Friday, October 9, 2009

Forget Posada-Molina; It's All About A.J.

Ever since Joe Girardi made the announcement, the focus for tonight's Game 2 of the American League Division Series against the Twins has been on who should catch.

Jose Molina is getting the nod over Jorge Posada ... and Posada, understandably, is far from happy.

But when you strip away all the noise, the reality comes into focus ... and that is tonight's game is entirely about A.J. Burnett.

The Yankees signed Burnett to a fat five-year, $82.5 million because he has electric stuff that is damn near unhittable when Burnett is on. Hitters simply hate facing him. But aside from last season when he won 18 games, Burnett, 32, has never won more than 13 victories in a season. He was wild and inconsistent.

This season, Burnett has shown that his final year in Toronto (18-10) to be more of a fluke than a revelation. He's had streaks of brilliance and stretches of hideousness. His season has been streaky and he's shown himself to be a bit of a headcase in going 13-9 with a 4.04 ERA.

Of late, Burnett's been terrific, going 3-1 with a 2.93 ERA in his last six starts pitching to Molina.

Burnett's in a groove, he's hitting on all cylinders again ... and that puts Girardi in a bit of bind.

Posada, rightfully, is the Yankees' No. 1 catcher. Yes, he has his flaws. He's hard-headed and doesn't always work well with his starters, creating the impression that he doesn't call a good game. He doesn't smother balls in the dirt well. He also doesn't block the plate well.

But he is also a superior offensive player. He's a leader. He throws out base stealers well enough (31 of 111, 27.9 percent this season). And, most importantly, the team wins when he's behind the plate.

This season the Yankees went 65-46 in games in which Posada caught, 29-23 with Molina and 25-17 with Francisco Cervelli (Note: there is some overlap because of games in which one player replaced another).

It's no coincidence that the Yankees missed the playoffs last season when Posada, who has caught 97 postseason games, missed most of the year with a shoulder injury.

And the last time Posada didn't start a playoff game was Game 3 of the 2005 ALDS when Joe Torre elected to have John Flaherty catch Randy Johnson, who also didn't mesh well with Posada. The result: an 11-7 loss to the Angels.

But Posada and Burnett have had their ups and downs. Posada caught Burnett's brilliant one-hit, 7-2/3 shutout innings against the Red Sox on Aug. 7. Jorge also called the game at the Mets on June 27, when Burnett allowed four hits and struck out 10 in seven shutout innings.

The two have also hooked up in some miserable efforts, notably April 25 and Aug. 22 in Boston.

And while the chemistry between Posada and Burnett has been volatile at best, this much is for certain: It's not Posada's game calling that's at fault for those bad games. It's Burnett's inability to execute the pitches he throws that's at the heart of the problem. Once the pitcher and catcher agree on a sign, it's up to the pitcher and pitcher alone to execute the pitch.

But with Molina, Burnett has been much more consistent, appears more comfortable and seems to have a better rhythm. The numbers are stark and undeniable:

In 16 starts pitching to Posada, Burnett went 5-5 with a 4.96 ERA, striking out 79 of 434 batters. Hitters had a .270 batting average with .775 OPS.

In 11 starts pitching to Molina, however, Burnett went 5-2 with a 3.28 ERA, striking out 77 of 227 batters. Hitters had a .221 batting average with .658 OPS.

Perhaps that difference is because both Burnett and Posada are very emotional and more likely to clash, whereas Molina is calm and more willing to play psychologist. That's something for someone with a degree in psychology to figure out. Unfortunately, my degree is journalism, which means I know something about everything, but I don't know everything about any one subject ... and definitely not enough about psychology.

But if we've learned anything since the Yankees' last World Series championship in 2000, it's that the three most important things in the postseason are pitching, pitching, pitching ... and in that order.

That means Game 2 tonight is a huge game. A win puts the Yankees in control of the series. A loss makes the series a tossup and brings with it doubts about the Yankees' chances in the postseason.

Girardi needs Burnett, who will be making his first career playoff start, to be at his best and means he needs Burnett to be comfortable and confident in an electric environment at Yankees Stadium. And right now, Girardi believes the best way to accomplish that is to start Molina.

It's not a no-brainer decision by any means. It takes Posada's potent bat out of the lineup. It also forces the Yankees to carry Cervelli as a third catcher instead of Freddy Guzman as an extra pinch runner so that Girardi can use Posada as a pinch hitter for Molina early in this game, if necessary.

The move also isn't permanent. If Burnett bombs, Posada will catch his next game.

But in making this move, Girardi is clearly gambling.

And it's up to Burnett to make sure that gamble pay off.

Burnett will be the reason the Yankees win or lose, not Molina or Posada.

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