Burnett poised to bounce back in 2011
Yankees righty not pleased with disappointing 2010 season
TAMPA, Fla. -- Somewhere above the clouds last October, as the Yankees returned home in the wake of their playoff elimination, A.J. Burnett found a moment of self-reflection in the pressurized cabin of a charter jet.
Burnett had been asked to make only one start in the playoffs, handed the ball for a Game 4 loss in the American League Championship Series that inspired little confidence. After losing 15 times in the regular season, he simply hadn't earned much.
"The flight home more than anything, as soon as it was over, I was just realizing, 'You know what? I didn't do anything,'" Burnett said on Tuesday. "I pitched one game in the postseason. What's going on? That's not what I came here to do."
Burnett was supposed to enjoy New York from CC Sabathia's shadow, posing for photographs together on the construction site that would soon become the new Yankee Stadium before the ink was even dry on their contracts.
A glittering World Series ring is evidence that the first season of the $82.5 million deal went well enough, but the wheels came completely off in 2010, as Burnett battled a mess of mechanical flaws and difficulty focusing.
By the time it was over, Burnett had slogged through a season that included the worst month ever compiled by a Yankees pitcher (0-5, 11.35 ERA in June).
Now it falls on new pitching coach Larry Rothschild to give the 34-year-old right-hander a booster shot, finding the dominance he sorely lacked at times during that nightmarish campaign.
"It's a chicken-and-egg question -- is the confidence there because of success, or is success there because he's doing things right mechanically and gets confidence?" Rothschild said.
"I think we'll attack it right now to get him in line to the plate, get him comfortable throwing the ball, and I think he'll get the confidence and demeanor that he should have when he gets ready to face hitters in a game."
There was a small audience on hand behind the right-field stands at George M. Steinbrenner Field on Tuesday, as Burnett fired fastballs over the morning dew and into Francisco Cervelli's glove.
Burnett said the session went smoothly and that he actually had fun doing it, which is a small notch on the belt for those who hope Burnett is just coming out of a career valley.
"He's had a history of some really high times where he's been extremely good, and then there's been some times where he hasn't performed up to his abilities," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "Whenever he's had some dips, he's always bounced back. I count on that. I believe it."
If Cashman gets his wish for a resurgent campaign, the opening chapter may have come this winter, when Rothschild visited Burnett for two days at his Maryland home.
Spending more than four hours getting to know each other, Rothschild left behind a few tweaks in preparation and mechanics. Burnett said that his pitches flattened when his left leg "swung out like a gate," and Rothschild suggested exercises to help with muscle memory.
It is too early to tell how much good those will do in the long run, but Burnett said he feels enough of a difference to be encouraged.
"I don't think I need to be fixed," Burnett said. "I just think I had a really bad year last year. I hate to repeat it, but a lot of it is confidence, a lot of it is mental and staying focused on the mound. The last thing I should be worried about is my mechanics."
Worse yet, Burnett believes opposing hitters could tell he was searching to find himself as games got out of hand.
"I was like, 'Dude, what am I doing out here? Who is this guy?'" Burnett said. "I mean, I'm a force out there; guys don't want to face me. And I just felt like guys didn't care if they faced me. I think I gave them that edge."
Some have alluded to distractions as a contributing factor, like the unexplained black eye that Burnett took to the mound for a September start against the Orioles, or the frustration that boiled over into Burnett slicing his palms against a clubhouse door in July.
But Rothschild believes the adjustments are more needed in the physical department, eying Burnett's front foot during Tuesday's bullpen session and making sure it drives toward home plate to balance out the weight load.
"Look, this guy's had success at a pretty good level in the Major Leagues," Rothschild said. "We're not trying to rebuild anything. We're just trying to get it where he can repeat deliveries so he can throw the ball loose. This isn't by any stretch of the imagination a rebuilding or anything. It's just kind of tooling it back a little bit and refining things and simplifying."
Burnett shut the door on 2010 a day after the flight home, saying that it depressed him every time he thought about it. The only tangible souvenir of the winter is across Burnett's right forearm, where the Latin phrase "Fortius Quo Fidelius" was tattooed, matching an identical one his wife has across her stomach.
He said that he believed the phrase meant "Strength Through Loyalty," but quipped that it might as easily mean "I Love Tacos." Either way, Burnett likes it, asking reporters not to tell him if the translation had been botched (it's fine).
But even as he attempted to put a light-hearted spin on the aftermath of 2010, Burnett said the experience had value. This time, Burnett says he isn't shying away from the pressure to be better.
"I know the cameras are on me," Burnett said. "I know it's my spring this year. I'm not blind to that. I'm all for it."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.