First pitch strike biggest difference for Burnett

A controversy out of nothing
Pondering the reasons for a bullpen move
Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/AP

If you take a look at A.J. Burnett’s FanGraphs page, you might see a few things stand out. The most obvious is his walk rate. After walking 4.22 per nine innings — 10.8 percent of the batters he faced — last year, he has walked just 2.84 per nine, or 7.7 percent of the batters he has faced this year. It’s still too early to draw any conclusions from this data, but it’s still a welcome improvement. A.J. admitted as much himself in spring training, when he lamented his high walk rate from 2009, his highest since 2001.

What further stands out is that he has done this despite throwing fewer strikes than he did last season. During his three starts so far he has thrown 297 pitches, 175 of which have been strikes, or just about 59 percent. Last season he threw 61 percent strikes. The difference isn’t huge, especially at this point in the season. Still, it’s odd to see him throw fewer strikes and walk fewer batters. Batters are swinging at fewer of the out-of-zone pitches, too, just 20.3 percent, compared to 22.1 percent last season. While with the Blue Jays Burnett sat in the 24-percent range.

How, then, is Burnett walking fewer batters? Luck certainly plays a role. He’s also getting ahead in the count. Of the 78 hitters he has faced this season, 37 of them have seen an 0-1 count (47 percent) and only two of them have ended up walking. Last season he faced 896 batters, and while 48 percent of them saw an 0-1 count, 29 of them walked, or 6.7 percent. In other words, Burnett is doing a better job of playing to the advantage of the first-pitch strike so far. He’s also induced plenty of poor first-pitch contact. Last year hitters put the first pitch in play 96 times, 10.7 percent, and slugged .478. This year they’ve put the ball in play 12 times, 15.4 percent, and have slugged .364.

Burnett still presents a few concerning numbers, like his still-low ground ball percentage, his unsustainably low HR/FB percentage, and his unsustainably high LOB percentage. Chances are he’s due for a regression — I don’t think anyone believes, anyway, that he’d maintain a 2.37 ERA throughout the season. Still, Burnett has shown some signs of improvement. He wanted to lower his walk rate and he’s on his way. He’s done so by throwing first pitch strikes and taking advantage from there. He has also induced swings on more pitches within the strike zone, and has held hitters to a lower contact rate when doing so. It appears, then, that for every questionable aspect of Burnett’s game, he has a positive to go with it.

What I want to see from Burnett tonight: first pitch strikes and ground balls. I’m confident about the first, but not so much the second. Again, one of Burnett’s virtues during his three starts is the avoidance of the long ball. If he continues to allow fly balls at his current rate, he’s probably going to get burned a bit more often. If, however, he keeps the ball on the ground like he did in Toronto and Florida, he has a chance of keeping the ball in the park more often. His first pitch strike percentage will also keep him ahead of hitters, which will likely keep his walk rate low. With those two aspects of his game under control, I think we’ll see Burnett turn in a fine season. For now, though, I’m just thinking about his next game.

A controversy out of nothing
Pondering the reasons for a bullpen move
  • CS Yankee

    Things to be thanful for in AJ:
    1) fastball is great
    2) hook is beyond great
    3) doesn’t need a caddy anymore
    4) realizes that without said caddy, he’ll get more run support
    5) is healthy

  • Tank Foster

    I might be a crappy judge of personality, but I like AJ because, to me, he is the type of player who isn’t afraid of anything. As age calms him down, I’d think he’ll keep getting better. He has so much natural “stuff,” he can afford to lose half of it and still be very effective, if he pitches smart.

  • lardin

    There are two things we need to Thank Doc Halladay for:

    1) Teaching AJ how to be a professional pitcher. Its no coincidence that AJ’s pitching has gotten better since he played with Doc in Toronto and even AJ credits Doc.

    2) We need to thank Doc for going to the National League..

    • Steve H

      Its no coincidence that AJ’s pitching has gotten better since he played with Doc in Toronto

      Except that it really hasn’t. Media narratives are fun though.

      • lardin

        I listen to AJ not media narratives, AJ says Doc made him a better pitcher, then Doc made AJ a better pitcher.

        “Baseball is 90% Mental, the other half physical.”

        • Steve H

          AJ says that, but it’s not reflected as true in his stats.

          • Andy In Sunny Daytona

            It’s not a lie, if you believe it.

            /Asst to the Traveling Secretary’d

          • Rey22

            While I do agree it’s not reflected in stats, there’s something tangible we have to consider. AJ said Doc taught him he didn’t have to go full effort in every pitch, that he could pace himself. Now, I doubt that’s the sole reason for AJ’s perfect health *so far*, but considering his spotty injury record before, I’d say it has made a difference.

            • Steve H

              When did that kick in though? AJ was in Toronto for 3 years and was fully healthy for 1? It could be true, but we don’t know for sure yet. He has been healthy the past two seasons, so maybe it’s true, and I hope it really is.

              Maybe Halladay can tell AJ it’s better to pitch to a catcher with 125 OPS+ who’s below average defensively than one with a 60 OPS+ who isn’t. :)

              • JMK the Overshare’s Mystique and Aura

                Sounds like an interesting premise for a blog post…

          • Tank Foster

            How about in his durability? Staying healthy, and therefore pitching more innings at the same effectiveness per inning, means you are a “better” pitcher. You also discount the possibility that he is better than he would have been without Doc’s guidance…i.e., his stats are no better, but compared to what? He’s pitching in a tougher division now, remember……

            • Steve H

              We don’t really know if he’s turned the durability corner. He was healthy for 1 of his 3 seasons in Toronto.

  • YankeesJunkie

    AJ has never been an amazing pitcher, but he has always been a positive for a team and a solid #2 or #3 pitcher for a team. However, I would like to make a note on his health that his velocity dropped about .8 mph from 2007 to 2008 his FB has sat around 94 rather than 95. Ever since then he has made about 75 starts (5 starts in the playoffs) and over 450 innings in the last 2 plus years.

    • king of fruitless hypotheticals

      isnt that when he learned you didnt have to throw it through the wall every pitch?

      • Steve H

        It very easily could be that he’s losing speed on his fastball because he’s getting older. I don’t think losing 0.8 MPH on his fastball while going from 30 to 31 years of age. Also, he was injured for much of his age 30 season, and missed all of July (as well as two starts in June), when the weather is warm and pitchers are usually at peak velocity. Way too many variables to pinpoint where that change came from.

      • YankeesJunkie

        True I was just backing up with info.