Walks a concern for Burnett, but so are ground balls


While A.J. Burnett‘s first season in pinstripes was in many ways a success, he left some room for improvement. He knows it, too. As he said the other day, he needs to, “Not walk as many people and go deeper into games.” In 2009 Burnett posted his highest walk rate since 2000 and the lowest innings per start of his career (both discounting his injury shortened 2003). He would clearly benefit from improvements in both, though I do think that he left out one important aspect: his ground ball rate.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Burnett has never been known as a control pitcher. In some years, such as 2006 and 2004, he’s posted BB/9 rates below 3.00, which is a good mark for a starter. Yet his career rate is 3.78, meaning he’s had many years above that mark. He also sat below the mark in years where he failed to reach 140 IP. Chances are, Burnett won’t miraculously stop issuing free passes in 2010. Instead, I imagine he’ll fall back somewhere in the range of his last five years, which is 3.52 walks per nine.

What Burnett could do to help his case is to start inducing more ground balls. Or, rather, to induce ground balls like he did before 2009. Last season he posted the lowest ground ball rate of his career, 42.8 percent. Over his career he’s kept nearly 50 percent of balls in play on the ground, which helps a pitcher who hands out free passes. Unsurprisingly, Burnett induced more double plays in 2005, when his ground ball rate was 58.4 percent, than at any other point in his career. In 2009 he induced one double play for, roughly, every 60 batters faced. Prior to 2008, when he saw his ground ball rate drop below 50 percent for the first time his career, he was around one every 38 batters. In 2008 he was at one in every 50 batters.

Keeping the ball on the ground can also help Burnett reach his second stated goal, to go deeper into ballgames. While walking fewer hitters will undoubtedly help, so will inducing ground balls. In his best ground ball years, Burnett kept his hits per nine rate below 8.0. With a decent infield behind him, Burnett shouldn’t have problems with too many ground balls finding holes. Perhaps if this was the 2005 Yankees defense it would be an issue, but it’s not as much in 2010.

At FanGraphs, Matthew Carruth examines ground ball rates and what they mean for pitchers. In terms of the big picture, pitchers with higher ground ball rates saw lower FIP and runs allowed rates. That’s not to say that every pitcher follows this guideline, but Burnett seems to. In the last five years his highest ground ball rates have come in 2005 and 2007, which also happen to be the years he’s posted his lowest ERAs.

We’d all like Burnett to cut down on his walks and pitch deeper into games. The first, in fact, begets the second. Part of the problem with walks, however, is that Burnett has never been a low walks guy. But he has been a ground ball guy. If he can get back to that, and bring his walk rate back to career norms, he should not only pitch deeper into ballgames, but also pitch more effectively overall.

Categories : Pitching


  1. steve s says:

    At this stage of his career AJ is pretty much a what you see is what you get kind of guy. The good AJ showed up enough last year to be considered a good acquistion notwithstanding the bad AJ showings every now and then. If you tinker too much with him you’ll risk ending up with an Ollie Perez.

  2. larryf says:

    AJ’s grounders often find the hole…between our catcher’s legs. Bring on Cervelli-a quicker, better, stronger-armed Molina…

  3. so then if he can regress to the mean then it’s all gravy? i can see that (and dig it)

  4. Who is that in the picture background, all the way on the left?

  5. Christos says:

    “He posted his highest walk rate since 200″ Might wanna fix that.

  6. Accent Shallow says:

    One thing that I find worrisome about the low ground ball rate is that I was under the impression that ground ball rates are relatively stable year to year, and thus a significant swing in either direction may indicate a change in approach.

    However, Burnett didn’t look all that much different than he did in 2008, either peripherally or by eye.

  7. larryf says:

    Not to get off topic-easy boys-if Posada is gonna catch 100/120 games….why not Cervelli for our strike zone-challenged, wild pitch- producing #2 starter??? Is Posada’s 38/39 year old bat that much better than a better defender at the catching position?

    • JGS says:

      Posada wOBAed .378 last year. Cervelli wOBAed .283, and even that was higher than people expected. Until Posada falls off a cliff at the plate, the answer to that is an emphatic yes

    • Did you just call me easy? Anyway, point at hand: I suppose it’s not the worst idea in the world, though I don’t necessarily like the idea of pigeon-holing him to a specific role, particularly since it would create tremendous brouhaha when the playoffs come around. Perhaps that’s just silly narrative, too.

      Posada will not be catching 150 games; he’s not a good defense catcher and AJ is best paired with a strong defensive player for the reasons you listed. If say he starts 32 games, Posada’s magic number is already down to 130. Scatter a few more starts to give him a break, he’s quite easily at 115-120. Still, if playoffs come, you need a big bat and AJ is starting, it may not be dicey…

    • A) I don’t want ANY of our pitchers having a designated personal catcher. Let’s nip that in the bud immediately.
      B) That being said, if we happen to slot our backup catcher primarily lined up with one of our five starters, I want Cervelli to be the quasi-personal catcher for JOBA, not AJ. Joba needs a defensive-intensive catcher more than AJ does, IMO, and while the AJ/Posada rift was way overblown and totally a media creation, the Joba/Posada rift seems much more tangible and real.

      They don’t like each other’s pitch sequencing decisions. I’d like to see our young starter throw to a different catcher on occasion. See what happens.

      • Joba: I want to throw five consecutive sliders.

        Posada: No.

        Joba: Yes.

        Posada (to ump): Time.

        Mound visit…

        • H.W. Plainview says:

          Wouldn’t you if your fastball was valued at -1.26 wFB/C that year?

        • Joba: I want to throw another slider here.
          Posada: No, you just threw one.
          Joba: Yeah, and it was freakin’ bad-ass. It made him look like Jason Varitek. I can strike him out.
          Posada: Fastball.
          Joba: Damn you, Jorge, I know what I’m doing. Slider.
          Posada: Fastball.
          Joba: Slider, George.
          Posada: Shut up, you punk snot nosed kid. I’ve been in this business 15 years.
          Joba: What’s your name?
          Posada: F&$% YOU, THAT’S MY NAME. You know why? Cause’ you drove a Hyundai a few years ago, I drove an $80,000 BMW. That’s my name. If I say you’re going to throw the fastball here, you’re going to throw the fastball here.
          Joba: My slider is really good. I can get this guy out with my slider. I got lots and lots of guys out with my slider. It’s my out pitch. This is prime out pitch time.
          Posada: Trust me, I know what I’m doing here, Justin.
          Joba: Do you also know what you’re doing when you piss on your hands, grandpa?
          Posada: Shutup, you flat-brimmed-cap-wearing uppity brat. You belong in the damn bullpen anyway; it’s your body type. I can run this team better than Cashman.
          Joba: You really want the fastball, huh old man?
          Posada: Yes.
          Joba: He knows it’s coming. And he knows my fastball has been crappy all year.
          Posada: Throw it.

          (Joba throws a fastball, which is promptly deposited into the 8th row)

          Joba: You stupid motherf#$%er.
          Posada: You stupid motherf#$%er.

          … aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand, SCENE!

      • Am I the only Kevin? says:

        Where do I sign up for this?

        One fringe benefit – Joba/Phil are the most likely to be put in the pen in the postseason, so you won’t have the situation where Joe and the media feel it is a good idea to start your backup catcher in the postseason.

    • I feel like I’ve said this a hundred times, but I frankly do not care when people say “not to get off-topic.” It inevitably leads to an off-topic comment, which this is. Making things worse, we actually have a catcher thread coming up at 11:30.

      Please, larry, refrain from posting off-topic in our threads. We have an off-topic thread, plus an open thread every night.

  8. Andy in Sunny Daytona says:

    Why is Eiland stealing the face of Travis from Du Jour?

  9. smurfy says:

    Yep, Joe, you got your finger on Mr. Burnett’s key, and I sure hope he was listening. If he’s quit trying to make everybody swing and miss, and let them to beat it into the ground, his games would roll!

  10. [...] a recent piece from River Ave Blues’ Joe Pawlikowski, Joe points to A.J. Burnett’s ground ball rate [...]

  11. [...] his other goal of pitching deeper into games. What could further help him in that second goal is inducing ground balls at his career rate. In 2009 Burnett induced a career low 42.8 percent ground balls. His career rate is 49.5 percent. [...]

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