?

"Pretty much," Eiland said.

There's a term for this in baseball. It's called a "head case."

Even at 33, with scads of success behind him, Burnett still invites the label.

If everyone is being honest, Burnett is hardly the first big leaguer to bolt down the dugout tunnel after a bad inning and take his anger out on whatever is in the way. If someone ever put a camera in the hallway leading from the dugout to the clubhouse of any major league team?

"You'd definitely see players doing some good stuff down there. Myself included," Posada said, suppressing a smile.

Players routinely kick things, throw things, rip all the buttons off their shirt -- you name it. Taking a bat to the hallway bathroom is another old standby.

Asked how many times the toilet just off the Yankee Stadium dugout has been replaced this season, Posada thought about it for a second and said, "You know … I think it's aluminum."

Smart.

So Burnett's outburst wasn't unique. The Yankees knew about his occasional flake-outs when they signed him away from division rival Toronto last year for five years and $82.5 million.

If you ranked Burnett on stuff alone, his 95 mph fastball and breaking pitches would place him among the top five or six pitchers in baseball. The Yankees liked the 13-5 record Burnett had in 2009 and the levity he added to the clubhouse with his pie-throwing act. What made Saturday's outburst inexcusable were the injuries Burnett invited by whacking the door with both hands.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Burnett
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesAt his best, A.J. Burnett is a talented pitcher who keeps teammates loose with his antics.

"You can't do that," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who was angry with Burnett after the game.

Burnett said that it won't happen again

Posada, for one, empathizes with the angst Burnett is going through. The two of them butted heads at times last season. By the end of the year, Jose Molina (now gone) was Burnett's personal catcher.

Nevertheless, Posada said of Burnett, "It's hard for starting pitchers. It really is.

"When you're a reliever and something goes wrong, at least you can be out there again soon throwing, throwing, throwing. But when you're a starter like A.J. is, you have to wait five days. Everything is fine between starts when you throw your bullpen [session]. Then you get out there and it's not the same in the game. It's so frustrating."

Posada said when Burnett gets upset, he'll often say things like, "Why am I a .500 pitcher when I have great stuff? … Why is everything so good and then so bad?'

"He gets frustrated. I think that's the biggest thing. Then he starts thinking too much. Then everything starts snowballing and sometimes he can't self-correct."

He can't self-correct between innings or between batters?

"Both," Posada said.

Other teams notice all that. Eiland said he's tried giving Burnett mantra-like catchphrases to calm himself on the mound instead of the self-loathing things you'll often see Burnett muttering as he paces around.

After Burnett beat Philadelphia in Game 2 of last year's World Series, Phillies second baseman Jimmy Rollins candidly said part of the Phillies' strategy against Burnett was to actively try to annoy him. They stepped out, worked the count and juked and jab-stepped their way off first base, all in an effort to distract him.

"But he never got outside himself," Rollins said. "And that's very unusual."

So at this point, Eiland is asked, what do you do about Burnett?

Do you look at a 33-year-old pitcher whose career thumbnail has always read pretty much the same -- great stuff, great velocity, a little flaky upstairs -- and just say he is what he is? A talented and likeable head case, but a head case just the same.

"No," Eiland said. "You're always trying to work with players on things, even if at the end of the day it still turns out the same."

So how big is Friday's start for Burnett?

"They're all important," Eiland said.

Posada added that Burnett knows his value to the Yankees.

"He knows we need him, and he knows how good he is," Posada said.

The best advice they could give Burnett?

Try not to think about it, pal.

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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