2011 has been an up and down season for A.J. Burnett. There have been, though, more ups than downs to this point, especially compared to last year. Yesterday was Burnett’s 15th start of the year and he’s been pretty solid thus far. He’s got a 4.05 ERA, a 4.34 FIP, and a 3.82 xFIP. To this point last year, 15 starts, Burnett had a 4.83 ERA and a horrifically ugly 5.79 FIP. So far, he’s allowed more than four runs just three times, as opposed to five times through 15 starts last year. 2011 has been an improvement over 2010, no doubt. But A.J.’s last two starts have been even better.
In his last two starts, Burnett has struck out 16 batters in 12.3 innings while walking just four and allowing three runs on nine hits. Over his previous four starts, Burnett had struck out 18. What’s Burnett been doing to get such great results? Let’s begin with A.J’s first fourteen starts.
Here, we see A.J. went fastball heavy, using some variation thereof on 63% of his pitches (including sinkers, probably mislabeled two seamers). Over the last two games, though, he’s seemingly reversed course a bit. We’ve heard subjectively that Burnett has had his curveball working and he’s had a better feel for that, and Pitch F/X backs that up. He’s upped his curveball usage to 34.7% . That’s just part of it, though. A.J. has severely increased the swing-and-miss percentage on his curveball. For the first thirteen games, Burnett got whiffs on 17.5% of his curves. In the games against Cleveland and the Cubs, opponents have swung and missed against just over a quarter of the deuces Burnett’s tossed (25.3% to be exact). And while his changeup usage has stayed about the same, 7.7% for 4/1-6/8; 7.4% for 6/9-6/18, the swing and miss percentage on that pitch has jumped from 12.1% to 18.8%.
His overall swing-and-miss rate has been better, too, according to his Gamelogs on Baseball-Reference. In his first 13 starts, Burnett threw 1,314 pitches and got swinging strikes on 9% of his pitches. In the last two, he’s thrown 216 pitches with 19% of them have resulted in batters missing. To highlight this contrast, let’s go with the raw numbers. His last two games have garnered 27 swings and misses; the previous four netted 35.
Whatever A.J. has been doing with his curveball and changeup to induce those extra swings-and-misses over the last two starts has clearly been working. With Burnett, though, you never know if he’s going to keep it up for an extended period of time. He can sparkle at any time, and he can fizzle at any time. Hopefully, we’re at the start of something big.
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