Before I start in earnest, I’ll put my praise for Mariano Rivera out there first. What more can I say about him? He’s the definition of class and consistency in a time when both of those commodities are rare. When I have kids, I’m going to tell them not to idolize athletes. However, if I had kids now, I’d tell them to idolize Mo. He’s the exception to the rule and a perfect example of humility and gratefulness. Thank you, Mr. Rivera, for being an excellent pitcher and an even more excellent man.
Last night, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to write for today. For whatever reason, the idea of pitcher splits came into my head. I started off by looking at those of Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia and found what I expected; they had fairly typical platoon splits. Then, out of curiosity before moving on to a new topic, I looked at A.J. Burnett‘s splits.
I was surprised to find that this year (not including yesterday’s game), Burnett has a 3.97 FIP against lefties (3.54 xFIP) and a 5.55 FIP vs. righties (4.41 xFIP). I expanded his FanGraphs splits page to include his career numbers and found a similar trend. His career FIP against lefties is 3.65 (3.66 xFIP); against righties, it’s 4.17 (3.90 xFIP). His batting line against this year also shows a marked difference. Righties are tagging A.J. to the tune of a .270/.348/.503/.851 line. Lefties have done pretty well–.246/.330/.412/.742–but not nearly as well as righties have. His career line, though, shows a much smaller difference (.714 vs. RHB; .707 vs. LHB).
Going back to FIP for just a moment, 2008 is the only year of Burnett’s career (partial seasons included) in which he did not have a higher FIP against right handed batters. Twice (2009 and 2011), he’s had FIPs in the 5′s against same-handed batters. 2003 saw his highest FIP vs. RHB, but that was in 12.1 innings so it’s beyond negligible. This year’s 5.55 mark is the highest of any consequence. After determining that, I ran over to Joe Lefkowitz’s Pitch f/x site to see what I could find in the pitch data. Before doing that, though, what I saw in the splits data sort of makes sense. Burnett is a pitcher with a big time curve (when it’s on) and perhaps he’s been using that to neutralize lefties. One might think, though, that a big curveball breaking away from righties would help A.J., too.
The curveball has been pretty effective against both lefties and righties this year. Per FanGraphs’ pitch values, it’s been worth 13.1 runs above average or 1.33 runs above average per 100 curveballs and it has been, per Lefkowitz, getting a lot of swings and misses (40.7% vs. RHB, 39.6 vs. LHB).
There isn’t a ton in the pitch data to hint at a big split, but the home run numbers are telling. While righties and lefties have hit Burnett’s four seamer for a homer an equal amount of times, 1.5%, Burnett has limited the home run damage against lefties. His curve has found itself over the fence after a lefty batter 0.2% of the time, compared to 0.7% of the time against righties. Lefties have only hit his “cutter” out of the park 1.0% of the time as opposed to 2.1% for righties. Burnett’s “sinker” has been taken deep by right handed hitters 2.0% of the time and hasn’t been turned into a homer by any left handed batters. That tells us that Burnett is “hanging” some of his pitches to right handed hitters and those balls are being hit for homers. That could help explain the 5.55 FIP vs. RHB.
This is bared out in the raw data, too. Before yesterday, A.J. had faced 370 right handed batters and given up a home run (17 times) to 4.59% of them. He’d faced 417 lefties and given up homers to ten of them, or 2.40%. It’s worth noting that both numbers are above his career rates (2.84% to RHB, 1.99% vs. LHB).
A.J. Burnett has not been a good pitcher at all in 2011 and it would appear that his struggles against same handed batters are at the heart of that matter. If he were pitching to that career level of a 4.17 FIP against righties, he’d be in a much better place. But, of course, he’s not pitching to that. He’s pitching to an unsightly 5.55 FIP against righties and that’s unacceptable.
To borrow from Scrubs, it seems like we must go through the five stages of grief (anger, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance) with A.J: First we’re angry that he’s sucking. Then, we’re in denial; there is NO WAY he can be this bad. Then we try to make a bargain: well, he sort of did okay for the first few innings…maybe if they put him in the bullpen…Then we’re depressed because, well, he is that bad right now. I don’t know about you, but I’ve accepted it. Frankly, I think that’s the only way to get through a start by A.J. Burnett.
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