On Friday over at The Process Report R.J. Anderson published a piece noting that the entire Rays rotation is pitching more backward. By this he meant that the staff was throwing more offspeed pitches early in the count than they had in the past. Anderson concluded that this was likely the result of a strategic decision by the Baseball Operations department. The Rays have the luxury of little turnover in the rotation (lost Garza, added Hellickson), so there’s good year to year comparative data there, but in New York the situation is slightly different. Andy Pettitte is out to pasture, Phil Hughes is injured, and Javier Vazquez is currently chucking his 87 mph nothingball for the Florida Marlins. The Yankees currently boast only two members of the 2010 Opening Day squad in the current pitching rotation: CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. By and large, Sabathia is doing what he’s always been doing, but there’s been a subtle change in AJ’s approach this year. It’s for the better.
The biggest anecdotal difference this year for A.J. Burnett is the increased quality of his offspeed offerings. Last year his curveball was flat and ineffective, and this year it’s shown signs of returning to form. Last year he rarely threw a changeup, but this year he’s been breaking it out way more often, albeit less as of late. Greater confidence in his offspeed stuff has enabled him to pitch more backwards this season, especially against left-handed batters. Here’s the breakdown for his pitch data against lefties in 0-0 counts in the past two years:
Like the Rays staff, Burnett is throwing fewer fastballs on 0-0 counts. It’s still his primary go-to pitch on the first pitch of the at-bat, but so far he’s thrown it 17% fewer than last year. Instead, he’s throwing his curveball and his changeup, upping the former by about 6% and the latter by about 11%. In fact, he’s thrown his changeup as a first pitch in 2011 only 4 times fewer than he did in 2010. Clearly he’s showing a greater willingness to deploy the pitch early on.
This usage pattern demonstrates a greater confidence in the quality of the pitches. He’s throwing his changeup for a strike about 58% of the time in 2011, up about 25% from his 2010 mark. This could be sample size noise but it does appear anecdotally that he has better command of the pitch than he did last year. Interestingly, he’s thrown the curveball for a strike on 0-0 only 37% of the time so far this year, down from 44%.
Despite the fact that he throws from the right side, A.J. Burnett has always been tougher on left-handed batters than right-handed batters. He boasts a career average FIP of 3.61 against lefties, with a 8.97 K/9 and 3.77 BB/9. Against righties he’s averaged a FIP of 4.02 with a K/9 of 7.99 and a BB/9 of 3.02. Last year everything fell apart, including his trademark toughness on lefties. A.J. struck out only 6.53 per nine and walking 4.2 batters per nine innings. This year he’s gotten the train back on the track. He’s been slightly less tough on righties (5.61 K/9 and 4.27 FIP), but he’s back to his old ways against lefties, posting an 8.50 K/9 and 3.50 FIP. This is no doubt related to the quality of his offspeed pitches. As he’s able to command one or more offspeed offerings and throw them for strikes early in the count he will keep hitters off balance and put them away via the strikeout. Given the considerable risk in the Yankees rotation, this improvement is a very welcome development.