2011 Season Preview: A.J. Burnett

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As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will go up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

Hope. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

As far as disappointments go, it’s tough to beat what A.J. Burnett did last season. I give him credit for making 30 starts and throwing 186.2 innings, though very few of those starts and innings were quality outings. A.J. set new career worsts in batting average against (.279), swing-and-miss rate (7.9%), strikeout rate (6.99 K/9), ERA (5.26), FIP (4.83), and xFIP (4.66). In the history of the New York Yankees franchise, even going back to when they were the Highlanders, that ERA is the highest by any pitcher who’s thrown at least 175 IP in pinstripes in a single season. Burnett wasn’t just bad, he was historically bad.

After whiffing on Cliff Lee and watching Andy Pettitte call it a career this winter, the Yankees need A.J. to be the $16.5M a year pitcher they’re paying him to be, now more than ever. Burnett has already altered his mechanics at the behest of new pitching coach Larry Rothschild, eliminating the swing of his front leg and instead driving it towards the plate. Whether or not the adjustments help in the regular season remain to be seen, but the early results in Spring Training are encouraging.

Best Case

For a guy like Burnett, it feels like the sky is the limit. His fastball still hums in at 93-94 mph with what looks like zero effort, and his curveball can be so good at times that it makes you wonder how anyone ever gets a bat on it. When prompted by the catcher, he’ll also throw a decent changeup just to mix something else in. The best season of A.J.’s career came during his final year in Toronto, when he amassed 5.5 fWAR and led the American League in strikeouts (231) and was third in innings pitched (221.1). Not only was he striking out well over a batter per inning, but he was also generating a ground ball on close to 50% of balls in play (48.5% to be exact).

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

The best case scenario has Burnett being that guy again, so we’re talking about a strikeout an inning with a healthy dose of ground balls. Getting his curveball – a pitch that averaged 14.3 runs above average from 2005 through 2009 but dropped off to 3.9 runs below average in 2010 – back on track is on part of that process, as is finding the two inches of horizontal movement his fastball lost during the 2009-2010 offseason. Perhaps the new mechanics can help, and hey, perhaps they can make his stuff even better.

Burnett’s always been plagued by command issues, but that doesn’t necessarily mean walks. His 1.21 HR/9 last season was his worst in four years and the second worst of his career, though that goes hand-in-hand with the added ground balls. Left-handers also gave him as especially tough time (4.78 FIP compared to 3.78 career). It’s easier said than done of course, but correcting these flaws (which really started to manifest themselves last season) will help get A.J. back into five-win form, an ace worthy of his paycheck.

Worst Case

Could it possibly get any worse than it was last season? Unfortunately, it can. For all his struggles, Burnett did manage to rack up 1.3 fWAR thanks mostly to his bulk innings, providing more value to his team than guys like Jeff Niemann (1.2 fWAR), Jon Garland (0.8 fWAR), and Randy Wolf (0.7 fWAR). A continued decline in strikeout and ground ball rates will bring him ever closer to replacement level, as will another increase in his homerun rate.

At 34-years-old, it’s likely that A.J.’s fastball velocity will continue its slow and steady decline, meaning the days of reaching back and throwing a fastball by a hitter in a jam are a thing of the past. Given his #LowPitchingIQ, all the refined mechanics in the world might not be able to help Burnett if his stuff continues its descent into mediocrity. As was the case with Phil Hughes yesterday, the 2010 version of Javy Vazquez is a fine approximation of what Burnett’s worst case scenario might look like.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

What’s Likely To Happen

Who knows? That pretty much sums up this part of the preview. A.J. is as unpredictable as they come; on his good days he’ll look like the best pitcher on the planet, on his worst you’ll wonder how he ever made it out of A-ball. He certainly doesn’t make it easy, that’s for sure.

It’s been all of two Spring Training starts, but Burnett said that his more compact delivery feels natural, so he doesn’t find himself thinking about it on the mound, which I suppose is progress. The lost velocity is very real, however he still averaged 93.1 mph with the heater in 2010. Even if he loses another mile an hour (getting down to 92) this season, that’s plenty enough for a big league starter. No excuses there. The curveball … I don’t know what the hell is going on there. After years of being a dominant pitch (at +71.8 runs above average from ’05-’09, the best in the game by more than 12 full runs), I have a hard time believing it just fell right off and become a below-average pitch in what amounts to an offseason. I expect some improvement there.

Call me (cautiously) optimistic, but I think we’ll see a Burnett that is better than what he was in 2010 this season, but perhaps not as good as he was in 2009. That would put him right around a 4.50-4.60 FIP, so let’s split the middle and call it 4.55. That would be the third worst full season of his career, but spread out over 30 or 31 starts*, you’ve got a two, two-and-a-half win pitcher. Would you take that out of A.J. this year? I would, but perhaps my expectations are too low.

* Funny how we aren’t really concerned about Burnett’s durability anymore, huh? He’s proven himself in that department over the last three seasons, that’s for sure.

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  • Josh

    does anyone else love hope week like i do?

    • pat

      +1. It should be a MLB-wide event every year.

      • Gonzo

        Now that is a wonderful idea. Someone should run that up the ladder!

        Excellent idea.

      • Betty Lizard

        + a million.

        And, that is my favorite picture of AJ. He looked so happy that week–totally engaged, having a blast, and NOT THINKING about himself.

        I wish I knew why I’m so smitten with AJ but I am and for me, every week this season is also going to be hope week for him.

      • Guest

        I bet it has. It probably just takes a bit more time to work out all the logistics and potential ramifications of making such a program league-wide. Hopefully, we will see it soon.

        If I am wrong about this, and MLB has not considered/is not working on implementing a league wide Hope-Week type program, I would be pretty surprised and disappointed.

        • MannyGeee

          I would guess it would be a logistical nightmare for the ENTIRE league to have Hope Week on a specific week of the season, on account of travel schedules and West Coast Trips, etc…

          I would think that the League would ‘strongly encourage’ temas to do this as their schedules permit, however…

  • elvin

    I feel AJ can reach 15 wins this season, when we signed AJ we all knew we was going to get a bad year from him, i dont think he can repeat last year. We got a better bullpen so we wont need AJ to pitch until the 7th-8th innings, he will do fine in 11′

  • Monteroisdinero

    He really is the key. If he is last year or worse we struggle to make the playoffs. If he is an improved AJ thanks to mechanics/mental state/Rothschild, we can beat the Sawx. He looked good Saturday against Phillies “A” team (minus Utley).

    As an aside, I think Montero should catch all his starts in ST. Good test for him.

  • elvin

    By the way, i love HOPE week, shows how much the organization cares about those outside Yankee Staduim. Its always good to give back to needy fans

  • Not Tank the Frank

    The curveball is the key. It’s truly mystifying how that pitch just fell off the face of the earth. I haven’t seen him throw more than a couple in each of his spring starts. I’d like to see him throw it more often and get a feel for it as early as possible.

  • http://procrastinationperfected.tumblr.com/ BigDavey88

    I cannot add anymore analysis that hasn’t already been said all off season. We have beat this horse to a misty vapor.

    Dear A.J.

    Throw a baseball decently this season.

    Regards,
    The Yankee Universe

    • Sweet Dick Willie

      Regards,
      The Yankee Universe

      You will be hearing from the Yankees legal dept.!

  • Jim

    What is that thing next to AJ in the photo?

    • pat

      Classy.

      • Poopy Pants

        RAB allows and encourages retard jokes. RAB is classy.

        • http://www.secondavenuesagas.com Benjamin Kabak

          Excuse me?

    • http://twitter.com/steveh_MandAura Steve H

      A nice young woman who is way, way out of your league.

    • YankeeEarnhardt

      It’s a person who has way more sense of living than you, seriously, is that what you think of her “a Thing??” may I tell you that they can be way smarter than most of us

      • Jim

        Whoa. I was kidding. They obviously used the photo as a source of humor. I honestly don’t know who it is and was trying to kid. bad joke on my part. I sincerely apologize.

        • Jim

          Seriously feel awful about this. Please delete my original comment.

    • DCBX

      /Passes Jim a DFA IPA

      No, I insist.

  • http://twitter.com/steveh_MandAura Steve H

    Last year was an extreme outlier for AJ’s career in healthy seasons. In seasons where he’s thrown 150+ innings, he’s been at least league average until last year. As long as last year wasn’t part of an age related decline, I fully expect a bounceback from last year.

    • Not Tank the Frank

      All those other seasons didn’t come at 34 years old. I understand what you’re saying…but it may no longer be an outlier.

  • Stan

    I like Fangraphs and all but IMHO fWAR for pitchers does not pass the smell test. Using fWAR for pitchers can lead to all kinds of wrong conclusions. He struck out a bunch of guys so that bumped up his FIP and thus his fWAR. However, he still gave up a bunch of runs and was, on average, worse than replacement. That is what bWAR would tell you… he had -0.1 WAR in 2010.

    • Mister Delaware

      I imagine Hit F/X, whenever it comes mainstream, will greatly improve on pitching metrics like FIP by not treating all BiP as the same.

  • dkidd

    that’s my favorite aj picture ever

    no matter how frustrating he is as a pitcher, i like having him on the team

    why can’t i quit you????????

  • YankeeEarnhardt

    I love A.J. as much as I love the Yankees themselves, he’s one of my favorite pitchers. In my opinion he’s the most talented player on the team, he just doesn’t see it himself. He’s actually not a bad guy, I just dislike that many people are always on his case and talking bad about him, he’s a human being for crying out loud and we all have mistakes. I just hope he gets more than 12 wins this season. Heck maybe 20 just like CC

    • hogsmog

      Arod-> most talented. Though I do love me some AJ.

  • Mike HC

    It is funny that Javy Vazquez is the de facto “worst case scenario” for everyone.