Talking about Burnett for a change

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For those of you sick of A.J. Burnett analysis, you have my sympathies, and please feel free to skip this post. For the masochists in the audience, I was inspired to take another spin down the Burnett freeway by our pal Brad Vietrogoski, who wrote a thought-provoking piece about everyone’s least-favorite Yankee on Tuesday. The following statement in particular caught my attention:

It’s not so much the two nasty curveballs that they swing and miss at in the at-bat that matter any more; it’s the fastball A.J. grooves with 2 strikes that they’re squaring up on and driving for power.

Having written about Burnett’s splits last month, I was curious to see whether the idea that Burnett was just laying it in there with two strikes held water.

A.J.’s tOPS+ (his performance relative to how he performs in all situations, with 100 being average and anything lower representing above-average for the pitcher) with two strikes last year was 36, while his tOPS+ while ahead in the count was 16, which means A.J. performed far better than normal in those situations. His sOPS+in each of those categories was 108 and 81, respectively, which means he was slightly worse than league average with two strikes in the count but almost 20% better when ahead. Essentially this tells me that it’s safe to say that A.J.’s issues last season weren’t necessarily grooving a fastball with two strikes.

However, he probably does have a sequencing issue, as evinced by his 208 tOPS+ when the batter is ahead in the count, and 157 sOPS+. While the 208 isn’t as crazy as it might initially seem, as we’d expect a pitcher to perform worse in favorable counts for the batter (for reference, CC Sabathia‘s tOPS+ was a near-identical 206); the 57% worse than league average part is a bit more damning (CC’s was 111 in those situations).

So what is A.J. throwing when falling behind in the count? The following splits are taken from Fangraphs — it’s important to note that these are BIS classifications and not PITCHf/x, and may not be exact, but they should be close enough for our purposes.

In 2011, he threw a three-year low percentage of fastballs in 1-0 counts, while his changeup percentage spiked from 3% all the way to 20%.

In 2-0 counts, A.J. decreased his fastball deployment to 88%, and went from throwing no changeups in this count in 2010 to 10% in 2011.

Getting a fastball from A.J. Burnett when ahead 3-0 is as sure a thing as there is in sports.

Again, a three-year-low in fastball%, while a spike in changeup deployment from 3% in 2010 to 13%.

Pretty sure you see where I’m going with this by now.

In 2011, A.J. Burnett decreased the percentage of fastballs he threw while upping his changeup percentage in every favorable hitter’s count. This unsurprisingly resulted in A.J. throwing more changeups overall last season than at any point in his three-year Yankee career (these are PITCHf/x classifications):

Why would he do this? Well, for starters, if you had the least-effective fastball in the American League, you’d probably stay away from it too. We’re all painfully aware of the diminished effectiveness of A.J.’s once-dominating heater.

Despite the drop in velocity, A.J.’s 2011 fastball still ranked as tied for the 15th-fastest in the game. Of course, it doesn’t matter how hard you throw if (a) you’re not getting any movement on it, (b) you don’t offer enough different looks to keep hitters guessing, and (c) all of the above. As far as (b) goes, to A.J.’s credit it appears he was toying with something of a cutter this past season, although it wasn’t exactly effective. He also appeared to have significantly cut back on sinker usage in favor of the change in 2011, though he barely threw either pitch in 2009.

While I commend A.J.’s appearing to be willing to try new things to right his ship, it’s pretty clear the change isn’t the answer for him, as its ineffectiveness (12th-worst in the AL) is likely tied in part to the fact that there’s just not enough separation in velocity from his heater. In 2009 the delta between his four-seamer and change was 7.2 miles per hour. In 2010 that shrunk to 5.3, and this past season it fell even further to 4.7.

So essentially in 2011, Burnett began turning to his changeup more frequently due in part to the decreased velocity on his fastball — this is not a terrible idea in theory; Mike Mussina for one had to reinvent himself as a pitcher as his velocity decreased near the end of his career — however, an inability to concurrently decrease the speed on his change resulted in what at times probably just looked like a slow, eminently hittable fastball. With hitters knowing full well that the likelihood of seeing a curve in a hitters’ count was slim to none, it’s sadly no surprise they teed off on Burnett’s changeup.

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  • Bronx Ralphie

    Can we PLEASE put an end to the AJ posts? He is horrible and no analysis is going to change that.

    • jjyank

      They gotta write about SOMETHING in the off-season. I for one am an optimist. Not optimistic about AJ necessarily, but I enjoy reading analysis that might offer some insight into what went wrong and why there might be hope for the future.

      Besides, Larry did put a disclaimer at the beginning of the article…

      • steve s

        On a day when there is clearly SOMETHING else to discuss that may impact the Yanks more than any other off-season story has (Mr. Cashman’s indiscretions, of course) I can understand why another AJ story could seem sort of frustrating. Where is the Cashman thread?

        • Joe Pawlikowski

          In the gossip pages.

          • steve s

            I wish it just was the gossip pages Joe (it was actually the front page of the Daily News today). This story is not going to go away easily and Cashman may not survive the “Steve Phillips” scurtiny that’s surely coming.

            • Joe Pawlikowski

              You know this is nothing new, right? Deadspin tried to sell this story before, and it amounted to nothing. This wasn’t him dating an intern while with his wife. The story clearly states that they are separated, which makes any kind of dating kind of normal. Never mind that the woman in question this time is multiple-time stalker who was arrested yesterday afternoon.

              It’s gossip. It has zero bearing on his job.

              • steve s

                Where was it written that Cashman was separated from his wife (the extortion stuff doesn’t make any sense if that was true)? The extortion part is a new twist that wasn’t part of the Deadspin story. I hope it blows over but it’s naive to think at this point that Yankee management is going to ignore this story if the media scrutiny ratchets up especially after the Super Bowl stuff dies down next week.

                • RetroRob

                  I would suggest it’s also naive to think this will have any impact on the Yankees. I have no interest in reading about it over here. Deadspin, Daily News, Page 6 have all the trash covered for those interested in trash.

    • jsbrendog

      don’t read it. i for one enjoyed this post immensely and if you read it you can see that he is tinkering and there is a possibility he hits somehting that works.

      obviously if you read it you would have seen the disclaimer in the first sentence. but that was prob too much for you

    • Brad V

      Of course it won’t change A.J.’s horribleness, but isn’t it fun to know just HOW horrible he is through the analysis?

      Great stuff, Larry. Wish I would have thought to dig this deep when I wrote my piece earlier in the week.

      • WayneD

        I disagree. Larry’s piece actually gives one at least a glimmer of hope that AJ’s problem can be corrected.

        The vast majority of AJ’s problems occurred when he was behind in the count. When he was ahead in the count, he was pretty effective and sometimes very effective.

        If that crapy change up is the cause, then he either needs to ditch it or get greater separation in speed between his fastball and his change up. That would seem to be a relatively minor adjustment, as simple, possibly, as changing how deeply into the hand AJ holds his change up or how much grip pressure he applies to the ball when he throws a change up. Both of those adjustments can greatly diminish the speed of the pitch out of the pitchers hand.

  • Chad Gaudin the Friendly Ghost

    I too thought that post was awesome. It makes total sense to think that if you know that you are going to get a straight pitch when you’re ahead as a hitter that’s either a fastball or a slow fastball (aka his ‘changeup’) any decent hitter is going to do some damage with it.

    It validates what I felt last season, that the guy seemed totally helpless once he was behind in the count.

    Also doesn’t make me feel very good about putting him back in the rotation.

    • jjyank

      Vote for Hughes!

      • Chad Gaudin the Friendly Ghost

        I vote for ABAJ…Anybody But Allen James.

  • CJ

    The only idea I can come up with may not be practical at this level. The thought is let Giardi call the pitches. Joe digests the scouting reports with the eyes and mind if an engineer, career catcher and manager. Maybe, if Joe calls the pitches, no shaking off, AJ may be able to stop “thinking” and pitch. Joe is confident enough to share the “accountability”. Joe calls it, AJ throws it.

    • CJ

      That’s a lot of extra work for a major league manager and a short leash for a veteran pitcher but it may be worth a shot. A $33 million shot.

    • Dan

      Why have Girardi do it when you have a former all-star catcher and great baseball mind already on the bench. No reason Tony Pena couldnt call a very good game for Burnett. However, it also presumes that Martin isn’t doing his job reading scouting reports and understanding what does and does not work for AJ. I dont buy this. I think Martin is a competent game caller and can handle it. AJ simply needs to execute better. A 1-0 fastball isnt a bad pitch, its a bad pitch when he misses by 7-10 inches and the ball runs back to his arm-side and is middle-in as opposed to middle-away. Executing his pitches is the larger problem, in my eyes, than the selection itself. The stuff is still there to be successful if executed correctly

      • CJ

        Not meant to be a knock on Martin at all. It’s already a nightmare catching AJ and his wild pitches. Pena is an option too. With martin he can shake off and all that nonsense. From Girardi it would be the boss calls it you throw it. This would only help if there’s a psychological “over thinking” problem. a 5+ ERA and $33 million, need to try something different. Just one idea.

    • WayneD

      Have to folks been watching the games the past few years?

      The bench already calls the pitches.

      Why do you think the Yankees’ catchers look toward the dugout before evry pitch? To check out pretty girls behind the bench?

      • WayneD

        Sorry for the typos on the above quicky post.

        First sentence should have read Have you folks been watching . . .

  • Monterowasdinero

    Don’t worry. This AJ post will soon be replaced by Kotchman to the Indians and Cashman to the police and courtroom stories.

  • Brooklyn

    Let’s not plz….

  • Bavarian Yankee

    Coincidentally I also took a closer look at Burnett today and some numbers surprised me: his xERA last season was 3.69 and his groundball rate is still excellent (49%). The walks are still bad but the only thing that’s really biting him is his HR/9, which was at 1.5 last year (17% hr/f). He could still a rock solid #3 pitcher if he can keep the ball in the park.
    His base performance value for 2011 was at 69 (~70 is considered above average, anything above 100 elite) so there are still plenty of numbers that don’t rule out a rebound for Burnett.

    • WayneD

      Nice post and thanks for the additional information.

      Given Larry’s piece, I wonder how many of those 17% hr/f were a result of his shitty changeup?

      If the number is significant, then there’s hope for improvement if he creates greater separation between his fastball and his changeup or if he ditches the change entirely and goes with something more effective, like his curve ball.

      As I’ve said elsewhere, I’d rather see him walk someone on a great curveball than serve up one of those shitty change-ups that I incorrectly thought were awful fastballs.

  • Monterowasdinero

    If I’m hitting against AJ, I am swinging at fastballs only. The curve and changeup are not commanded well and they won’t be thrown for strikes in hitters’ counts.

    I’d take my chances with this approach.

  • smurfy

    I think AJ should change his approach, ala Mussina. From strikeout to poor contact emphasis by throwing more sinkers and cutters, and tune his curve so he can throw it for called strikes. He can do it.

    • CMP

      The difference is Mussina was a pitcher, Burnett is just a thrower. Once Burnett lost the ability to throw his fastball by hitters, it was all over.

  • CMP

    I appreciate the amount of work that goes into a well written analysis like this one but you pretty much could have saved a lot of time and typing by simply stating the obvious:

    AJ Burnett totally sucks and it pretty much worthless

  • roadrider

    Do we know the percentage of those change ups in hitters counts that became souvenirs?

  • YanksFanInLA

    I think AJ needs to show up to Tampa in the best shape of his life. That fixes everything, right? …right?

  • WayneD

    Larry, thanks for an excellent piece, even if most fans are getting a bit tired of reading why AJ has been so awful. This piece, however, seems to explain, for the first time, why he’s been so bad.

    After reading the piece, I also now know I was wrong in my impression of why AJ was getting hit so hard when he was behind in the count. Like many others, apparently, I thought he was laying fat fastballs over the plate . . . but they were just really shitty change-ups.

    Hasn’t anyone every told AJ you need a minimum of 8-10 mph difference between your fastball and your change-up?

    And on a topic you didn’t address: what the hell was Rothschild doing all season while AJ was throwing batting practice fastballs/change-ups when he was behind in the count? Didn’t it occur to Rothschild to mention to AJ that he needed to have greater separation between his fastball and his change?

    I think Rothschild has some explaining to do here. And if the answer isn’t, “Yea I told him about that,” then we need a new pitching coach. This is precisely the type of situation that a great pitching coach can help rectify.

    If possible, Larry, could you please follow up with Rothschild on this subject. I’d love to know if 1) he was aware of the problem, 2) what he said to AJ about it, if anything, and 3) what AJ’s response was.

    Thanks for a great piece, Larry. Given the pitch selection issue, at least there’s some small hope AJ might improve some this year if that issue is properly addressed.

    Personally, I don’t understand why a man with one of the best curves in the game throws it so infrequently. I’d rather see him walk a batter on curve ball than throw one of those god awful change-ups of his that were so bad I thought they were lousy fastballs.