Will Burnett bounce back in 2010?


In a general sense, A.J. Burnett performed well in his debut season for the Yankees. Sure, he tossed a few clunkers, but he also had his share of dominating performances. At the end of the season that averaged out to a 4.04 ERA, right around his 2008 ERA of 4.07. That he pitched over 200 innings for the second straight season, the first time he’s accomplished the feat in his career, was a further positive. In a number of ways, however, Burnett’s season represented a step backward.

In 2007, after an injury-shortened debut season with Toronto, Burnett accomplished something he never did in the National League: he struck out more than a batter an inning. He did it again in 2008, and that probably played a role in the Yankees’ decision to sign him. It was an odd trend, of course, as pitchers tend to rack up more strikeouts in the NL, where pitchers hit instead of the DH. During these two years Burnett also kept his walks in check, around 3.50 per nine. Yet in his 2009 campaign Burnett declined in both areas.

His strikeouts remained high, 8.48 per nine innings, right around his career National League performance, but not quite at the level of his previous AL East experience. His walks also shot up, 4.22 per nine, his highest rate since 2001 (discounting his 23 innings in 2003). But again, despite declining about 10 percent in strikeout rate and increasing about 27 percent in walk rate, Burnett produced similar results as 2008. My question is whether this is a good sign, or whether it represents a boatload of good luck.

Looking a bit deeper into Burnett’s performances makes me think that luck played a big factor in his 2009 numbers. The first set of data that stands out is his ground ball to fly ball ratio, 1.09, the lowest of his career, and by a decent margin since 2003. His ground ball rate has declined over the past three years, going from 54.8 percent in 2007 to 48.5 percent in 2008, and finally to 42.8 percent in 2009. In that time, his fly ball rate has increased from 29.8 percent to 32 percent to 39.2 percent. This led to an xFIP of 4.29 and a FIP of 4.33, both a bit above Burnett’s actual ERA. His defense, it would seem, helped him out a bit.

We know that Burnett lives on his curveball, a nasty pitch that acts somewhat like a slider, diving down and away from right-handed batters, though the down and inward motion seems to foil lefties as well. He lives on swings and misses out of the zone in that regard. Yet in 2009 hitters made more contact in pitches outside the zone, 51.1 percent, than in any other year of his career. Burnett’s contact rate as a whole jumped last season, while his number of pitches thrown inside the zone was the lowest of his career (again, discounting 2003). What’s worse, hitters swung at fewer pitches outside the zone, 22.1 percent, than they had since he moved to the AL in 2006. His overall swing rate was, again, the lowest of his career.

The curveball, however, seems to be fine. According to FanGraphs’s pitch type values, his curve was as good as ever, perhaps among the best it has been in his career. It was worth 15.4 runs above average, higher than in any of the Blue Jay years, and higher than any year of his career except 2005. What hurt him, it appears, was his fastball, which ranked -13.0, the lowest of his career and, on a per 100 pitch basis, the 22nd worst fastball in the majors among pitchers who threw more than 150 innings.

Does the fastball decline explain Burnett’s increased walks, decreased strikeouts, and decreased ground balls? I think it has to, at least in some way. Again, look at Burnett’s last three seasons, and you’ll see increasing fly balls and decreasing ground balls. You’ll also see a decrease in his fastball value, from 8.2 runs above average in 2007 to 5.9 runs below average in 2008 to 13 runs below average in 2009. While we can’t determine specific causation, there seems to be something of a correlation there.

What’s most troubling about A.J.’s trending numbers is that we should have expected an uptick in performance over Toronto. He pitched in the AL East for three years and had to face the powerhouse Yankees offense during that time. By moving to the Yankees, he moved from that to having to face the Blue Jays lineup. So it appears that his workload got a bit easier. Yet his peripherals declined. I don’t like the looks of that.

Perhaps Burnett went through a period of adjustment to the rigors of pitching for the Yankees, and will recover his previous form in 2010. We know he has the stuff to do so. We saw A.J. at his best in 2009, one-hitting both the Mets and the Red Sox. We also saw him at his worst, giving up eight and nine runs to the Red Sox, seven to the White Sox. Hence Good A.J. and Bad A.J. These numbers don’t show whether we’ll see more of Good A.J. in 2010, though they do show why it appeared Bad A.J. showed up more than he really did.

Credit: AP Photo/Elise Amendola

Categories : Pitching


  1. Steve H says:

    Will Cervelli be his personal catcher this year? I’d like to see if this plays a part in his bounceback. While I think having Cervelli catch him over Posada is much more of a mental thing than it actually having a big difference otherwise, if Aj’s mind is right it can only help.

  2. pete says:

    bounce back from what? Didn’t he pretty much pitch about as well as any reasonable person should have expected him to? I realize many of his peripherals did decline, but his overall numbers were pretty much in line with his career numbers, no? I’m actually curious as to what people were expecting AJ to do last year, exactly?

    • The results were about in line, but again, with so much decline in the process I think that at least some of those numbers have to bounce back in 2010 in order for him to have a good year.

      • pete says:

        yeah sorry i kinda missed some of the point in my first read-through. 5am shift this morning. Still, I think it may be better to wonder if AJ will repeat or improve upon his performance from last year, rather than “bounce back”. Again, I understand that he did have worse peripherals, but peripherals are not the same thing as results. They are generally good indicators of weaknesses/strengths that could lead to a future deviation in results, but the results are the results. And the results were pretty much on par with expectations (or at least what I thought peoples’ expectations were – maybe I’m just psychic).

        • pete says:

          that said, upon my second reading I agree with your general points – AJ needs to pitch better next year if he wants to maintain the success he had. He flirted with disaster a lot and his bad stretches were so bad that it took a couple of prolonged stretches of dominance that he really has never exhibited before in his career and probably shouldn’t bank on in 2010 to get solid results. If he has a couple of month-long stretches of 5+ ERA seasons next year like he did last year, his results probably won’t be so solid.

    • Bo says:

      Exactly. he pitched like he was signed to pitch. Be the #2 pitcher on a WS winner.

  3. AndrewYF says:

    Reminds me of Randy Johnson and his evil twin, Randy Johnstone.

  4. Hughesus Christo says:

    He was about what I expected last year, and I would expect the same again next year. His mechanics go in and out (obvious even on TV, much like with Joba), and that can always be refined. Good #2 starter with Ace-level stuff that is unhittable when he’s on.

    • pete says:

      i thought the same thing above. But that’s not really what the post is about – the underlying peripherals indicate that his performance was not as good as his results would indicate, which, while not disparaging the ’09 results, makes it appear less likely that he’ll repeat his effectiveness next season unless he makes some fairly considerable improvements. And since those peripherals have been declining for three years, it’s hard to be all that confident that he will. And while his overall numbers have masked that declining performance to a degree, they have worsened to an extent in each of those years as well. Personally, I think 2010 AJ will be around a 4.20 ERA pitcher with about 200 Ks and a few of the year’s best pitching performances, including one or two in the playoffs. But I do worry that if his FB continues to drop (it rarely topped 96 last year, and was generally in the 93-94 range, rather than the expected 95-96, which would be fine if he weren’t so wild), and he doesn’t improve his peripherals – namely his control, then he will fall off a cliff in the last year or two of his contract, making that $16 million bite the yanks in the ass a bit. Of course, by 2013/2014, John Lackey will pitch 140 innings (in those two years combined) to the tune of a lofty 5.62 ERA, so we’ll at least be able to take some solace in that.

      • Hughesus Christo says:

        My comment reflects the fact that I see Burnett’s “problem” being consistency rather than any irreversible loss of ability. I’ll take the blowups in exchange for the dominance, especially since I’m confident that his issues can be hammered out by coaching.

        • I’ll take the blowups in exchange for the dominance, especially since I’m confident that his issues can be hammered out by coaching.

          Are you not concerned that coaching hasn’t yet hammered those issues out?

          Burnett’s been coached on his issues for about 20-odd years now.

          • Hughesus Christo says:

            But this post is about whether we should be concerned about AJ, it asks whether we should be concerned about the AJ of last season. He has more issues with consistency/maintaining mechanics than he had the two seasons plays before his signing. I think that can be corrected with coaching. Players trend down over time because they slide physically, not because they forget how to play. I didn’t see any physical loss, so I’m not concerned.

  5. jsbrendog officially approves signing Fernando Tatis says:

    might it alaso have something to do with his conditioning and experience, or lack thereof, of actually pitching multiple full seasons in a row?

    just spitballin here but maybe he is now having to adjust tot he rigors of continuous 200+ ip seasons whereas he never had todo thast before. the workload might just be getting to him… but what do i know

  6. Salty Buggah says:

    Great post. It’s exactly why I said serveral days ago that I agree with Ben on AJ being the most overrated Yankee.

  7. Reggie C. says:

    The walks. Aww man, the walks drove me crazy. Burnett is better than what he showed last season, so I’m looking forward to a dip in BB/9 and uptick in K/9. Burnett’s at least been able to turn the page on the injury-prone label, but now a more consistent 200 inning campaign would be welcomed.

    • Burnett is better than what he showed last season, so I’m looking forward to a dip in BB/9 and uptick in K/9.

      Is he? All snark aside, is he really better than what he showed last year?

      Or, is he what we thought he was? I think he is what we thought he was.


      • jsbrendog officially approves signing Fernando Tatis says:


      • Reggie C. says:

        I think Burnett could be better. I mean its really a matter of degrees, right? Perhaps Burnett overthrew the FB more last season than in his Toronto days in a bad attempt to live up to the $85 mm, gun-slinging power pitcher persona. Burnett isn’t so far removed from those better Toronto seasons, when those streaks of dominance lasted longer.

        • ColoYank says:

          He might be better next year, but I doubt the Yanks are going to improve on the 21-12 record they had in his starts. Gimme that all over again, thanks.

          Now, were these wins examples of the other nine guys (counting the DH) bailing him out? Could 2010′s games lean more toward Burnett bailing out the other nine? Could be. Either way, I think it’s pretty cool that he’s our #2 guy (until possibly supplanted by Vazquez).

        • I think Burnett probably just is what he is.

          A two pitch pitcher whose two pitches can either both be ultra-nasty, making him a 130+ level pitcher, or both be off, making him an 80+ level pitcher. Split the difference and you have a guy who’s a fringy #2 starter with a career and yearly ERA+ of about 110.

          Dude’s 32 turning 33. He’s probably not making any strides forward at this point. He’s a mercurial talent, capable of either dominance or putridity at the drop of a hat.

          • pete says:

            that. the only thing that really makes him a very good number 2 starter is that you’re never, or almost never, exactly not favored in his starts, including postseason. In other words, Good AJ can dominate absolutely any lineup, and beat any pitcher. He’s easily a top-5 ace in the game. And in the end, if the yanks lose because their consistent #2 pitcher gave up 3 runs in 7 innings, it’s no better than if it’s because AJ gave up 7 runs in 3 innings. But if good AJ shows up, and the yanks lineup doesn’t, chances are the yanks are still winning. He’s inconsistent, but in a semi-good way.

            /Joe Morgan’s head explodes

          • Tom Zig says:

            Maybe Dave Eiland secretly had his way with him this offseason and now AJ Burnett will be that 130 ERA+ guy that Mike Pop and I fruitlessly hope he will be.

            But seriously, if he replicates last season I’ll be happy, Now if he replaces one or two of those shit starts with an average AJ start, I’ll be ecstatic.

  8. cicero says:

    when it comes to burnett, advanced stats might seem worthless. in my view (minor league catcher for a couple seasons) his performance can be attributed no nothing more than his ability to control his mechanics. trying to use metrics based on the last few years to predict what hell do in the future is kind of a excercise in futility with a guy whose mechanics can come and go at the drop of a hat (unless there is a advanced stat that can make predictions based on how a pitcher performs based on his mechanics, be they good or bad for a particular day). id say with burnett, your eyes are your best guide to performance. its very easy to tell during a game when his mechanics come and go. when his front shoulder starts flying open, expect a long night. front shoulder flies open, curveball hangs, fastball runs west to east without any real ability to control the movement (leads to more walks and more hittable pitches), which no doubt explains the decline in his fastabll in terms of runs above avg. with AJ its all mechanics and its fairly easy to see (with human eyes) when they start to get out of whack, be it start to start, inning to inning, batter to batter or pitch to pitch.

    • pete says:

      well i think the point was not that he will or won’t pitch the same was next year as last – it’s that his numbers were sort of a mirage against his actual performance, and if he pitches the same way next year – in other words, walks the same number of guys, strikes out the same number gives up the same number of hits and home runs, then he probably won’t sit at that nice and comfy 4.04 ERA

  9. ColoYank says:

    “Bow! Bow down before the Queen of Putrescence!”

  10. Bo says:

    And just think. This site and many here advocated signing Lowe over him.

    Always go with the dominating pitcher with swing n miss stuff.

  11. Stones says:

    He moved from the Roger’s Centre to Yankee Stadium, could that be part of it?

  12. LarryM, FL. says:

    AJ is an emotional guy who has some trouble with the control of his emotions. He doesn’t display them for all to see but as fans who watch him, we know they are eating at him. With one season in NY under his belt I expect with reasonably good health he’ll improve. Thus more consistent with his stuff better performances which will lead to Yankee wins whether his or another pitcher.

    • pete says:

      possible, but completely unsubstantiated. it’s also quite possible that AJ, who has been prone to the minor injury throughout his career, is simply the Johnny Damon of pitchers, and he’s never quite 100%, but it’s usually not something that hurts when he pitches or noticeably affects his pitching in bullpens so he never knows if it’s going to come into play until the game starts. Not that there’s anything wrong with you contributing your opinion/idea of what is wrong with him, but people tend to prefer it when you state opinions as opinions, and leave statements of fact for factual statements.

  13. A.D. says:

    Does the fastball decline explain Burnett’s increased walks, decreased strikeouts, and decreased ground balls? I think it has to, at least in some way.

    His fastball was also the slowest its been since ’03, although only .6 MPH below his career avg

  14. bronxbrain says:

    It occurs to me that the Yankees may soon need another starter. No, not because Vazquez will retire anytime soon, or because AJ will pitch so erratically that he will be banished to the bullpen at Trenton. No, I have a sneaking suspicion that Joba–pushed on by his stormy relationship with Posada–will leave baseball to pursue a full-time career in straight male porn. The mildly chubby angle would make it a sure thing–he would become irresistible to a segment of the industry’s customer base. “Baby Phat.” Imagine the peripherals.

  15. Mike HC says:

    Does the analysis take into account he played at YSIII which was an extreme hitters park, especially early in the year. That has to count for something. And I’m not sure about his home and road stats, but in Toronto, he played in a dome. Perfect conditions. Not everything is exactly the same.

  16. Earl says:

    Here is the flaw in the article:
    Joe mentioned Burnett’s numbers should have improved by moving to the Yankees and not facing them and facing the Blue Jays instead.

    In fact, its the opposite. Burnett dominated the Yankees and lowered his numbers vs the Yanks in 07 and 08. 2008: 5 starts 1.64 ERA, .94 WHIP. 2007: 2 Starts .60 ERA, .93 WHIP.

    Try taking the stats vs the Yankees out of his 07 and 08 seasons. I bet the numbers rise to where they are in 09 (or higher).

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