General Yankees

The Yanks’ No. 3 Starter

Now that we know it won't be Phil Hughes behind C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee, what do we make of A.J. Burnett, who had a disastrous 2010, which on first blush screams for a regression to the mean (and will probably do so, to some extent). The man had been a fairly consistent 113 ERA+ pitcher for six seasons, then laid an egg of 81 in 2010.

There are some problems, I think, with the idea that Burnett just had an off year, and that he should be primed to return to his 110-115 ERA+ days of yore.

For one, his BABIP was .319, up 17 points from his 2009, yes, but lower than in his 2008, when his ERA was all of .03 higher than it was subsequently in '09. So he didn't get particularly unlucky with hits falling in.

Similarly, his LOB%, the number of baserunners he stranded at the end of an inning, was 68.8 percent, lower than the 75.9 he posted in 2009 — but basically the same as the 70.5 he had in 2009. Which means the sequencing of his hits and outs was only slightly unlucky, too.

Yet his K/9 has cratered, from 9.56 to 9.39 to 8.48 to 6.99. His walk rate, meanwhile, is basically unchanged, showing only a slight increase from 3.59 to 3.50 to 4.22 to 3.76. So while his FIP indicates he was indeed a little unlucky, he wasn't inordinately so: 4.83 FIP versus 5.26 ERA. He had a big jump in home runs per fly ball, which tends to be mostly luck, and that, combined with the slightly elevated BABIP and slightly reduced LOB%, probably makes up the difference.

But that means, all things being equal, Burnett went from being a 3.80-ERA pitcher to a 4.80-ERA pitcher. What happened?

According to Fangraphs, he used his fastball a whole lot more — 69 percent, most since he was with the Marlins, and well above the 66 percent he had in 2010 and 64.7 percent in 2009 — and his curveball a lot less (27.4 percent, versus 31 percent last season). His changeup, which used to make up a not-inconsiderable portion of his pitches (5-10 percent through 2008), has dropped to 3.5 percent.

What's problematic about that is his fastball in both seasons with the Yankees has been tattooed — 14.3 runs below the average fastball, according to linear weights (which look at the expected runs in a given situation, then, once a pitch is thrown, takes the difference between the former run expectancy and the new one and ascribes it to the type of pitch thrown). In previous seasons, Burnett's fastball was never incredible, but it always stayed within a -6 to +8 range.

Why the change? It's not hard to figure out. Here are Burnett's fastball velocities by year since 2004, when he began posting 120-inning seasons consistently:

2004 – 95.4
2005 – 95.6
2006 – 94.9
2007 – 95.1
2008 – 94.3
2009 – 94.2
2010 - 93.2

So why get away from the curve? Well, because in 2010 it went from being a +16 pitch (and +13 in 2008-09) to a -3.9 pitch.

Stats can only tell you so much. Did Burnett's curve look flat this season? I wouldn't know.

But consider this: Batters didn't swing at a greater percentage of Burnett's pitches than in years past, but they made contact with a greater percentage of his offerings than in any other season. Why? Well, batters against Burnett made contact on an eye-popping 63.7 percent of his pitches that were out of the strike zone (at which they swung), after a previous career high last season of just 51.1 percent. That means when batters swung at Burnett's pitches out of the zone, they were making contact nearly two-thirds of the time.

That seems to indicate a major problem with the curveball not diving far enough away from the strike zone to induce swings and misses — and his swing-and-miss percentage indeed was just 14 percent for the second year in a row, after being at 18 percent in 2007 and 2008.

Is the problem with his curve correctable? I don't know because I don't know what's wrong with it. But even if it is, that velocity drop on the fastball is troubling. Burnett has never been a control artist, so getting by with a slower fastball is going to get tougher and tougher.

46 replies on “The Yanks’ No. 3 Starter”

Pasted from the other thread:
Well, I guess he’s done then. Throw in the towel. The stats say so.
(rolling eyes)
As someone that watched every single game the guy has pitched since he became a Yankee, I don’t need a bunch of stats to tell me that his curveball and off-speed pitches were flat. That led to him throwing more fastballs that were also flat…thus the beatings.
So, as I said, maybe a pitching coach that is known for getting more K’s out of his staff would be able to help AJ improve his breaking pitches, which would then increase the perceived velocity of his fastball. Right? I’m not sure how his average fastball speed dropping less than 2 MPH’s over 6 years is somehow indicative of him losing it? Not to mention, AJ himself has said that not trying to “throw the ball through the wall every pitch” is what has kept him on the mound the last few years. So the drop in average velocity is easily explained as such…

I’ve said this a million times:
AJ Burnett is easily the most talented guy in that rotation (just as Beckett is in Boston)…both just need to eliminate the issues between their ears to be completely dominant. Again.

Well, I guess he’s done then. Throw in the towel. The stats say so.
Nobody said Burnett won’t rebound, or that the Yankees season is over because “the stats say so”. He’s just trying to statistically identify why Burnett had such a bad 2010. And at the end he admits that he doesn’t know if the problem with his curveball is correctable, since he doesn’t know specifically what is wrong with it. And Paul isn’t saying “AJ’s 2MPH fastball drop means he’s losing it”, he’s simply saying that it’s part of the reason his 2010 was poor.
As a former pitcher I can tell you that arm flexibility changes with age. Something as minor as a bit of scar tissue build-up (which all athletes accumulate over time, regardless of whether actual injuries exist) can hamper flexibility. This affects all pitches, but it’s especially pronounced with breaking pitches.
If Burnett’s curveball problem is simply because of mechanics, then it should be easy to identify and fix. But it could also be indicative of of an underlying physical issue.

Nice work, Paul. I think these kinds of posts are really great – we all watch the games, see what we see, but then there’s this other component that either corroborates or dispels what we thought we saw, and then the discussion gets even more interesting.
Good to have you back.

I don’t think the lack of velocity is the problem. I really don’t. I think it’s more about AJ being a fragile sort of guy who doesn’t really deal well with getting knocked around which causes him to muscle up and rely more on his fastball making him less of a pitcher and more of a thrower. I’ve never pitched at the major league level, but I’d like to think I know a good deal about pitching anyway. AJ’s biggest issue is AJ. It’s very difficult to trust your stuff when your getting your ____ lit every time out. He has good stuff, his velocity is still good, the ball is in his court. Either he embraces the failure or learns from it or we can expect another season of “Let’s see how hard I can throw it vs Let’s see how far I can hit it.”

I’m not sure how his average fastball speed dropping less than 2 MPH’s over 6 years is somehow indicative of him losing it?
Losing 1 mph of your fastball in one season is significant. It means your either 1. a reliever transitioning to being a starter, 2. in big trouble (either mechanically or healthwise), or 3. Tim Lincecum.
Here’s a list of pitchers who lost at least 1 mph off their fastballs between 2008 and 2009. Lincecum is the only starter on the list to be both healthy and good. Ervin Santana is the only other starter on the list to have had a successful 2010, but his drop was likely because he was recovering from shoulder surgery.
Here’s a list of starters who lost at least 1 mph off their fastballs between 2009-10.
You could take some comfort in Justin Verlander, whose fastball dropped from 94.8 in 2007 to 93.6 in 2008, but then jumped right back up to 95.6 in 2009. Of course, Verlander also was 25 at the time, not 33, as Burnett is.

It’s very difficult to trust your stuff when your getting your ____ lit every time out.
This is a big issue. And a huge source of debate. It is kind of like (though not the same) as the whole “Big Papi misses Manny as protection” debate. Does Papi really miss Manny? Or does he think he misses Manny. Which is more important to his ability to stay focused, hit consistently or well?
With AJ is it that he can’t deal with getting lit up every time out, and therefore he sucks continually? Or is AJ just not that great a pitcher any more with diminishing talents (speed and/or control), and that is why he is a lesser pitcher.
Classic chicken and egg thing here.

Does he/is it?
I haven’t watched him, so I’m more than willing to defer to those who have, but is Burnett’s curveball still the beast it was? Or are you saying the mental side of his game affects the way he throws the curve? Because it looks to me, and this is just the stats talking, that his curve was not good last year, and that he was therefore throwing more fastballs — but that his fastball was sitting at 92-94, which is not the same as 94-96.
Here’s Burnett’s velocity chart. That looks significant to me. Meanwhile, his changeup velocity is up, so he’s not getting any separation between the two pitches, which probably explains why he’s stopped throwing it as much.
It’s possible he’s just messed himself up mechanically, and maybe the new pitching coach can get him fixed up, but to see the deterioration of both his fastball and curve over two seasons strikes me as alarming for his future prospects.

Don’t get me wrong SF, I don’t think he’s a great pitcher by any stretch. I think he was blessed with a great arm, that’s all.
In order for him to be successful (regardless of how we define success) he needs to trust his stuff. I wish I had video of his outings. It appeared like every time he struggled he thought he was at the carnival booth trying to beat the high score on the radar gun. That leads to being predictable and most certainly not as accurate, missing spots, etc…Wear and tear, tired arm, whatever the cause he can still pitch at 92, the important part of that statement is pitch. I don’t know that AJ Burnett can ever make that transition to pitcher and at 33 he needs to…

I think he does, certainly good enough stuff to be a serviceable borderline good. His change-up velo increase really proves my point. He’s not pitching, he’s throwing. As for his curveball I know that its exit speed is most certainly up from years past ;)

So the fact that AJ admitted that he used to throw hard, all the time, and had injury problems because of it and has since taken it down a notch so to speak doesn’t explain the drop in average velocity? I have seen the guy still throw 95 in spots but when you are hitting the strikezone with your off-speed stuff, which he didn’t last year, it makes the fastball look faster.
Here are his innings pitched in relation to his average fastball velocity:
2004 – 95.4 IP-120
2005 – 95.6 IP-209
2006 – 94.9 IP-135.2
2007 – 95.1 IP-165.2
2008 – 94.3 IP-221.1
2009 – 94.2 IP-207
2010 – 93.2 IP-186.2
So for the most part, aside from being skipped this year which could have put him over 200 IP again this season…his velocity is down, but IP is up.
Would we rather have a better velocity, but less innings? No.
Everyone and their mother knows the guy is a head case and losing Eiland for a huge chunk of the season just happened to coincide with him completely falling apart? This is the reason I am hoping that Rothschild can help him get his touch back in terms of breaking pitches. Even in the throws of the worse season for a NYY pitcher in the history of the franchise, when he actually did throw the curve for a strike early in the year, he looked dominant.
“Is the problem with his curve correctable? I don’t know because I don’t know what’s wrong with it.”
We’ll see when Rothschild works with him this year.
“But even if it is, that velocity drop on the fastball is troubling.”
Why? Because you say so? The two are related, not mutally exclusive in terms of the guy getting knocked around…

Why? Because you say so?
I’d refer you to the lists I posted earlier.
A conscious decision not to throw as hard could explain the drop from 95.1 to 94.3, not so much last season’s drop to 93.2. His velo chart indicates he broke 95 far less often in 2010 than he did in 2009. Maybe it’s as John says: overthrowing. I guess we’ll see.

Without having the data in front of me or even knowing where to find it two examples of similar situations would be Beckett and Papelbon. I think Beckett and Burnett are a lot alike except that Beckett has slightly better stuff and a better array of pitches. Beckett has also been injured so the similarities differ there, but I think both guys (Burnett and Beckett) are going to have to learn how to pitch more and throw less. I can’t believe I am saying this but fortunately for Sox fans Beckett seems to have the better mental makeup to do so. Papelbon, by all accounts threw hard, harder and hardest last year with less success than he’s ever had. This is why I said the other day that Cliff Lee was worth every penny for the next 3-4 years, he’s a pitcher top to bottom. He gets it.

Right, but your “lists” are just a bunch of metrics that confirm that he had a bad year. Everyone knows he had a bad year. You seem to be saying that he’s done…because of said stats.
Make a stand man. Are you saying he’s done or not? Is their a chance the new pitching coach can get him back to where he needs to be mechanically? Can a guy that averages 93mph on the fastball, but also commands his breaking pitches most of the time not be successful? (albeit hard to imagine I admit)
I understand what the stats say, hell, I’ve actually watched what you have pulled up on a website. The guy has a great arm, but a soggy brain. Maybe that can’t be quantified, but any YF that watches the guy knows it.

I’m referring to the lists of pitchers who suffered a 1 mph drop in velocity from 2008-09 and 2009-10. Not an impressive list of pitchers outside Lincecum and the relievers making the switch to the rotation.
Are you saying he’s done or not?
I believe he will be pitching next year, so I guess my answer to that question is no.
Is their a chance the new pitching coach can get him back to where he needs to be mechanically?
Can a guy that averages 93mph on the fastball, but also commands his breaking pitches most of the time not be successful?
Yes, but I question the relevance. That does not, and has never, described A.J. Burnett.

There definitely needs to be a stat developed to measure “degree of headcase”. I find the stats interesting – esp on the balls swung and hit out of the zone. And I tend to agree that given the fact that AJ has always been notoriously bad with command, it’s going to be pretty hard for him to keep relying so much on that fastball. He must get his hook back. It has always been his out pitch. Right now it is either flat or is so freaking wild that no one will bother with it. Like John says, he needs to learn how to pitch, and I fear he may simply be too old for that. And I too immediately thought of Josh Beckett and suspected a similar story might be told of him. Though I presume he has never had the degree of controll issues that AJ has.

“Yes, but I question the relevance. That does not, and has never, described A.J. Burnett.”
The relevance is that the reason his fastball got pounded last year is because his curveball was terrible. Not because of his “troubling” drop in velocity.
If he can get his curveball back, he’ll be fine. He’s never going to be Greg Maddux, nor does he have to be. He just needs to get that curveball back on track.
The guys doesn’t have to be an Ace for the Yankees to be successful, just get back to ’09 levels where he went 13-9 with a 4.04 ERA and won a World Series.

There definitely needs to be a stat developed to measure “degree of headcase”
There is: BHQ. This stands for “Beer Hat Quotient”. Papelbon, in 2007, had a BHQ of 1.003 (technically the highest you can get is 1.000, but that year Paps completely destroyed historical precedent and expectations). Amazingly, Burnett only tipped a .511 BHQ last year, the official scorer was unable to determine if his poor performance was due to being a headcase or just due to what he called “plain sucking”.

hehe…not a big burnout fan as you all know, but i’m afraid i have to ramp up my “optimism quotient” after the yanks swung and missed [twice] on lee, and with the specter of pettitte’s possible retirement…i appreciate all the stats and analysis paul, but i’m afraid on this one i have to bury my head in the sand, ignore them, and hope the new pitching coach can do some kind of pygmalion transformation on burnout…fingers crossed ;)

Yanks sign Mark Prior!
Man, typing that would have been so much more exciting about 8 years ago.
Its a minor league contract, terms unannounced as of yet.

Zambrano would be an awesome pickup for the Yankees. I can see the Youkilis v. Zambrano throw down already!
That being said, Zambrano presents the same exact issues that are being discussed in this thread with re: to Burnett. Two major headcases on the same rotation, who you’re severly depending on, is a risk. Probably one worth taking for NY at this point, but a risk nonetheless.
I wouldn’t mind Boston kicking those tires as well, so that alone tells me it’s a decent move for NY.

Just get back Pettitte, Wood and another solid Lefty reliever and let’s roll…oh, and a bench/utility guy too?
We need to wait a year or two for Felix and Hanley anyway. ;)

We need to wait a year or two for Felix and Hanley anyway. ;)
yeah, that’s a pipe dream. Any team would essentially have to give away every single ranked miL player they have for either of them, and everyone knows it.
If NYY feel they need to add a pitcher, which they do since they’re A)short and B)putting way too much faith in Pettitte, they should concentrate in the Peavy/Webb/ect market. Not King Felix.

I think both Wood and Feliciano are going to be rich, rich bullpen additions, since at this point, it seems that Boston and NY are both climbing that hill.
If the O’s lefty is getting 4/12, Wood and Everyday Pedro are getting PAID.

Sign Zambrano? YES! On his way to a physical, he will cold-cock two photographers and judo-chop a third in the neck. The Big Unit only shoved a jerk. To be fair, Randy probably took it easy on the pap because he loves photography and is actually not terrible at it.
Just imagine what could happen if Posada is called back to the battery when Russell Martin goes down (and he will) with an injury. Signs crossed? Flying tackles at 30 feet three inches between the rubber and home.

I’d like to think Cashman is smarter than to even entertain Zambrano. He’s an awful fit in NY and he makes more than he deserves. Let the Cubs deal with him and let’s (Yankees) move on.
MLBTR mentions Carmona is being shopped…I guess he’s a possibility but certainly not my first choice.
I was thinking this morning: I imagine that Aaron Harang is kicking himself for signing with Padres. The Yankees might have been a pretty nice fit for him given their current situation.
I don’t know where they look now other than reclamation projects and other teams unwanted contracts. This rotation is certainly troublesome. Great lineup, rotation is tough to swallow.
I agree on Wood, disagree on Feliciano. He’s an abused arm that I want no part of. The Mets overused him, let someone else watch him break down for $5-7 million.
Webb, maybe. Problem is he’s nowhere near ready to throw. They said when he began throwing at the end of last season he was throwing in the low 80’s…Peavy, no way. Maybe, maybe in 2012, but 2011 is a lost cause for him.

You saw the ” ;)” didn’t you Brad? I was joking dude…
Oh, I know, man.
But, on Zambrano: I really feel that his kind of “crazy” isn’t a bad thing. He’s a fierce competitor, who loves to win, and hates to have bad days. Maybe he takes it too far 8 times out of ten, but I think if you remove him from the lifelong loser organization and put him on a good, competing team, he would flourish.
Or, he’d kill the catcher and manager. Either way, it makes for good TV.

> he would flourish
If nothing else, pitchers would think twice about plunking Yankee batters. Carlos is the ultimate baseball enforcer. He’s like the love child of Don Drysdale and Bob Probert. Except bigger and more angry than you can possibly imagine.

> Is Carmona worth pursuing considering he’s a 60% ground ball pitcher?
A team might think he will eat some innings and maybe become a solid asset, but reading his future is like looking at a Mandelbrot. You see what you want to see.
Short answer: No.
Long answer: Nooooooooooooooo.
His decent season last year combined with flashes of brilliance in 2007 can cast a spell. And Cleveland has club options through 2014, so it will be expensive to extract him.

I don’t know if I agree AG. He’s not top of the list good, but if he comes at the right price he’s certainly better than: Ivan Nova, Sergio Mitre, Ben Sheets, etc…He’s especially attractive because he makes just $6 million this year, then has 3 club options at just over $9 million. Good in 2011, pick up 2012, stinks in 2011, drop him. Of course it would all depend on the asking price and according to MLBTR there are plenty of teams interested and he’s drawing heavy interest. As much as I dislike Wang, he was somewhat successful in NY and they are very similar. I’d rather have a GB pitcher than a FB pitcher in Yankee Stadium, even with an aging IF.

Am I really going to start carrying the torch of positivity IH??? Really???
We won, what, 95 games last year? Got to within 2 games of the WS? And that was with our #2 pitcher (in theory) having the worst season of any starting pitcher in our history…Jeter, Tex, ARod and Granderson having below average (and that is being generous) seasons at the plate…lost Pettitte for the stretch run in the midst of perhaps his best season ever…etc, etc, etc.
We’re going to be fine. If anything, the moves the Sox made simply closed the gap. Not to mention the Rays are done. Couple this with all that money they didn’t spend on Lee and the inevitability of someone coming available at the trade deadline and we’re good to go.
krueg = Mr. Positivity.
I think the fact that all these SF’s have come back, you are feeling anxious! ;)

i’m with you krueg and for the reasons you stated…the most troubling thing for me right now is the uncertainty of pettitte’s return…if he does, i like our chances…while we can’t predict bounce back years for the guys you mentioned, or a solid, injury-free season for pettitte, it’s a safe bet that the guys who had off years will be at least a little better…could our rotation be better? of course…point is, it might be good enough with pettitte…tweak the bullpen [wood for example], and i think we’re fine…is boston better, sure…they added 2 marquee guys, but the guys they replaced had pretty darn good results this past season…not sure what the net + is, but it probably doesn’t match the hype…the sox have a similar problem at catcher as we do, and they’ve done nothing to improve their overall pitching staff either [yet], which has its own warts and blemishes…both teams have room for improvement, but the expectation that they will dog fight down to the wire for the al east, is probably more of a foregone conclusion…

Krueg, dc, you are good men…for the record, I expect the Yankees to make the playoffs if Pettitte returns, if AJ Burnett improves to at least being mediocre and eat some innings, and if CC and Hughes stay healthy. The offense does not concern me.
What I find depressing about the thread is both analyzing AJ and debating which middling starter or reclamation project out there on the market is worth $5 – $12 million next year to fill a #4 or 5 slot. I want them to just get it over with – plug the hole temporarily and please land Pettitte. Despite what our SF-friends have said about not being scared of Pettitte, the reality is that the guy is a truly professional pitcher. Eats innings, has an extraordinary capacity to bend-not-break, and comes up big in big games virtually every time.

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