Apr
14

Burnett’s new, old toy

By

Changeup! (AP Photo)

A.J. Burnett was a big time question mark for the Yankees coming into the season, but through his first three starts, there are some encouraging signs that suggest he might be getting himself on track. His strikeout rate is back over eight men per nine innings pitched (8.31 K/9, to be exact) after dipping below seven in 2010, and his swinging strike rate is back above league average (8.8% this year, 8.5% lg avg) for the first time since 2008. Of course we’re talking about a sample size of three starts (just 74 batters faced) and he we’re still a ways off from those numbers becoming meaningful, but given Burnett’s struggles last year, we’ll take anything that appears to be improvement.

During last night’s game against the Orioles, a start that really was better than the line score indicates, we saw Burnett do something we really hadn’t seen him do much of in the past: he used his changeup. Like, legitimately used it as a third pitch, not as just some show-me offering once or twice or three times through the course of the night. PitchFX classified 14 of his 109 pitches as changeups (he says it was 16), or 12.8% of the total. Compare that to recent years, when he never used the changeup more than four-percent of the time in any of the last four seasons. It’s not a one start thing either, Burnett threw six changeups in his first start (7.0%) and a dozen in his second (12.1%).

The table to the right shows A.J.’s usage of the changeup in each of this three starts this year and compares it to the first two years of his Yankees career. He’s already thrown 32 changeups this year, and assuming he makes 33 starts the year (which he’s done in each of the last three years), he’s already thrown more than 40% of the changeups he threw in each of the previous two seasons in just nine-percent of the starts. Not only that, but he’s also throwing the pitch for strikes, both called and swinging.

As you’d imagine, he’s using the pitch to help combat left-handed batters, who tagged him for a .367 wOBA last year. Although that number isn’t any better this season (LHB have a .385 wOBA against so far), that’s more of a sample size issue (just 42 PA) than anything else. Those two garbage time homers he gave up last night were to lefties; if those end up being routine fly balls instead of over the fence, it drops to a .328 wOBA against. Of course it doesn’t work like that, those homers count, but it just shows you how volatile these numbers are so early in the season.

Burnett’s been a two-pitch pitcher pretty much his entire career and you know what?It has worked for him. The guy has a career 107 ERA+ and 21.1 bWAR, a career most pitchers would kill to have. His fastball velocity is definitely trending downward, which tends to happen as a pitcher approaches his mid-30′s, but 92-94 is still more than enough to get batters out. Burnett doesn’t need that changeup to be a legit out pitch (though the movement on the pitch suggests it might be able to become that, but lets not get ahead of ourselves), it just has to be a usable third offering that he can mix in from time to time to keep batters honest. It’ll help make that 93 mph fastball look more like 96.

Credit Burnett, credit new pitching Larry Rothschild, credit Russell Martin, credit whoever you want with making A.J. actually use his changeup this year. It’s given him another weapon to use which is always a plus, especially for a guy that struggled so much last season. The season is still very young, and the real test will come not when Burnett has that inevitable meltdown inning/start (it’s coming, trust me, every pitcher has them over the course of the season), but when batters start looking for the changeup. Three starts in though, it’s tough not to be even a little optimistic about how the Yankees’ de facto number two starter is pitching.

Categories : Pitching
  • Corporate Scum

    I thought he pitched pretty well last night, but I didn’t realize he’s been pitching to 8.31 BB/9. That’s completely unacceptable. DFA immediately. He can go pitch for Jose Canseco in Yuma.

    • Corporate Scum

      Also, what’s this?

      “PitchFX classified 14 of his 109 pitches as strikeouts (he says it was 16)”

      Mike, have you been drinking? It’s a little early in the AM, no?

      • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

        So sue me, it’s early in the morning.

  • Steve Karsay

    The 9 BB/9 is a fantastic improvement by Burnett this season.

    p.s.
    I read this blog enough that I know to mention I’m being sarcastic.

  • Big Apple

    Good to see AJ pitching well….he really is the key to this team. If he pitches well and can consistently get into the 7th/8th inning, it provides the tough 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation and helps the bullpen.

  • Big Apple

    different subject, but I just saw that the sox are skipping Lackey in the rotation….seems like a risky move for a veteran pitcher this early in the season…

    • Dave

      3…2…1…

  • Monteroisdinero

    Interesting that Joba has thrown more changeups too this year. if Rothschild can get the staff to throw effective changeups it will be a huge asset.

    Hopefully it can be a Hughes asset as well if the velocity on his fb is slow to return.

    • Big Apple

      the changeup seems to be the ultimate pitch now. I find it amazing that guys come into the major leauges not knowing how to throw one. kids should learn this pitch before they learn to throw any breaking balls. the changeup is a perfect off speed pitch and it doesn’t strain the arm at all.

      • Monteroisdinero

        Sometimes when I watch Bucholz pitch it seems like he throws that pitch more than his fastball.

      • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

        the changeup seems to be the ultimate pitch now.

        The changeup is pretty much always the ultimate pitch. If you can throw two pitches that look the same out of your hand with the same arm action, but one of them goes 5-10 mph slower than the other, you can disrupt any hitter’s timing. Any hitter.

        • Big Apple

          agree completly…but if it is so perfect then why are pitchers getting all the way to the majors before learning to throw one?

          that’s the million dollar question, right there

          • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

            Because most pitchers can’t successfully get their changeup to have the same arm action as their fastball. Changeups only work when they come out of your hand looking like a fastball to the hitter. A telegraphed change is a pitch waiting to be annihilated.

            Most pitchers either can’t get their change to look like their fastball, or can’t get the change that looks like their fastball to have enough velocity separation from their fastball to be a worthwhile pitch.

            • Big Apple

              again..i agree…but start teaching it to kids and they can continually work on it. but so many want them to throw breaking stuff.

          • http://twitter.com/cephster Ross in Jersey

            I am no pitching coach but it’s a difficult pitch to throw. The grip feels unnatural since you “choke” the ball and you have to maintain your fastball arm slot and speed otherwise hitters will know what’s coming. Amazingly enough, it’s not as easy as people saying “Hughes should throw more changeups”

            • IRF

              I might be giving those people too much credit, but since the changeup is a feel pitch, perhaps they mean, “Hughes should work on getting more comfortable throwing the change”

    • Ted Nelson

      Hughes is throwing nothing but change-ups this season… it’s a new pitch he’s worked on where he throws a change-up with a FB grip.

      • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

        ICWUDT

  • Kyle

    Russel Martin has been FANTASTIC. Tremendous signing (small sample size and all).

    • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

      I like him too. Solid defender, solid bat, seems to call a good game. Brings a lot of things to the table without taking anything away.

      Let’s hope he keeps it up all year long.

      • Big Apple

        but…he’s not saltinelamachiaaccca.

  • http://hardballtimes.com Dan Novick

    the real test will come not when Burnett has that inevitable meltdown inning/start (it’s coming, trust me, every pitcher has them over the course of the season), but when batters start looking for the changeup

    If batters start looking for the changeup, the curve would presumably become more of a weapon than it already is. Batters have enough trouble with the curveball when they’re already looking for it in 2-strike counts.

    • Big Apple

      the problem with looking for a changeup is that it looks like a fastball. if the pitcher can disguise that pitch so it has the same delivery and release point as the FB it can be devistating

  • Jon in CUO

    Mike, do you know what the swinging strike rates are for some of the better changeups around baseball? Burnett’s version certainly looks like a quality offering, but how does it stack up compared to others based on the numbers? It’s early yet but it’d be cool to track this as the season progresses.

  • Ted Nelson

    Change should make the FB more effective (has so far in a tiny sample), and the FB has been a big problem for Burnett as a Yankee… or at least a symptom of the problem in that it’s been knocked around pretty soundly.

  • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

    Credit Burnett, credit new pitching Larry Rothschild, credit Russell Martin, credit whoever you want with making A.J. actually use his changeup this year.

    I credit Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, Kevin Millwood, and Carlos Silva.

    • Big Apple

      it all makes sense now…adding Garcia, Colon, Millwood and Silva has nothing to do with depth…instead get all these suck wad hasbeens to make AJ feel better about himself!

  • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

    Burnett’s been a two-pitch pitcher pretty much his entire career and you know what? It has worked for him. The guy has a career 107 ERA+ and 21.1 bWAR, a career most pitchers would kill to have.

    Something else most pitchers would kill to have:

    http://counterfeitchic.com/Ima.....b_site.JPG

  • YankeesJunkie

    Burnett improving on and using the “change” (it is hard for me to call a change when there is such a lack of differentiation in speed it just seems more split/change than an actual change)is that it finally gives the other batters something to worry about. Burnett looks better than he did last year as even last April his K rate was still low. As long as they continue to make AJ use the the change as a third pitch it should hopefully get better and AJ can give the Yankees another reliable starter behind Hughes.

  • king of fruitless hypotheticals

    is there some karmic limit that dictates how many pitchers can be having good years at once?

    would be a great year for Good AJ. Decent Nova, Not-So-Bad Colon, Serviceable Freddy, CC, and a Soon-To-Be-Back-To-Life Hughes with D-Rob, Joba and Mo seem like a pretty amazing crew.

  • ZZ

    I have been saying for 2 years that AJ has a great changeup that he just keeps in his pocket. While writers like Heyman take it too far calling AJ a headcase I said all last season that AJ’s head holds him back in a major way. Yet, nearly everyone on this blog went on and on about how AJ is just an aw shucks 2 pitch pitcher with difficult to repeat mechanics. The expectations heaped on him were never fair. He doesn’t actually have great stuff. On and on.

    AJ has barely thrown this pitch in his career and it is a legitimate plus pitch. The list of right handed starters with a changeup better than AJ is very small.

    It really is a shame it took AJ this long to wake up. I can’t even imagine how good he would be today if he had committed to expanding his repertoire at a younger age. I can’t even imagine how good his changeup would be today if he committed to it at a younger age. It is sad because he really could have been a Cy Young candidate every season if he had really committed to his craft earlier. However, as Yankee fans we just have to be happy he finally woke up and is now finally harnessing his otherworldly talent.

    • Ted Nelson

      I think the problem is that you are taking such an extreme position. If someone disagrees with you when you say something like “The list of right handed starters with a changeup better than AJ is very small” or “he really could have been a Cy Young candidate every season if he had really committed to his craft earlier” it does not mean they don’t think AJ is a good pitcher. I think you are mistaken to take disagreeing with such extreme statements to mean people think “AJ is just an aw shucks 2 pitch pitcher.” There is a WHOLE lot of room between being a perennial Cy Young candidate with one of the best change-ups in all of baseball and being aw shucks.

      That someone (like myself) thinks you are overrating AJ’s stuff by heaping such lofty praise on it does not mean they think he’s aw shucks.

      I also think you’re giving yourself way too much credit. People know AJ Burnett is a good pitcher with good stuff. If you say that about his whole career, I don’t think you’ll get much of any disagreement. He also has used his change-up just as much as he is this season in previous seasons (2005, 2003, 2007)… so it’s hard to say he never used it and suddenly took your advice and “harnessed it”… or that he is just now learning how to pitch.

      “as Yankee fans we just have to be happy he finally woke up and is now finally harnessing his otherworldly talent.”

      This is a perfect example of what I’m talking about…
      A. He didn’t just finally wake up. He’s had a bunch of good seasons. He’s had a bunch of seasons where he threw the change a lot. He’s actually not even started out that well this season… His FIP and ERA are way above his career levels.
      B. His stuff is just not otherworldly. It’s very good. Good enough to be a very successful MLB starter. I can rattle off a bunch of starters with better stuff, though. We’re talking about the best of the best at what they do. Otherworldly implies that even at that level his stuff is amazingly better than the rest… I just don’t think that’s the case.

    • bexy on another computer

      However, as Yankee fans we just have to be happy he finally woke up and is now finally harnessing his otherworldly talent.

      I’m happy Burnett’s been better too but it’s April, it’s his third start. Let’s calm ourselves.

      • dalelama

        Really, actually he was much better last April and we saw how that turned out. ERA 4/10 2.43 ERA 4/11 4.67

  • Johnny On The Spot

    The question is, should A.J.’s change up rating on MLB 11 The Show be increased?

  • theyankeewarrior

    I hope that once Phil Hughes finds a way to crack !!90!!, he will take notes from AJ and learn how to develop a changeup as well.

  • Monteroisdinero

    It is always fun to work on your 3rd pitch when it is 6-0 against the O’s.

  • Cuso

    Man, I’m glad he got the ‘W’ and I know that there’s a lot of sarcastic posts on here.

    But some people I think really are excited. Are we really getting pumped up that AJ gave that performance last night?

    I mean how low are we going to set the bar?

    He got the win, he pitched “acceptable.”

    That’s about it.

    • Zack

      It’s more than that.
      He had 50 pitches through 2 innings, last year he would have been out by the 4th inning. Last night he came back with innings 6, 13, and like 18 pitches. That’s a positive sign of him making in-game adjustments.

      The bar is low because he set it so low last year. He’ll never live up to his 18m, lets get past that and look at last year to this year.

    • Ted Nelson

      I think you sort of missed the point… Bad innings happen. And when they happen in a 7-0 game after 90 pitches they’re pretty easy to swallow. The season so far is far too small a sample to be judging much off of, one start or one inning is way too small.

      We really can’t project anything off of 3 starts, but especially if they aren’t incredibly good or bad. AJ’s 3 starts have been 5 IP 2 ER, 6 IP 3 ER, and 6.1 IP 4 ER… not great or bad. 3 Yankee Ws is 25% of the AJ starts they won last season, but they also won his first 3 starts of 2010… After an awful June-Sept of 2010 people are just encouraged that he isn’t altogether done. It’s also encouraging that he has re-found his change which he apparently lost upon arrival in NY two years ago.

    • Cuso

      “The bar is low because he set it so low last year. He’ll never live up to his 18m, lets get past that and look at last year to this year.”

      Well guess what? If he doesn’t live up to his contract, he deserves to hear about it. I’m sure even AJ wouldn’t like to hear that it’s OK for his “bar” to be where it is. Sorry, I actually AM a fan of AJ’s and I’m not going to applaud what should be a standard, run-of-the-mill outing for him. One God-awful year does not a career make.

      -”I think you sort of missed the point… Bad innings happen. And when they happen in a 7-0 game after 90 pitches they’re pretty easy to swallow.”

      Actually, I’m pretty sure that you’re the one missing the point. I’m not going to do backflips over an outing that is standard issue. Burnett knows he can do better.

      In fact, it’s all the lowered expectations of the fan base that is creating this “We need to applaud AJ for a standard effort” sentiment.

      I could care less about the bad inning because we got a win.

      But if you pitch 7 innings and need praise for 6 of them “just because,” you’re deluding yourself as an $18M/year pitcher or as a marginally intelligent fan.

      But thank you for letting me know that the runs were scored in one inning. And thanks for informing me of how he pitched in the six innings prior to that.

      You know, because, all I really did was look at the stat line…..

  • A-Rod’s Wingman

    If AJ’s huge for the Yankees this year it definitely takes the sting out of Hughes sucking. Matt Weiters is a fantastic talent and he’ll take you deep every now and then, the Roberts HR to me is probably the flukier hit. No shame in getting tagged by Weiters, though.