Burnett’s new, old toy

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.

Homers, Burnett drive Yanks to win over O’s

It had been a long time since the Yankees last played a game, at least in baseball terms. Monday’s off day was followed by Tuesday’s rain out, which was then followed by the Yankees pounding Chris Tillman and riding A.J. Burnett‘s right arm for six-plus innings. The final score (7-4) made this one seem a lot closer than it really was.

A-Rod's in the ass whoppin' business, and business is a boomin'. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Biggest Hit: A First Inning A-Bomb

A number of Yankees’ hitter came into this game slumping, but apparently Tillman cures all ills. Brett Gardner came into the game hitless in his last ten at-bats, but he slapped an 0-2 fastball into left to leadoff the first inning. He later got thrown out trying to steal second, but that had more to do with a perfect throw from Matt Wieters than something Gardner did wrong. Derek Jeter, two for his last 13 coming into the game, worked a full count and inside-outed a single through the right side of the infield. Mark Teixeira then came to the plate and ended his 0-for-18 streak with a single back up the middle.

Alex Rodriguez hasn’t been slumping, he was just sick over the weekend. With men on first and second with one out, A-Rod worked Tillman for a quick 2-0 count before seemingly flicking his wrists and driving the ball to right field for a three-run homer. It was probably a Yankee Stadium special, but they all count the same. At .191 WPA, it was by far the biggest play of the game for New York.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Better than the line indicates

Four runs on seven hits in six-and-a-third innings isn’t anything special, yet that’s the line Burnett was saddled with after six very strong innings. He certainly bent but didn’t break in the early going, throwing 53 (!!!) pitches in the first two innings but allowing zero runs. A six-pitch third inning followed. Then a 13-pitch fourth inning. Then a ten-pitch fifth inning. Then a 14-pitch sixth inning. Before you knew it, A.J. cruised right through the third through sixth innings, allowing just a single to Vlad Guerrero and a single to Wieters at various points. At that point, his pitching line stood at six shutout innings with just four hits mixed in.

When he went out for the seventh inning, Burnett’s pitch count stood at a manageable 91 pitches, and with a seven-run lead, there was little reason to be concerned. Adam Jones grounded out on the first pitch, but then the trouble started. Mark Reynolds shot a 1-1 curveball over Curtis Granderson‘s head for a double, which was followed by a two-run Wieters homer. It happens, but with that lead who really cares. A walk to Robert Andino followed, and by this point David Robertson was warming up. Burnett was left in to face Brian Roberts, who yanked a 1-1 curveball into the Yankees bullpen for Baltimore’s second two-run homer of the inning, ending A.J.’s night.

All the damage came in what amounts to garbage time. The Yankees had a big league and Burnett was just trying to finish off the seventh inning in what had otherwise been a strong outing. So Roberts hit a homerun, big deal. I don’t see why A.J. wouldn’t challenge him in that spot, he’s not exactly a big time power threat. Before that seventh inning ugliness, Burnett was everything the Yankees hope we will be this season. I’ll have more on it tomorrow, but A.J. threw 14 changeups tonight, which is a freaking ton for him. He might have thrown two or three in a given start last year. So bravo, the right-hander did fine work tonight.

Say your prayers... (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)


The bullpen was nearly flawless in 2.2 innings of work; the lone mishap was a Luke Scott single off Rafael Soriano. David Robertson wiggled out of that seventh inning, then Mariano Rivera slammed the door in the ninth. Soriano didn’t throw a single pitch over 89 mph, by the way. I wouldn’t worry about it until a) he does, or b) he starts sucking.

Jorge Posada broke out of an 0-for-20 slump with a fourth inning solo homer. He also chipped in a seeing-eye single back up the middle later in the game. Posada has six hits on the season, and four of them are homers.

Both Jeter and A-Rod picked up a second hits on infield singles, moving the former into a tie with Barry Bonds for the 31st most hits in history (2,935). Alex’s three runs driven in moved him into a tie with Ted Williams for the 13th most RBI in baseball history (1,839). That’s a brand name right there.

Everyone in the lineup had a hit except for Granderson, who opted for a walk instead. Russell Martin and Robinson Cano chipped in doubles. The Yankees knocked Tillman out of the game in the second inning, so the Orioles had to go pretty deep into their bullpen. I suppose that’s good for tomorrow.

In case you missed it, the Yankees got some bad news on Pedro Feliciano, who has significant damage in his shoulder and could need surgery. That’s a shame, but when you sign 30-something relievers with that kind of recent workload to the multi-year deal, you’re asking for trouble.

WPA Graph & Box Score

See? The O’s were never really close to getting back into it. MLB.com has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs the nerd score.

Up Next

This rain-shortened series concludes tomorrow evening, when Phil Hughes attempts to resemble a Major League pitcher against Jake Arrieta. Interested in going? Make sure you check out RAB Tickets.

Flores stars in Charleston win

Triple-A Scranton (4-0 loss to Buffalo) faced a familiar name
Greg Golson, LF, Chris Dickerson, RF & Kevin Russo, 2B: all 0 for 4 – Golson whiffed twice … Dickerson committed a throwing error … Russo stole a base
Jesus Montero, C, Jorge Vazquez, 1B & Jordan Parraz, DH: all 1 for 4 – Montero struck out twice
Justin Maxwell, CF: 0 for 2, 2 BB, 1 K – threw a runner out at the dish
Brandon Laird, 3B: 1 for 4, 1 2B, 1 E (fielding) – fourth hit, and first XBH of the year
Ramiro Pena, SS: 1 for 3, 1 2B, 1 BB, 1 E (missed catch) – he’s playing well down here, nine hits in six games with more walks (three) than strikeouts (two)
David Phelps, RHP: 5.2 IP, 9 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 5 K, 3-5 GB/FB – 54 of 92 pitches were strikes (58.7%)
Andy Sisco, LHP: 1 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K – 14 of his 27 pitches were strikes (51.9%)
George Kontos, RHP: 2.1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 3 K, 0-2 GB/FB – 19 of 27 pitches were strikes (70.4%) … now that’s some fine bullpen work

[Read more…]

Game Ten: Finally

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Sunday. That’s the last time the Yankees played a game, and since today is already Wednesday, the layoff is the equivalent of a baseball eternity. But a little extra time off never hurt anyone, so hopefully the team is well rested and A-Rod is feeling better after his bout with the flu. Here’s the lineup…

Brett Gardner, LF
Derek Jeter, SS
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Robinson Cano, 2B
Nick Swisher, RF
Jorge Posada, DH
Curtis Granderson, CF
Russell Martin, C

This one starts at 7:05pm ET and can be seen on YES. Sorry to everyone who was looking forward to the My9 broadcast last night. Enjoy the game.

Rotation Update: The Yankees aren’t skipping anyone in the rotation, they’re just going to push everyone back following yesterday’s rain out. Phil Hughes goes tomorrow, Ivan Nova on Friday, Freddy Garcia on Saturday, and CC Sabathia on Sunday.

The 2011 RAB Pledge Drive

Update (4/13/2011): Just bumping this up in case anyone missed it. I replied to every pledge email I received with a real short “great, thanks,” or something to that effect. That’s just to confirm I’ve received your email. If you emailed a pledge and did NOT get my reply this afternoon, then please resend it. I’m worried the spam filter might be catching stuff it shouldn’t. Thanks.

Original Post (4/7/2011): In each of the last three years, we’ve helped raise money for various charities backed by prominent Yankees, both current or former. Three years ago it was The Jorge Posada Foundation, two years ago it was Joe Torre’s Safe At Home Foundation, and last year it was Curtis Granderson‘s Grand Kids Foundation.

This year we’re going to help raise money for Harlem RBI and DREAM Charter School, a foundation that launched a “capital campaign to build an innovative mixed-use facility in East Harlem, New York City, a community that lacks the resources needed for young people to thrive.” The new facility will house “program and office space for Harlem RBI, a permanent home for DREAM Charter School, low-income housing for East Harlem families and a public park in which the community can Play, Learn and Grow.”  Mark Teixeira continues to work closely with the organization (which you can learn more about at its website), announcing yesterday that he’s donated $1M to the cause.

We’re not going to raise that much money, but every little bit helps. We’re going to base this year’s pledge drive on Tex’s RBI total, which hasn’t been below 105 since his rookie season in 2003. If you pledge $0.25 per RBI and he has a season on par with his 162-game career average (121 RBI), your pledge will be just $30.25. See? That won’t hurt your wallet much. Plus it’s a charitable donation, so it’s tax deductible. You could pledge less or more, whatever suits you best.

If you wish to pledge this year, just shoot me an email at charity (at) riveraveblues (dot) com and let me know how much you wish the pledge per RBI. I’ll then collect the pledges after the season and donate everything to Harlem RBI & DREAM. Thanks in advance, and go Yankees!

Link Dump: Hughes, Draft, Felix

More links as we anxiously await tonight’s game…

"Dude, we both suck." (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Phil HughesVelocity Location

We’ve heard more than we care to hear about Hughes’ missing velocity this season/month, but what’s going on with his location? A pitcher could survive throwing 88-90 if he locates properly, but Phil hasn’t been doing that either. Jonathan Scippa at Baseball Analytics looked at Hughes pitches this year and shows that the right-hander is a) leaving everything up (I do mean mean everything), and b) is coming right in on left-handed batters. Last season he went after lefties away, away, away. A lot of that has to do with the cutter, which he’s relied on heavily without his normal heater in his two starts. The velocity is obviously the biggest concern, but damn kid, get that ball down.

Baseball America’s Updated Top 50 Draft Prospects

The college baseball season is halfway over and the draft is now less than two full months away, so Baseball America posted their updated rankings of the top 50 prospects. This one’s free for all, no subscription is required. They still have Rice 3B Anthony Rendon in the top spot, though they can be pretty stubborn about their rankings at times (see: Alvarez, Pedro). UCLA RHP Gerrit Cole is almost certainly the best talent in the draft class right now, especially since Rendon’s shoulder problems have gotten so bad that he’ll only be able to DH the rest of the season.

There’s a number of interesting players falling down the board, particularly TCU RHP Matt Purke and Indiana OF Alex Dickerson. I’m still a sucker for big high school arms, but the Yankees have shied away from that demographic early in the draft in recent years (Cole being a big exception).

Larry Bernandez! (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Today’s Competing GM Idea

Anonymous quotes are the backbone of the MSM. You can’t name a source because then they won’t give you the information they’re not supposed to be giving you in the first place. That’s cool, it’s part of the business, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get to make fun of them from time to time. From Jon Heyman today, a “competing GM” said “if he were in charge in Seattle he’d take young pitchers Ivan Nova, Dellin Betances and Manuel Banuelos plus catching prospect Jesus Montero from the Yankees for reigning AL Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez.” Oh, is that all? I thought they’d ask for Robinson Cano too.

In all seriousness, it would take a frickin’ ton to acquire Felix, and the Mariners wouldn’t be crazy to ask for that. Would it hurt to deal two of the three Killer B’s plus Montero in the same package? Of course, but if you’re going to do it for someone, F-Her is the guy. I’d try to swap out Banuelos for Andrew Brackman, or at least Nova for D.J. Mitchell or something, but I think I would pull the trigger on that one. You?

The Forgotten Yankee

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The season is just nine games old, but so far Joe Girardi has gotten every player on the 25-man Opening Day roster into at least one game, most more than one. Except one guy: Gustavo Molina, who has yet to take the field and play. The backup catcher by default, Molina is only with the team because Frankie Cervelli had a foul ball break his foot and Jesus Montero underwhelmed in camp. A career .235/.295/.348 hitter in the minors, it’s easy to see why Girardi has hesitated to use him in a game.

It’s not all on Gus* though. His name was penciled into the starting lineup last Wednesday, but Mother Nature intervened and rained the game out. That allowed the team to skip Molina’s start just like Freddy Garcia’s, keeping Russell Martin in the lineup. And it’s not like Martin has been overworked either. He’s started no more than four consecutive games at any point in the season so far, and it’s not like the sun has been beating down on him at this time of year. With the way he’s hitting, why would they want him out of the lineup anyway?

With the weather expected to clear up today and hopefully through the weekend, it looks like Molina’s first start is imminent. The Yankees will play in each of the next five days before Monday’s off-day, and I would be surprised if Girardi used his starting backstop in all five games. He knows all about the position, and four starts in five days seems to be the accepted limit for a catcher. Martin is playing well, but you don’t want to run him into the ground like Joe Torre did over the last few years and have him turn into a pumpkin come June.

Unfortunately for Gus, his time with the Yankees figures to be short lived. He might start this weekend, but he’s only keeping the job warm for Cervelli, who recently shed the boot and has resumed non-baseball workouts. Early-May sounds like a reasonable expectation for his return, but even if it’s not, Montero is hitting the snot out of the ball in Triple-A and could be called up at any moment. All of that means Molina is down to what is likely the last three weeks of his Yankees career.

But you know what? Gus will be able to tell his grand kids that he once played for the Yankees, and that alone is pretty cool. If things break right the rest of the season, he might even be able to show them his World Series ring. Now that would be cool.

* Yeah, I’m calling him Gus from now on. It’s an old-timey kind of New York name, and the Yankees could use a Gus.