Breaking Burnett

The Danks-Pettitte Comparison
Yankees sign lefty reliever Mike O'Connor
(Carlos Osorio/AP)

At this point you’ve no doubt read countless exasperated summaries of A.J. Burnett‘s second straight terrible season in pinstripes, but rather than dwell on how historically bad A.J.’s been, I wanted to dig a bit further into the numbers to see if we might actually be able to glean any positives from his 2011 season and whether we can expect at least a slightly better performance going forward. Especially in light of the fact that if he does stay on the Yankees they’re basically stuck with him for ~65 more starts.

In case you weren’t paying close attention, Burnett actually wasn’t that bad for most of the first half of the season. Following seven innings of two-run ball against the Brewers on June 29, his ERA sat at 4.05 through 17 starts. He only gave up more than three runs in five of those 17 outings, and only failed to complete six innings six times. He did turn in a couple of classic A.J. stinkers — the May 16 game against Tampa Bay (brilliant through five innings before completely unraveling in the sixth) and June 8 game against Boston (just awful from the get-go) — but after his “performance” in 2010, any Yankee fan had to be thrilled with the results through the first three months of the season.

Of course, the wheels came off once the calendar flipped to July. He actually wasn’t terrible in his July 4 start at Cleveland; you may recall he kept the Indians scoreless through six, and took a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the 7th, until a pair of former Yankees — Shelley Duncan and Austin Kearns — combined to knock in four runs before A.J. could get out of the inning. If Burnett keeps things at 2-1 in the 7th — the Kearns three-run jack came with two outs — who knows, maybe A.J. doesn’t end throwing to an 8.18 ERA over his next nine outings. There’s no way of knowing, and of course baseball doesn’t work that way, but that Kearns home run wound up being a fairly big turning point in A.J.’s season.

Anyway, over those aforementioned following nine starts, A.J. only managed to pitch into the 6th inning twice, and really was just generally horrendous. Things seemed to come to something of a head on August 20 at Minnesota, as A.J. couldn’t even get through two innings against the league’s worst offense. He followed that up with what was probably his worst outing of the season against the Orioles, and with his next start slated to come at Fenway Park, pretty much every fan in Yankeeville was expecting the absolute worst-case scenario to occur.

Except then something incredibly strange and completely unexpected happened: A.J. Burnett threw a pretty good game. Against the Red Sox. In Boston. Including that September 1 outing, A.J. finished the season throwing to a 4.34 ERA over his final five starts. Still not great, but much, much better than what we’d become accustomed to expect. Anecdotally it seemed like A.J.’s curve had quite a bit more bite to it, and in fact he did rack up quite a few Ks, boasting an 11.2 K/9 on the month.

So given these three chunks of the season — pretty good A.J. (April through June), utterly horrendous A.J. (July and August) and good enough A.J. (September), here’s a look at the breakouts for each of his pitches:

We often think of A.J. as a two-pitch pitcher — and he obviously doesn’t stray too far off of the fastball-curve combo — but he actually does have some secondary stuff, although none of it’s all that great.

It looks like one of the main differences between A.J.’s April-June and July-August was vertical fastball location. During the first three months he averaged 9.36 inches of v-break, but that number fell to 8.51 in July-August. He also went from throwing it 43% of the time to 36%, and basically replaced those fastballs with curves (which rose from 30% to 36%). This was likely problematic as his curve broke 1.5 inches on average closer to the strike zone vertically, which means his curve was that much more hittable. Though he more or less maintained his above-average Whiff%, his Swing%, Foul% and In Play% all went up on the curve.

Once the curve started diving again (from -4.50 to -5.84) over his last five starts, his numbers picked back up, and he posted a ridiculous 24.6% Whiff% with the curve, well above the 11.6% league average. Also worth noting is that he mixed in a sinker nearly 12% of the time during September, and managed to post an impressive 15.8% Whiff% (against 5.4% league average), and he even got a 21.7% Whiff% on his change — which has never been anyone’s idea of a good A.J. Burnett pitch — against a 12.6% league average.

Granted, the September results are comprised of a mere five starts, but I’d rather look at it on the bright side and be encouraged. Maybe A.J. did indeed find something during the season’s last month. You’ll recall that he saved the team’s season in the ALDS, pitching well enough to help the Yanks live to fight another day. Also, if you take out that awful nine-start stretch, A.J. threw to a 4.11 ERA over 135.2 innings. That doesn’t erase his struggles from the ledger, but it perhaps places them in a slightly different light.

I don’t know that the answer to the A.J. conundrum is as simple as “he needs to locate his curveball;” even if that does seem to have a disproportionate effect on his success/failures. I do know that A.J. Burnett has been and can be better than 5.00-plus ERA pitcher — we saw him turn in an above-average season two years ago — and if he’s still a Yankee come the 2012 season, he’ll have to figure out how to escape what’s become an annual rut and turn in a full season of league average pitching, at the very least.

The Danks-Pettitte Comparison
Yankees sign lefty reliever Mike O'Connor
  • Greg golson

    The headline alone is genius

  • Paul from Boston

    The problem is the gave $85m to chucker not a pitcher. How anyone can throw as hard as he did and never learn a decent change is the true mark of how stupid this guy is. Mussina learned a new change in one Spring Teaing because Jorge smacked a double off his crappier one.

    • Bavarian Yankee

      “…how stupid this guy is.”

      ROFL, stupid are those guys that write stuff like that you know.

      It’s not like Burnett was a bad pitcher. In fact he was one of the best pitchers. Just look at his previous 5 years before he joined the Yankees, he was a beast and a rock solid #2 starter.

    • S

      You do realize CC’s change averages 87-88 mph and its credited as one of the better pitches in baseball.

      Anyway, AJ’s change appears to be a very capable pitch that can become more, it already gets plenty of whiffs and he seems to have good command of it.

      • Paul from Boston

        Not true. CCs change is at 86 on average and his fastball is at 94 on average. In other words his separation between the two is 2x Burnett’s. Of course CC also throws a slider at 81 MPH.

        Burnett is 88-92 with everything when his curve isn’t on. That’s batting practice pitcher and that’s what they have – the worst “pitcher” in baseball.


        • S

          From Texas Leaguers

          CC Sabathias Change up velocity for 2011- 86.7mph

          CC’s changeup velocity from June 1st till the end of the season 87.2 mph

    • Jesse

      In the offseason prior to 2009 did you want Derek Lowe instead of Burnett?

  • James d.

    “Also, if you take out that awful nine-start stretch, A.J. threw to a 4.11 ERA over 135.2 innings.”

    I totally get the point you’re making, and I agree that, salary aside, this isn’t bad for a back-of-the-rotation guy, it’s sad that his “best” ERA/innings combo is essentially 60% of a middling Andy Pettitte season.

  • Paul from Boston

    I mean a change that averages 88mph this fukcing meathead thinks is a workable pitch? What a joke. He deserves the title of worst pitcher in baseball. He is not a pitcher.

    • John Lackey


  • Juke Early

    If the Yankee coaching staff worked as hard as the RAB writers on acquiring insight into players true skills, they’d be a much stronger team every season. Because then they’d know how to get some people out in the clutch. Of course immortals on the express to Cooperstown such as Austin Kearns & Shelley Duncan, will always remain inviolate. . ..

    • MattG

      Of course, because all you have to do is select the guy’s weakest pitch with the ‘B’ button, move the cross-hair to his weakest location, and press the ‘A’ button. Inning over.

      • Cris Pengiucci

        And additionally, we know for sure that they aren’t working as hard as the RAB writers and have no insight into this info, nor would they have any idea what it meant or how to use it …

        It’s so good to know we have commenters with such insight into the inner workings of the organization …

        :rolls eyes:

    • Steve (different one)

      Good point. Teams should only give up hits to hall of famers. Every other hit is an indictment of the organizational work ethic.

  • Paul from Boston

    Sorry Larry but when everything else is 88-92 he is exactly a two pitch chucker. When his curve isn’t finding the strike zone he’s throwing batting practice.

    • Jumpin’ Jack Swisher

      We get it. You don’t like him.

  • Darren

    Burnett is a black eye on the organization.

    • Rich in NJ

      A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma…

    • MattG

      I suppose you mean it was a bad job of evaluating and signing a free agent. I wouldn’t word it this way. This is how you would describe Jerry Sandusky.

      • Rich in NJ

        I thought he meant the actual, unexplained black eye.

      • Darren

        Just making a funny that refrences AJ’s mysterious black eye that was never explained. I think he punched himslef in the face.

        I think calling Sandusky a black eye on on Penn State is a bit of an understatement.

        • MattG

          Oh, I wasn’t aware of the reference!


  • Sarah

    Thanks for this, Larry. It will be interesting to see if AJ has, in fact, found something that helps him pitch better next year.

    I’d guess there’s very little chance the team moves him, so we may as well hope he’s figuring things out.

  • MattG

    I think to understand what is wrong with AJ, you’re going to want to plot his pitch location, rather than look at the metrics of the pitches. The stuff (as I’ve been told repeatedly) is not the problem, and this more or less confirms that.

    Location is the problem. Fastball location especially, although it would be nice if he could spin those curves without touching dirt quite so frequently.

  • pat

    We need Jesse Pinkman to give AJ the Gale treatment.

    • Craig Maduro

      Or maybe get Walter to give him the Gus?

  • S

    The problem are the homeruns, the guy gets an above avg amount of grounders yet surrenders 1.4 hr/9 it doesn’t make sense. The account for almost half of his Earned Runs, if he figure some way to cut down on them then he would have a ton more success than he’s had the last two years

  • nsalem

    BurHuMo in 2012

  • Guns of the Navarone

    I’m sorry, but we’ve heard several times over the years how AJ worked on this, worked on that, tweaked his mechanics, or may have found something after a good outing. Back in reality he’s been nothing but consistently awful and I believe it’s extremely unreasonable to expect anything different going forward.

    • Rey22

      Sadly I agree 100% with this. Every offseason he’s working on this and that and we analyze what’s wrong and hope he’ll get better. But he’s been doing this garbage for 2 straight years now.

      • Cris Pengiucci

        It does really seem that even when something is identified that can help Burnett and he works hard to make adjustments, the fix is temprorary. I like that he’s willing to try to adjust, but I agree, we shouldn’t really expect more of him at this point.

  • Monteroisdinero

    Burnett is healthy and ummmm……

    he’s healthy!

  • David Ortiz’s Dealer

    I like AJ from everything I read, aside from a snapping at bunt’em over Joe (which is a good thing IMHO, he works hard is a good guy et el unlike the Chicken eating beer drinkers to the north.

    I just wish he bad days werent so bad, I mean with this lineup an occasional 3 spot in the 1st shouldnt be game over… but its 3 in the 1st 2 in the 2nd and 2 more in the 3rd, even crappy bullpens can usually make a 7 run lead stand for 6 innings.

    Good AJ is good enough, I’d like his bottom of the bellcurve starts not to be disasters.

  • craig

    I am curious if some of AJ’s bad location on his curve during that 9 game stretch was due to the fact that he was pitching from behind. His FB got him in bad counts and he had to choose between throwing another FB in the zone or throwing his curve for a strike.

    Pitchers can generally throw their breaking pitches for strikes or throw them out of the zone and they determine this based on the count. It’s possible that being forced to throw so many curves in the zone caused AJ to flatten out his curve to the point where it moved from asset to liability.

    This would be a good problem, because mechanical issues can be fixed. I am not an AJ apologist, but I do think he is better than a lot of people give him credit for.

  • Monteroisdinero

    Pitch count per inning would be interesting to look at. Seems like AJ is rarely ahead with strike 1 or 0-2 and 1-2 counts. Batters wait him out and rightfully so.

    This is in contrast to Nova who seemed to have lots of low pitch count outings.

  • craig

    Pitch counts don’t always tell the whole story.

    Nova’s stuff doesn’t miss many bats, so he wants to get the batter out with a pitch not in the middle of the plate.

    Guys who can miss bats will occasionally throw extra pitches because they know they can strike guys out and they will try to not let someone get a hittable pitch until they absolutely have to(think David Cone).

    • Monteroisdinero

      When I think David Cone, I don’t think AJ Burnett.

      but I get your point…

      • craig

        Haha…me too!

  • Professor Longnose

    The breakdown is characteristic of Burnett. Through his career, he’s been a much worse pitcher in July and August than in April, May, June, or September. If the Yankees could toss him into the bullpen on July 1 for two months, he’d probably have a good season.

  • CMP

    AJ is a well below average major league starter and has been for the last 2 years. 2.7 WAR combine for the last 2 seasons in which he started more than 30 games each year is beyond pathetic especially considering several relievers have been worth more over that time despite throwing less than 1/3rd as many innings.

    He’s nothing more than a 5th starter at this point and that spot should go to a young inexpensive pitcher like Warren or Phelps who actually has a chance to develop into something useful for the future.

    Sadly, Girardi and Cashman refuse to make either of the only logical 2 moves which is to put him in the bullpen or eat a big chunk of his salary and ship him to the NL.

  • Craig Maduro

    Here’s a question for you guys:

    If another team was willing take on Burnett’s entire salary for the remainder of his contract, how many of you would be willing to GIVE a prospect in that deal?

    And if you would be willing, how good of a prospect are you willing to spare to get this hypothetical team to take Burnett off of the Yankees’ hands?

    • Monteroisdinero

      Burnett and Romine for 33M? Deal!

  • LarryM.,Fl.

    Craig, your question is a good one. And I have no answer one way or another. My reason for no answer is not even a good one. But I shall try.

    I watched AJ face the Yankees when he was a Blue Jay. He dominated the Yankees more often than not. He seemed a very good FA signing. As the first year unfolded another AJ appeared. I had the audacity to indicate that his problem was between the ears. I did not present any info to back my feelings because how can you present info on whats between his ears. I still believe the problem is mental. His delivery was corrected and he appeared to use it well. When AJ got in trouble Martin and Rothcild would hustle out to the mound to offer confidence and or a reminder on something physical but ultimately to slow his thinking downs. He unravels quickly we all know this. If AJ could pitch within himself at his speed and show confidence with changeup. Many ifs but he could be a very pitcher for us. He has the physical tools at 34/35 to be a good one. Its the chance I’d take. There is not much out there. Patience is my answer.