How greatly did Burnett’s 2009 affect his 2010?

Hal: "I think Brian does a great job"
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(Charles Krupa/AP)

Something got lost amid A.J. Burnett‘s struggles in 2010. Had he pitched effectively, I feel as though it would have gotten a lot more play this off-season. For the third straight season, Burnett started more than 30 games. When the Yankees signed him, most fans had legitimate concerns about his health. Before 2009 he had started 30 games in a season just twice, but during his Yankees tenure he has missed few starts — the only one I can remember is the Sunday start against the Red Sox when he had back spasms. But just because he has taken the mound every five days doesn’t mean he his body was ready for the rigors of a 33-start season.

Burnett’s injury history left him with fewer innings than a typical pitcher of his age. After the 2007 season, when he turned 30, he had accumulated just 1,155 big league innings. As a counter example, CC Sabathia just pitched his age-29 season and already has 2,127 innings. Burnett, of course, is not a 23-year-old whose innings need monitoring. But his relatively low level of activity before age 30, followed by two straight seasons with 34 and 33 starts, might have affected him physically. That effect might have been amplified in 2009, when Burnett pitched more innings than he had previously in his career.

To cut off questions, no, I am not a doctor. Nor do I believe that what follows fully explains Burnett’s struggles. It just seems to me that when Burnett flopped in 2010, the media pointed to his head as the reason. Apparently speaking with a southern drawl and having an arm full of tattoos causes writers to look down on your intelligence — and, taking it a step further, blame said lack of intelligence for your struggles on the mound. Maybe Burnett does have mental issues that clouded his 2010, but I don’t think that fully explains it. His struggles could just as easily been physical.

The idea of overworking Burnett came up in the middle of the 2009 season. He was a bit above league average in terms of pitches per inning pitched, which is certainly taxing on the arm. He finished the season with 16.7 pitches per inning, which was a bit above league average rate. Still, that doesn’t represent the biggest concern. In 2009, for the first time in his career, Burnett pitched in the playoffs. That added another 27.1 innings and 459 pitches (16.8 per inning) to his total. Moreover, it had led him to exceed his previous pitch and innings pitched totals. I mentioned this when previewing Burnett for 2010, but took the optimistic route:

There are concerns that career highs in innings pitched could adversely affect Burnett and Sabathia. Neither set career highs during the regular season. In fact, both had set that mark in 2008, when Sabathia pitched 253 innings and Burnett pitched 221.1. In 2009 the Yankees had leeway later in the season to give them a rest, and it led to Burnett pitching 14 fewer innings, while Sabathia, not pitching every fourth day in a tight pennant race, managed 23 fewer innings. The playoffs, of course, pushed them both above their career highs. Sabathia threw 36.1 innings in the playoffs for a total of 266.1, 9.2 innings over his career high. Burnett threw 27.1 playoff innings for a total of 234.1, 13 more than his career high.

Put this way, it doesn’t appear either pitcher worked much harder than in 2009. In fact, they might have put less stress on their arms. Sabathia’s 2008 season started on March 31 and ended on October 2, 186 days. That works out to 6.9 innings every five days. In 2009 he started on April 6 and ended on November 1, 210 days. That works out to just about 6 1/3 innings every five days. Burnett’s 2008 season started on April 2 and ended on September 24, 176 days, or just under 6 1/3 innings every five days. In 2009 he started on April 9 and ended on November 2, 208 days, or just under 5 2/3 innings every five days. Both of their workloads, spread over time, were lower in 2009 than in 2008.

One factor I didn’t acknowledge was that Burnett and Sabathia both had less rest then normal. This was a bigger factor for Burnett, who, again, had never pitched into October before in his career. Instead of pitching 135 or 165 innings over six months and then resting four and a half months before pitchers and catchers reported, Burnett threw 234 innings over seven months and had just three and a half months until he had to report again. I can imagine that would take a toll on his body, not unlike working out harder than you ever have, and then going back to the gym after a less than customary rest time. That second workout isn’t going to feel as strong as the previous one.

Burnett seemingly broke down in June. Through his first 11 starts he had thrown 71.1 innings to a 3.28 ERA. His strikeouts were a bit down, but so were his home runs, perhaps due to an increased ground ball rate. In other words, his peripherals checked out (3.36 FIP). When his ERA shot up by two full runs in June, the easy explanation was pitching coach Dave Eiland’s absence. After Eiland returned Burnett had a few good starts, but he still wasn’t very effective. From July through the end of the season he pitched 92.1 innings to a 5.26 ERA. And still, even though Eiland had returned, the media still pointed to his head and not to any physical issues.

Maybe this all is in Burnett’s head. Maybe he had a major distraction during the season and couldn’t keep his focus on the mound. Of this we just can’t be sure. But we can be sure that in 2009 Burnett not only experienced an unprecedented workload, but he also had less time to recover. With that in mind, it is just as easy to blame his struggles on a physical issue as it is on his mental state. In fact, it’s a bit easier to blame it on a physical issue, since we can measure his workload and recovery.

The good news, then, is that Burnett had plenty more time to rest this year. He threw 192.2 innings and 3,217 pitches last season (16.7 per inning), including the postseason, both of which are reductions from his 2009 workload. He also made only one postseason start, and the Yankees’ season ended a few weeks earlier. The hope is that the combination of Burnett’s body becoming used to the increased stress, plus the increased recovery time, will make him stronger in 2011. If nothing else, it makes me a bit more confident that he’ll recover and again provide the Yankees with quality innings. They need it this year more than ever.

Hal: "I think Brian does a great job"
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  • BavarianYankee

    his biggest problem last year was that for some reasons he couldn’t throw a curveball. That killed him. I think if he gets the feeling for his curveball back then his ERA should be around 4.20. Not great, but way better than last year.

  • whozat

    did this get published by accident the other day, or am i hallucinating again?

    • Ed

      Yeah, i was confused too. My RSS feed picked it up at noon yesterday.

    • Joe Pawlikowski

      I was supposed to go up at noonish yesterday, but the site went down so we rearranged the schedule.

  • Fair Weather Freddy

    Tell Burnett he has lost his job as the pie in the face guy. Worry more about your pitching

  • Nigel Bangs

    It’s so easy to hate Burnett. I’m trying to forgive this guy for last season’s struggles and move on. Few things would make Yankeeland happier than a healthy, effective AJ for 2011.

  • YankeesJunkie

    I don’t think it was surprising that Burnett dropped off after 2009 when he threw a career high innings, but the precipitous drop off that occurred was the real shock. There is nowhere for Burnett than to go up and maybe this last year will lead him in the direction to be a more complete pitcher.

  • Ivan

    It’s easy to hate a player like Burnett, of course he’s being paid to play good, but there are many things that goes around a player’s performance than what fans see on TV. So he gets the benefit of the doubt from me.

  • YankeeEarnhardt

    Unlike other fans, I don’t think A.J. is a BUM and he shouldn’t be trashed like most “YANKEE” fans do. I just think that like a GREAT ball player he had a slump which had a very bad effect on his team, but it’s nothing that new pitching coach Larry Rothschild can fix. All Yankees though should have a positive attitude that they’ll win the World Series this year!!!

  • bexarama

    Yeah… when the Yankees signed Burnett I didn’t like the contract not because I thought he’d be bad or ineffective, but because I thought he’d be only slightly healthier than Pavano. :/

    I don’t know what was wrong with him, but get better next year AJ.

  • James

    Has anyone seen the remarkably sunny BJ AJ projection? w l ip k/9 bb/9 hr/9 BIBP ERA FIP
    12 9 191.0 8.34 3.63 0.99 .308 4.01 4.05

    Make sense to anyone?

    • bexarama

      Bill James is pretty optimistic about nearly everyone

  • Mike Myers


    A big point is Larry. Can he turn this kid around? I think he will be highly judged on AJ and Joba. Fingers crossed….

  • Carlosologist

    I truly think that Burnett will do well in 2011. He isn’t going to be historically bad again. We can probably expect a rebound in BABIP and LOB%, which were way below his career averages. Maybe with Rothschild around he’ll experience a rebound in strikeouts (here’s an article that has some quantitative proof:

    I really feel Burnett will come up big for us when we need him.

    • Carlosologist

      Remove that last parenthesis when clicking the link.

  • JimmieFoxx

    Also let’s not forget that he was punched in the face last year. He may have been demoralized from getting his ass whupped, which lead to a lack of confidence on the mound. I’m being sarcastic of course but did we ever find out the reason for the black eye?

  • Dicka24

    I hope his decline doesn’t have anything to do with the state of his fastball, and the decline in velocity he’s experiencing there. He more or less averaged 94-95 in the majority of his starts in 2009, but only averaged 95mph once in 2010.

  • MikeD

    Up to last year, AJ Burnett’s had two issues with his career, one fair, one not. First, he was injury prone; second, he never lived up to expectations. The first one he’s answered, having been quite durable the last three years. The second one is based purely on what people think he should do based on his “electric” stuff. It’s not fair because even when he pitches well, people expect more, yet there’s no evidence he can deliver more.

    Yet up until last year, Burnett has been consistent. I know that linking AJ and the word “consistent” together makes little sense, because to many people he’s the poster boy for inconsistent pitcher, yet he has been consistent when it comes to quality. From 2001-2009, here are his ERA+’s:

    105, 122, 112, 116, 115, 119, 104 and 114.

    (I left out 2003 when he was recovering from TJ surgery and only pitcher about 20 innings).

    He’s averaged 113 over that span, with his “worst” year coming in 2008 when he scored 104, yet that was the year he led the league in starts and strikeouts, winning 18 games. It was his last year in Toronto, which led to his Yankee contract. There was no reason to expect his dud from last year, and my guess is there’s no reason to not expect a bounceback. I’m sure we’d be happy with a league-average season, let alone if he hit his 113 average for the prior nine seasons.

    The main red flag on AJ was he lost velocity in 2010. Yet we see his velo trended down across 2010, and was at his lowest when he really sucked. It started trending back up later in the year, and he was hitting 95 again in his one World Series start, which leads me to believe it’s not an injury. The fact he couldn’t control his curve ball, lost some velo, and had a career high in hit batters (going from 10 in 2009 to a lead-leading 19 in 2010), along with an increase in wild pitches during his two years as a Yankee, tells me he’s have mechanical issues. He has a very high-maintenance delivery, so it’s not hard to see him get out of whack, which seemed to happen as the season progressed. Also, not having a solid receiver may cause him to back off his curve, which led to many of his wild pitches. Hopefully, Russell Martin can help on that side.

    I am expecting a bounceback, simply because his 2010 seasons does not fit his pitching profile from the previous seasons.

  • Kevin Ocala, Fl

    Joe, I remember Bill James doing a study in the 1980’s/early ’90’s showing that pitchers and catchers that have low work before age 25 tended to have longer careers. The belief was/is that the bodies connective tissues typically don’t fully mature until that age.

  • George Heaslip

    Without a hot AJ, Boston finishes first and the Yankees take the wild card. Forget Tampa in 2011.

  • Frank Libby

    Please forgive me for saying so but, I would not let Burnett wear the Yankee uniform again. I’m still pissed from last year.

  • Wil Nieves #1 Fan

    Burnett pitches well in years before free agency. Give him 1 year contracts every year. Problem solved. I’m a genius.