A.J. Burnett may not be a Yankee, but analyzing his post-Yankee days may tell us how other team’s approached the problem child. The starting pitcher has been wildly successful this season, posting a 3.59 ERA, a 3.50 FIP, a 7.44 K/9, and 2.84 BB/9. Most of the media’s analysis has ended at the league change, but I figured Burnett and the Pirates deserved a more in depth look over.
What I expected to see was a decrease in homeruns outside of Yankee Stadium and the AL East, and indeed it dropped from 17.0% HR/FB last year to 11.8% in 2012. I also expected the strikeout rate to increase due to the pitcher’s spot in the lineup, but the number has decreased from 8.18 K/9 in 2011 to 7.44 K/9 in 2012. Outside of what we assumed would happen with the Pirates, he’s increased his groundball rate from 49.2% to 57.0%, and he’s lowered his BB/9 rate from 3.92 to 2.84. National League baseball does indeed benefit pitchers, but it appears that Burnett and the Pirates have changed something to help him induce groundballs and harness his control.
|Pitch Type||Selection||Velo||V Mvt||H Mvt||Spin Angle||Spin Rate|
The graph above compares the Burnett’s individual pitches from 2011 and 2012, and two significant differences exist. The first, Burnett has lost the cutter, and hasn’t thrown a single fastball with a spin angle below 180 degrees. Interestingly, Phil Hughes, who added the cutter around the same time as Burnett, lost the pitch in 2012 as well. Secondly, the four-seam fastball is showing much more sinking action, and is averaging a spin angle 10 degrees higher. The understanding here is that an increase in spin angle equates to an increase in sinking action. More sinking action means more groundballs, and more groundballs means less flyballs and linedrives for extra base hits. That’s a good thing.
Indeed, the groundball rate on Burnett four-seam has sharply risen from 36.4% in 2011 to 49.7% in 2012. The other batted balls have subsequently dropped, with the flyball rate going from 32.7% to 25.5% in 2012, and the linedrive rate falling from 23.9% to 17.6%. As the most used pitch in his arsenal, the batted ball rates on the four-seam have drastically changed his average batted ball rates on the year. If the current 57.0% groundball rate holds up, it will be the second highest of his career.
Honestly, these two four-seams appear exactly the same to me. I’ll leave it up to the TYA community to see something I may have missed. Most likely Burnett has some sort of a different grip between the two pitches above, and as you can see the spin angles are around 15 degrees apart.
While sorting through the individual pitches for 2012, it appears that many of his sinkers have been incorrectly labeled four-seams. This would alter the outcomes listed above, and make the PITCHf/x numbers on the four-seam appear more like a sinker. Brooksbaseball.net confirms my suspicion, and lists the sinker selection at 29%. This would mean that Burnett has doubled his sinker usage from 2011 to 2012, which becomes the primary reason for his success this year.
The question remains, why didn’t the Yankees ever try this? The impressive strikeout rates from the Larry Rothschild effect have led me to love him, but he doesn’t have a history of increasing groundball rates. Considering the small ballpark, and the homerun issues with Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova, you’d think that developing sinkers would be an important aspect for starters in the Yankee organization. However, Gameday only has Nova throwing the two-seam fastballs 4.7% of the time, and Phil Hughes doesn’t throw one at all.
For Burnett, the key to success was adding movement on the four-seam and throwing more sinkers. The Yankees may not want Burnett back, but they should take this as an opportunity to see how he succeeded under different instruction, and identify their own weaknesses. I try not to pretend like I know more than the professionals, but with the dimensions of Yankee Stadium and the stadiums in the AL East, it’s a mystery to why the organization is seemingly emphasizing the cutter over the sinker.
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