A Little Bit of Luck

Locking Up Russell Martin
Sunday Night Open Thread
AP/Bill Koustron

I’m not ready to give up on A.J. Burnett.

I know, it’s stupid. I know the numbers. I know the depressing reality. I am quite sure he is going to be in the rotation next season (at least for the majority of the year), and while in the rotation he will give up a lot of dingers and a lot of walks and make Russell Martin earn whatever he’s paid. He will also make the collective fanbase want to strangle him on multiple occasions. I’m ready for it.

I know the blogosphere is going to roll their collective eyes at this, but I think Burnett could be looking at year where he brings his numbers down again. He’ll probably never live up to that $16.5M that being paid, but the continued starter crunch means that if the guy you’re paying like a starting pitcher can at least put up mediocre innings (and not outright bad ones like Burnett has a tendency to do), that would be pretty nice.

Aside from a misplaced surplus of hope, the real reason I think Burnett can improve is that many of his peripherals did increase last year. He trended upwards in ground balls for the third year in a row, dragged himself back to his normal k/9 rate of around 8, and just managed to keep his walk rate under 4/9ip. In hindsight, he was better than he was in 2010, but that wasn’t exactly a difficult thing to do. There is one number that sticks out to me, though. Maybe, like many players, Burnett was a victim of random, year-long fluctuations that make him seem worse than he actually was. I’m not saying that a little luck is going to turn him a Cy Young winner, just that there’s a possibility of a slightly less depressing year.

That is this: in 2011, 17% of all fly balls A.J. Burnett gave up turned into home runs, which lead major league baseball. That’s absurd, and obviously much higher than the MLB average of 10%. It lead to his 1.47 HR/9 ratio (third-highest in baseball behind Colby Lewis and Bronson Arroyo), and combined with his usual walk rate, had a pretty horrible effect on his numbers. Burnett gave up 109 ER this year, and 49 of them – almost half! – came from the longball. Even with his vastly improved ground ball rate, he gave up the exact same amount of earned runs as he did in 2010, and actually fewer runs if you count the unearned ones. In this trend, his infield fly ball percentage also dropped below his career average this year, which could also be part of the problem.

In 2010, Burnett gave up 215 fly balls and 25 home runs, which is a fairly average 11.6% HR/FB. In 2011, Burnett gave up 185 fly balls and 31 home runs, causing this massive spike. Curiously enough, Burnett has been trending downwards in fly balls for all three years of his Yankees contract, while his homer rate is going up for the past four years, starting back in Toronto in 2008. Some of that massive 17% is coming from depressing A.J. Burnett statistics: dropping fastball velocity, missed location, age-related decline, that sort of depressing junk. Perhaps ballplayers are simply sizing him better. Some of it might come from the fact he spends plenty of time in the homer-happy AL East. But the enormous uptick makes me want to believe that some of it is simply part of year-to-year randomness, and that while A.J. is far from an ace, a few less dingers would go a long way to helping him and the team. Even if we keep his HR/FB rate above average at 14%, that means he gives up five fewer homers, which could do a lot for the man – especially if people were on-base at those particular times.

Like I said, I don’t think that a few less dingers is going to turn A.J. Burnett into an immensely valuable asset. But considering that the Yankees are probably not going to be able to find someone to take Burnett and Brian Cashman insists that the man is going to spend most of the year – if not all of it – in the rotation, it’s these small quirks that we have to try and rely on to improve his performance. In this case, the Yankees could use a little luck when it comes to Burnett, or even just the scales tipping even again.

Locking Up Russell Martin
Sunday Night Open Thread
  • Bavarian Yankee

    I wouldn’t say it’s stupid to believe in AJ Burnett. If we gets his things together he still can be a very valuable pitcher. Will that happen? It’s not likely because something or even several things seem to be wrong with him but stranger things have happened.

    I believe in AJ Burnett.

    • Scout

      “I believe in AJ Burnett.” I don’t. If it were not for the massive contract and the reluctance of the organization to admit he will never justify the investment, A.J. would be forced to compete for a rotation spot in the spring; he also would be subject to early replacement during the season when (not if) he falters again. He is now an aging pitcher who is losing his stuff, not the guy we saw three or four years ago. I hope that when Cashman mentions him as a rotation fixture heading into 2012, it is just a Bubba Crosby exercise in blowing smoke. Alas, I suspect that is not the case.

    • Matt DiBari

      I believe in AJ Burnett.

      I can say with relative certainty that he exists.

  • JobaWockeeZ

    HR rate is too random to predict for most people, however AJ was only better than league average like once in the AL in his entire career. He’s a homer prone pitcher. We’re going to need massive luck to get him to have a low HR rate. Especially since he has to walk the entire world per start.

    No more giving tens of millions to pitchers who are among the league’s worst in limiting walks.

  • Jose M. Vazquez..

    I still like Burnett but my patience like that of many Yankee fans is wearing thin. I saw a proposed trade of Burnett for Jason Bay put out by the NY Daily News and I for one would make the trade.

    • Rainbow Connection

      Every NY hack reporter and WFAN caller has suggested that trade.

      • Brian S.

        And it sucks from a Yankees perspective because it puts a three year albatross on the team instead of a two year one.

        • JAG

          Not to mention that they’d be adding a below-average DH to a team that has no open lineup spots by taking away a below-average pitcher who can at least be relied upon to give 180+ innings a year and has a nonzero chance of providing 180+ average or even better innings.

          Admittedly, Jason Bay’s chance of turning it around and being average or better is probably about the same as AJ Burnett’s, the Yankees need to take the chance on the pitcher much more than they do on the hitter. Not that there was any chance of this anyway, but definitely pass.

  • http://bleedingyankeeblue.com Jesse

    I don’t like Burnett. I’m done with him, and I hope Cashman trades him while getting some value in return.

    • http://www.yankeeanalysts.com/ Steve S.

      He’s not worth his salary, how can you get any value back? Best case scenario is a headache for headache type of deal.

      BTW-I’d love for the Yanks to eat his salary, but they have a history of not wanting to do that.

      • http://bleedingyankeeblue.com Jesse

        Well, you’re not a GM, maybe they could get a low level minor leaguer. When I say value, I’m basically implying a living, breathing body. Because at this point, that living breathing body has a better chance to provide value than Burnett.

        • Bob Stone

          I agree. Eat his salary and get a bag of scuffed up balls in return.

  • http://www.yankeeanalysts.com/ Steve S.

    Hannah, I’m one of your biggest fans but disagree on Burnett. His peripherals look good because most of the time he pitches great. Then he has that one inning where he gives up a bunch of runs and can’t self correct on the fly. That’s who he is. Pick any year and check out his game logs you’ll see what I mean. Even in his ‘good’ year with the Blue Jays before signing with the Yanks he would have a few good starts and then one where he gives up 6-8 runs. That’s just who he is as a pitcher and always has been. He used to be able to dominate often enough that overall his numbers would look good, but now he’s losing his stuff and still is prone to imploding on the mound. I fully expect his number to get worse, not better unless he’d traded to the NL West or something.

    • Bob Stone

      I totally agree. I’d love to believe what Hannah posits in this post but I can’t. AJ is a head case that cannot adjust on the fly when his game goes south.

      I can’t remember how many times last season that I yelled at the TV screen to GET RID OF THIS BUM – EAT HIS SALARY – PUT HIM IN THE MONOR LEAGUES.

      I’m done with AJ Burnett.

      Trade him for a bag of balls and pay his whole salary if you have to.

      • Bob Stone

        *MINOR LEAGUES – correction

        • http://www.yankeeanalysts.com/ Steve S.

          Actually, I kinda liked “MONOR LEAGUES”

          It sounds even further away.

          • Bob Stone

            The further away from the 40 man roster and Yankee Stadium the better as far as I am concerned.

            AJ – So much talent and stuff . . . so little results!

    • JAG

      That actually raises an interesting point: could AJ’s performance be better with a long-relief caddy on the team ready to pick it up after AJ’s 4-5 good innings? If Girardi is willing to accept that that is who AJ is and is willing to have a pitcher like Mitchell or Kontos or someone stand in for 2nd-half-of-the-game AJ, and is willing to pull the trigger on AJ when necessary, could that give the team a better chance to win?

  • http://www.yankeeanalysts.com/ Steve S.


    By “a little bit of luck” she means this guy

  • Rich in NJ

    His contract ensures that he won’t be given up on, but he will turn 35 next season and his stuff is diminishing. Without an offsetting increase in command (his BB/9 is not improving), he is likely to be worse, not better.

  • UYF1950

    AJ Burnett is the epitome of a bad investment a very bad investment. If he were a stock and in your portfolio and it was as the end of the tax year. You would sell him and take the loss and move on.

    Time for people to realize and accept he is never going to be any more then what he has been the last 2 years a “has-been”.

  • http://fitzandvig.com Vig

    A well written, well argued post, Hannah. Kudos for taking on an unpopular topic (believing in AJ). While AJ Burnett’s peripherals may have improved a bit in 2011, his average velocity continues to drop and he still refuses to develop a third pitch. An aging two-pitch pitcher with declining velocity is difficult to believe in.

    Just need to say thanks for 2009, and let AJ burn the rest of his contract time. He’s not going to be traded.

    Vig from FitzandVig.com

  • brucevodka

    A J is a good to very good pitcher, but that’s not relavant in discussing him here. His problem is in his head, the Yanks are not psychiatrists. If he went to a middle to non-contending team he would probably be better. That’s it, look how good Kenny Rogers got after he left. The Yankees need a “no Meshugana” policy.

    • Brian S.

      This does not make any sense at all.

  • Brian S.

    Maybe the Bronx should chant “re-ti-re!” when he pitches?

  • Kevin

    By the wya..did anyone see who beats A.J. in walks? That would be free agent C.J. Wilson

    • UYF1950

      Kevin, help me to understand where you got your information because when I check baseball-reference for the 2 pitchers.

      CJ Wilson: 223.1 Innings pitched / 3 walks per 9 inning / 74 total Walks.

      AJ Burnett: 190.1 Innings pitched / 3.9 walks per 9 innings / 83 total Walks.

      I believe I stated the numbers for each pitcher correctly here from baseball-reference.

      • Kevin

        my goof…I was looking at C.J. Wilson’s stats from the post season.

  • It’sATarp

    Lets pray to Tebus for a miracle to deflate AJ’s HR/9

  • CMP

    Wll this takes the cake as the worst weekend blog ever.

    There’s a better chance Santa will slide down my chimney or the easter bunny will come hopping up my driveway than there is of Burnett being anything more than a below average starting pitcher.

  • Dick M

    Typical sabremetric nonsense. More of his fly balls went over the fence because he grooved more hittable fastballs. The hitters are squaring him up more. There’s no luck involved.

  • RetroRob

    Hannah, I know a good therapist who can help you with this belief in AJ. : -)

    Humor aside, I hope you’re right. I expect he’s getting one last shot at the rotation in 2012. If he fails again, the Yankees will banish him somewhere — to the pen or another team after eating a chunk of his final year.

  • Kiko Jones

    Hannah, I’m in your camp regarding Burnett. I’ve gotten plenty of grief from buddies of mine who also root for the pinstripes, but I just can’t give up on the possibility of AJ turning himself around and at least coming close to the guy we saw in ’09. Yeah, wishful thinking, but hey crazier things HAVE happened, so…

    Btw, I acknowledge, understand and respect the anger and disappointment directed at AJ, but I was watching a rerun of Mo’s 602 game on YES and to hear him get booed in a game he left with a 2-run lead was just a bit much. (A game in which the Yankees never relinquished the lead and won 6-4, btw.)