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.