Without a doubt, AJ Burnett has some of the best stuff in the majors. Aside from Tim Lincecum, King Felix, and possibly his own stable-mate Joba Chamberlain, there are few starting pitchers who’s stuff is as consistently eyepopping.
Yesterday Yankee fans saw a continuation of that trend as Mr. Burnett, who, although was only able to provide 5.1 innings, unveiled a coming attraction of what the flamethrower is capable of providing the pinstripes.
Here are the facts:
Yesterday, Burnett’s average fastball was estimated at 95.5 mph.
Of the 53 fastballs Burnett pumped through the first five innings yesterday, just three heaters were thrown below 95 mph. Those fastballs registered at 94, 94 and 93. He touched 97 a total of 10 times throughout his outing and touched 98 mph once.
Not bad for a guy who’s pitching in his first regular season start. It’s even scarier when you consider that the common mode of thinking leads one to believe his velocity will only increase because, as the season moves on, the warmer weather arrives and Burnett’s arm strength will continue to build.
In addition to a torch fastball with great movement, Burnett’s hammer curveball ranged from 80 to 85 mph yesterday with a filthy late, drop and at times two-plane break. Of his six strikeouts, four of them came on his nasty power curveball.
Burnett threw his curve 37 times on Thursday, or about 38% of the time. 20 of those curves went for strikes, which, at its surface, is an ugly rate of 54% strikes. However, as most of you already know, Burnett usually sets up hitters with his fastball and then puts them away with a breaking ball out of the zone. Sometimes hitters chase, striking out, other times hitters take the pitch for a ball.
This explains why his curveball looks like a pitch he did not command well yesterday, when in actuality he threw the pitch where he wanted to the majority of the start.
According to Gameday, Burnett only threw his changeup once. Although it did not register as such, I believe he also threw one cut-fastball to a righthanded batter in the third or fourth inning.
Though his cutter is more of a red-herring than a real portion of his pitching repertoire, the funny thing is that his changeup – which Burnett can overlook at times – is actually a very good weapon for him. Because it is just his first start of the season Burnett did not break out the pitch often if at all, but he throws his changeup between 5-10% of the regular season with his fastball (67%) and curveball (26%) comprising the bulk of his pitches.
Burnett’s changeup, which is usually between 86-88mph – is more than a show-me pitch offering the batter “a different look” from his fastball-curve combo. The pitch fluctuates between above-average and plus from start to start, but Burnett commands his change well down in the zone and shows good sink/fade to both lefties and righties.
The fact of the matter is, Burnett’s two top pitches are so special, that he often times does not even need to throw his changeup. However, the more that he brings his third pitch along, the more gracefully he will be able to age in the vaunted AL East.
This is not to suggest Burnett throw the pitch 20% of the time this year. But, the more he uses it each season, the more he becomes a pitcher and not a thrower, an ideology Burnett has talked about frequently over the past two years. In this way, Burnett would then be able to throw out a third strong pitch to mystify hitters should his curveball not not show up on a given day.
Even if Burnett does not bring along his changeup as much as I recommend, the last couple years have presented a much more cerebral power pitcher than in his early years. Gone are the days when Burnett throws 129 pitches – 121 of them fastballs – in pursuit of a no-hitter mired by nine walks and an overall neglect for the wellbeing of his right arm.
And if he ever does fully harness his arsenal and avoid the trainer’s table — look out. At that point, only a bout of extremely bad luck could prevent him from becoming a perennial 17-20 game winner. Although, that may have been the case all along.
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