When AJ Burnett signed with Yanks last year, he made much of the fact that he had matured. Going to ‘the School of Halladay’ he learned what it took to stay healthy and not miss so much time with ticky-tack injuries on the DL. He also said that he learned how to become more of a pitcher and less of a thrower. Brian Cashman echoed these sentiments, and it seemed the Yanks were signing a starter who was finally putting all the pieces together. Last year, part of that was true. He showed us that he did indeed learn how to stay healthy, pitching his 2nd consecutive full season without missing any time on the DL. But AJ the pitcher seemed like the same old guy. When his stuff was working, he would dominate. When it wasn’t, even if for just one inning, he would get clobbered. The School of Halladay appeared to have a pupil who quickly forgot what Roy was preaching.
But this year, something’s different. He seems to be relying more on spotting his fastball with good movement and letting his fielders catch the ball behind him. Down in the count, he doesn’t try as often to blow a hitter away, preferring to induce a ground ball. He’s also getting quick outs, something we rarely saw from him last year.
Or at least, that’s what my eyes have been telling me. So I wanted to dig through his numbers to see if they confirm what I’ve been seeing. Looking at his Fangraphs page, some interesting things jump out at me. First, his Ground ball % up from last year, and is identical to that of 2008 (his last year with the Blue Jays). His GB/FB rate is virtually the same as 08 as well. He’s also throwing more fastballs, but his average velocity is down by about 1 MPH. In his case, that’s a good thing. It means he’s either spotting the pitch more with some natural movement on the pitch or he throwing more 2-seamers. Either way, it matches up with the increased ground balls we’ve been seeing. His SO Rate is way down as well, sitting at 5.40/9 IP this year as compared to 8.48 last year. His Walk Rate is also way down, from 4.22/9 IP last year to 2.43/9 IP this year. This is a completely different pitcher from the guy we saw last season. Pitching to contact and trusting the guys behind him to make a play.
To be sure, it’s only 5 starts and the teams he’s faced (BOS/TAM/TEX/LAA/BAL) may have played into this. It’s always tough to hit in cold April weather and veteran hitters are still getting settled into the season. But this is a new AJ Burnett we’ve seen this year, and maybe the best is yet to come after all.
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