It’s probably fair to say that A.J. Burnett has been the conversation du jour these past few weeks. Therefore, at the suggestion of one of my TYA colleagues, I decided to examine some of A.J.’s pitching trends. Hopefully this will shed some light on the results we’ve observed thus far, provide some clarity on why A.J. “chooses” to drive us into a state of sheer frustration everytime he has an opportunity, along with what we can potentially expect moving forward.
Consider Table 1 which displays A.J.’s pitch values dating back to 2002. The first thing I noticed when viewing the numbers, was how terrible his fastball has become since joining the Yankees rotation. Aside from 2002, when Burnett showcased an excellent fastball (which prevented approximately 32.5 runs above average), — along with outstanding numbers for the Marlins in general — his heater has generally been, at the very least, serviceable (admittedly, 2006′s mark was a minor blip on the radar though it wasn’t completely awful).
However, since 2008, the pitch has steadily deteriorated (and not just by a little bit!). Into 2009 and 2010 his wFB was worth a -14.4 and -14.3 respectively. This season, his fastball has actually managed to become even less effective still (-15.7 wFB). To really put this decline in perspective, consider the fact that Burnett’s wFB rating trails only Ryan Dempster (-18.0) in all of Major League Baseball.
Conversely Fortunately, A.J.’s wCB (8.8) has actually improved from last year’s lousy -3.9 mark (although it has certainly not reached the degree of effectiveness that it had been graded at in prior years such as 2007-2009). For what it’s worth, Burnett’s 8.8 wCB is the seventh best in the league trailing only Roy Halladay, Justin Verlander, Wandy Rodriguez, Livan Hernandez, James Shields, and Josh Tomlin.
Although Burnett’s changeup is grading slightly above average (0.6), I generally don’t include that pitch in the overall discussion as A.J. throws it with much less frequency (although to be fair, he has shown more willingness this season than in years past). For all intents and purposes though, Burnett has two pitches that he relies on (which has always been one of his biggest hurdles). It makes sense that he’s been hit hard in later innings. All of a sudden, the curveball isn’t nearly as effective because the fastball isn’t holding its weight. In my eyes, Burnett it still the same-old one trick pony he’s always been, except now the trick doesn’t properly work allowing hitters to adapt to it.
Now, although each of the numbers discussed above represent pitch types in linear weight form, the conclusions regarding the quality of his various pitch types are still somewhat incomplete. The reason being is that each pitcher differs in the amount of times they throw a given pitch. That’s where we turn to wFB/C which thankfully corrects this variability; more specifically, it measures the amount of runs a pitcher saved (or allowed) via a particular pitch — in this case, the fastball — over the span of 100 pitches, thusly providing some measure of standardization. In terms of context, zero is still representative of average. Anything in the plus is desirable while anything negative is…well you get the gist.
Going back to Table 1, we can clearly see that A.J. scores a -1.08 wFB/C and a 1.10 wCB/C in 2011. For those wondering about how that ranks up against his peers, A.J. is the fifth worst in all of baseball in terms of wFB/C trailing only Bronson Arroyo, John Lackey, Ryan Dempster, and Brett Myers. On the other hand, his wCB/C actually places him in the top 25 of all pitchers. For the complete rankings on either pitch (or the elusive changeup), click here.
In this second table, I’ve displayed A.J.’s pitch selection trends. As to expected, the not-really-effective-at-all fastball is thrown most frequently (roughly 58% of the time). The curveball is seeing more action than in prior years, which makes sense if Burnett has the most confidence in it. It also somewhat explains why batters have experienced a higher contact rate on pitches outside of the zone (30.7 O-Swing% this season compared to a career 23.8%). Meanwhile, the changeup (which still mostly qualifies as a “show me” pitch in my book) is getting a little bit more play this season as well (approximately used 11% of the time).
What’s curious though (to me at least), are the numbers in red, located beside the FB percentages. The red numbers within the parentheses represent the average velocity for each type of pitch. I guess it’s not overly surprising given Burnett’s age, but the velocity has been slowly ticking downward the past few seasons. Obviously, a low 90′s fastball, if located properly, can still be very effective; frankly, there have been a whole bevy of pitchers who have never thrown harder than that, which’ve still experienced major success. Control has never been A.J.’s particular forte though.
Instead of having a fastball in the mid or upper 90′s and a change up in the upper 80′s, now the degree of variation between the two pitches is only a few miles per hour. Instead of being able to absorb the occasional mistake through pure heat, a poorly located 92 mph fastball becomes that much more hittable. While he still has a convincing curveball, learning to pitch with a quieter fastball and a mediocre-at best changeup (which he doesn’t seem to favor anyway) can be tricky. There has never been a point in Burnett’s career were precision was a factor. His raw “stuff” and natural movement, has always been heavily relied upon. Unfortunately without it, he just becomes much more one dimensional.
When I hear Yankees fans gripe about A.J., I certainly understand where they are coming from. I’ve witnessed those fifth inning meltdowns too. That said, A.J. has historically always been a fairly sporadic pitcher in terms of efficiency and results. When his pitches are working for him, he’s the dominant pitcher that any team would salivate over. When they’re not, he becomes the grossly overpaid fifth starter who garners vitriol from seemingly every corner of the Yankee Universe.
Unfortunately for Yankees fans (over these past two seasons in particular), we’ve witnessed the effects of diminished pitches and the net effect of predictability. We’ve all become well aware of what even a mediocre offensive lineup looks like on the third cycle through against a pitcher who has only one (of his two relied upon pitches) capable of fooling anyone. What we all need to be hoping for is that the Yankees either A) find Burnett a way to rejuvenate himself, or B) find a smart way to utilize whatever ability he has remaining left in the tank (even if that means an expensive and unfortunate exile into the bullpen).
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