Commentary

Eiland of one: A.J. needs coaching

Yankees' pitching coach is missing piece to Burnett's current puzzlement

Updated: June 22, 2010, 12:00 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

PHOENIX -- Let's set the record straight on this right from the start: If players knew how to correct their own mistakes, right their own mechanical flaws and undo their own bad habits, there would be no need for coaches.

Or managers, for that matter.

A.J. Burnett, for instance, could walk himself out to the bullpen, make the adjustments necessary to turn himself back into an effective major-league pitcher, and that would be that.

But players can't do that, which is why the great baseball gods invented pitching coaches. And hitting coaches. And managers.

The role of these people may seem mysterious to some, but in reality it is incredibly simple: to look at the performance of an athlete with a detached eye, recognize what he is doing wrong and figure out how to correct it.

That is why, as much as the Yankees -- and specifically, manager Joe Girardi -- would like to deny it, or at least downplay it, there is no member of the team who is more missed than Dave Eiland.

For the past two years, we have been told time and again of Eiland's unique ability to pick up mechanical flaws in a pitcher's delivery, either on tape or from the bench, and instantly know how to fix it.

Whenever a Yankee pitcher has gone off the rails, we were told that he would be working closely with Eiland, who surely would crack the code that was eluding everyone else, especially the pitcher in question.

Most recently, he had worked his magic on Javier Vazquez, who was a disaster for the first six weeks of the season but has since developed as one of the most reliable arms in the Yankees' rotation.

Now comes the case of Burnett, whose year has been the reverse of Vazquez's. He started well, even brilliantly. Now, you wonder if maybe Girardi has chosen to skip the wrong right-hander when he decided that Phil Hughes would not be making his next scheduled start.

On Monday night, Burnett crashed and burned against the lowly Arizona Diamondbacks -- a team that can hit a straight fastball and not much else. So, of course, that is exactly what Burnett gave them, starting with two out and nobody on in the bottom of the first inning.

Before Burnett could get that third out, the Diamondbacks had socked three home runs, each longer and more impressive than the one before it. And by the time the inning was over, they had five runs, or just enough to render the rest of the game a moot point.

Arizona won, 10-4, and for the fourth straight time, Burnett got lit up. The pitcher who started the year 6-2 with a 3.55 ERA is now 6-6 with an ERA more than a full run (4.83) higher.

And his decline coincides precisely with the announcement on the first weekend in June that Eiland would be taking an indefinite leave of absence to attend to a personal matter.

No one covering the Yankees knows what it is. And frankly, no one is looking too hard because whatever has taken Eiland away from the team is rightfully considered off-limits.

But there is no secret that, ever since Eiland left on June 4, A.J. Burnett has not been the same. "I'm not gonna lie," Burnett said. "Dave is a big part of what we do here -- of who I am and who our other starters are. But I'm not gonna point fingers or make excuses. I've been pitching for 11 years now. You'd think I'd be able to make the adjustment on my own out there."

But that's just the point. The Yankees can't. Or they would. Girardi inadvertently revealed as much after the game when he insisted, "We'll get this corrected. We will."

But when asked for specifically how, he acknowledged, "I can't give you an exact answer. If I knew, if I could flip a switch, I'd flip it."

It was as close as Girardi will ever come to an admission that someone else knows more about an aspect of baseball than he does. That someone, of course, is Eiland, and his area of expertise is the handling of pitchers.

Mike Harkey, the former bullpen coach assigned by Girardi to fill in for Eiland, is trying his best but, in honesty, isn't equipped to handle this kind of a pitching staff.

"I'm obviously a lot more hands-on with all the pitchers now that Dave's not here," he said. "I also offer a lot more input than I had in the past because obviously, Dave's the guy and I've just been a consultant for Dave."

The manager doesn't know how to straighten it out; he fell into the usual clichés about "location" and "fastball command," finally boiling Burnett's problems to something any one of us could have seen: "He's just not making his pitches."

Jorge Posada, who has been catching professional throwers for 14 years now, didn't do much better. "I can't see if it's his delivery or anything," Posada said. "I'm just seeing that his pitches aren't going where they're supposed to."

Where they were going was into the seats. In that first inning, Burnett got two quick outs then fed Justin Upton a fastball that came down in the seats high above the center-field fence, 413 feet away.

At that point, Burnett began to fall victim to his old bugaboo, allowing one bad pitch to affect the ones that came after it. He ceded a single to center by Miguel Montero, a single to left by Chris Young and a blast by Adam LaRoche that landed deep in the right-field seats on the first pitch.

Now it was 4-0, and three pitches later Mark Reynolds clobbered one over the left-field fence for a 5-0 lead. Still, the Diamondbacks -- last in the NL West with a 27-43 record and 13 1/2 games out of first place -- weren't quite done. Gerardo Parra ripped one into the left field gap for a double before Burnett finally fanned Rodrigo Lopez, the pitcher, to end the assault.

"I don't feel like myself out there," Burnett said. "I'm not having fun. I know how good I am and how I should be throwing the ball. When you take the air out of your team like that, it's frustrating."

He mentioned something about not feeling comfortable out of the windup but, other than that, had no concrete ideas of how to correct it. "I got an idea," he said. "But it takes a group to go over the video and find out why I don't feel like myself."

Without its leader, however, the group Burnett is relying on seems to be spinning its wheels. "Not having him here is a big loss for all of us," Burnett said. "I still gotta throw the pitches whether Dave's in the dugout or not, but maybe it's just his presence of not being here."

Right now, there's no one the Yankees miss more. Or can afford to be without less.

GAME NOTES: The Yankees' offense was basically Brett Gardner, who had four hits (three of which were infield singles). ... Their biggest hit of the night was a two-run triple by Nick Swisher in the third. ... Colin Curtis, who was called up early in the day from AAA to replace Chad Moeller, who was designated for assignment, made his major-league debut hitting for Burnett in the fifth and flied out to right. ... Tuesday's pitching matchup: Andy Pettitte (8-2, 2.47) vs. Dan Haren (7-5, 4.71).

Wallace Matthews is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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