The deterioration of Burnett’s hook

A.J. Burnett has hopes up this spring. He’s turned in solid performances on the mound, and new pitching coach Larry Rothschild has helped him make some mechanical changes. As a result, many are cautiously optimistic that Burnett will bounce back in 2011 after a horrific 2010 campaign. The Yankees could use an effective Burnett, that’s for certain. Yet, fans would have to be forgiven for not holding their breath. Like a zit, Bad A.J. seems to show up whenever he pleases, with no warning, often at a rather inconvenient time.

So what are the signs that Burnett is turning over a new leaf this year? What are the indications that Burnett’s improvement is the result of changes he’s made, and not luck on batted balls in play or because he’s facing a weak lineup? Part of the answer lies in the quality of Burnett’s moneymaker: his curveball. When Burnett has his curveball working in tandem with his fastball, he becomes a very difficult pitcher for batters to handle. It’s why he’s so tantalizing and it’s why people refer to his “electric stuff” (as annoying as that gets) and say that he has the ability to throw a no-hitter every time he steps on the mound. When he’s on he is on, and vaya con Dios to the opposing team: you’ll need it.

There’s been a wealth of Burnett analysis amongst Yankee blogs in the past few weeks. Jason at IIATMS analyzed his fastball velocity and heat maps in different counts, concluding that Burnett becomes more ineffective in two-strike counts. Larry Koestler over at Yankee Analysts used Pitch F(x) to analyze Burnett’s repetoire on a month-by-month basis, concluding that Burnett’s curveball command completely abandoned him in 2010. Finally, Mike previewed Burnett last week, and said that he was cautiously optimistic and expected better results with the curveball. He also noted that Burnett’s curveball went from the best in the game (using Fangraphs’ Pitch Type Values) to a below-average pitch in one offseason. While the Pitch Type Values metric has clear limitations, most observers would likely agree that Burnett’s typically deadly curveball was subpar in 2010. Utilizing Fangraphs’ awesome Heat Map tool, we can see just how different it really was, and learn what to look for this year.

Curveball to lefties

The first thing to keep in mind is that these charts are from the perspective of the catcher. So left-handed batters are on your right, and right-handed batters are on your left. It’s confusing, so simply think of yourself as Jesus Montero back there. Feel better?

Yeah, son. Burnett's 2008 curveballs to left-handed batters.

Burnett had a fantastic 2008, throwing 221.1 innings of 3.40 FIP ball with a 9.39 K/9 and a 3.50 BB/9. This graph shows us a real gathering around two different locations. Burnett was dropping his curveball on the outer half of the plate in the strikezone, and was burying it on the inside corner low and out of the strike zone. These are really two different kinds of curveballs in terms of their function. The former is a pitch Burnett drops in the zone for a strike. Anecdotally, it seems to me that this is a pitch batters usually take for a strike, rather than swing through. The latter is a pitch Burnett likes to bury outside of the zone, sometimes burying it in the middle of the plate down in the dirt, and other times seeming aiming it at the batter’s back (left) foot. The latter pitch often has more horizontal break, meaning it’s moving right to left. You can see the former pitch in action in this video at the 0:48 mark, and the later at the 1:21 mark. In sum, the above chart is what AJ Burnett’s curveball chart should look like.

Burnett's 2009 curveballs to left-handed batters.

In 2009 we see less of the “down and in” curveball and more of the curveball placed on the outer half of the plate. The 2008 and 2009 charts are fairly similar visually, although the 2009 scatter is more stretched out horizontally. The 2008 chart is more clustered around the strikezone.

That got out of hand quickly. Burnett's 2010 curveballs to left-handed batters.

In 2010 it’s easy to see a distinct lack of command of the curveball to lefties, a real failure to keep it in the strikezone. He doesn’t show the same ability to center the pitch on the lower outer half of the plate, and he’s throwing what seems to be just as many curveballs out of the zone as he is inside the zone. If a pitcher can’t convince you that the next pitch is going to be a strike, then you’re not going to swing. It’s very simple. Further it seems, again anecdotally, that when Burnett would miss with his curveball he would miss badly. The red dot at the very bottom of the image would confirm this observation.

Curveballs to righties

Burnett's 2008 curveballs to righties.

Very simply, this is a deadly pitch. By and large, Burnett’s was throwing his curveball in 2008 nearly exclusively on the lower, outer edge of the plate. The largest red spot straddles the strike zone line, meaning that it was a 50/50 proposition as to whether the pitch would be called for a strike and making it very difficult for batters to lay off. Burnett also dropped a fair amount of curves in the middle of the zone, and then further out of the zone and down and away. The important thing was being able to command it in the zone, and also having the ability to leave it out of the zone in the attempt to get batters to chase the pitch.

Burnett's 2009 curveballs to righties.

There’s a distinct difference in the 2009 heat map from the 2008 heat map. In this year, Burnett threw far more curveballs in the middle of the plate, but in the lower half of the zone. He also continued his trend of dropping them in on the lower outer edge of the plate and throwing some lower and out of the zone, but the trend in 2009 seemed to be to throw more curveballs towards the center of the strike zone.

Burnett's 2010 curveballs to righties.

To righties in 2010 we see Burnett leaving a good amount in the lower inner quadrant, as well as directly in the middle of the plate.Burnett is dispersing these curveballs throughout the zone, but clearly shows a problem commanding them in the strikezone. Like curveballs to lefties in 2010, Burnett’s ability to throw the pitch for a strike seemed to abandon him in 2010.

Like many analysts, I’m optimistic that Burnett can bounce back in 2010. There are good reasons to hope for a bounceback, reasons not based solely on the irrational optimism that Spring Training brings to most fans (myself included). Burnett has a new pitching coach, and the new mechanical changes appear to simplify his delivery. If he’s able to recover command of his curveball, Burnett could be a much improved pitcher in 2011. Given the state of the Yankee rotation and the $49.5M he’s due over the next three years, this would surely be a welcome development.

A Push for Nova to the Rotation

See you in the bigs, Supernova. (AP/Charlie Neibergall)

I think Ivan Nova should be in the rotation. At the beginning of Spring Training, I was just sort of hoping for him because of the prospect hugger in me (though I would trade ManBan for Felix, for the record!), but the more I see of him, the more I like the notion of him breaking camp as the fourth or fifth starter. Anyone notice that during the offseason, all we talk about is being excited about not having to talk about pitching, and then we just keep talking about it? What can you say, it’s a hot-button issue. Joe reviewed the fourth and fifth starters yesterday, but I’d like to talk specifically about Nova and why the rotation is right for him.

First off, it’s important to note that Nova still has two remaining minor league options, so even if he starts with the big club, it’s easy as pie to ship him over to Scranton to work on his stuff. If Nova goes up and down more than once in a season, it still only uses up one option. If he stinks in April and we send him down, and then we need him in June, that’s not a problem at all. Additionally, if our rotation problem resolves itself somewhere between the 2011 and the 2012 seasons, the options are there if we need to move Nova around to rework the back end of our rotation. Maybe it’s a bit early for projections, but I wouldn’t mind seeing a Ryan Dempster-Manny Banuelos  combination for 4-5 in 2012 and Nova as the longman or stewing in Triple-A in case of injury. Excuse me while I get a little ahead of myself.

Another thing is, out of the three possibilities (I refuse to believe Mitre will get the job with everyone doing this well), Nova’s token problem can be patched the easiest. That’s not to say that fixing Nova’s issues will be easy, but between Colon’s diminished stuff, Garcia’s injury history, and Nova’s inability to get through a lineup twice, I’d take Nova’s problem. This decision is even easier to make based on the extremely high potential of our bullpen. Needing the bullpen to go five innings every five days isn’t something you want, of course, but in the worst-cast scenario, it’s hardly the most terrible thing that could happen. If Nova goes out there and gives us 120 pretty good IP (30 starts at 4 innings a piece), it’s still better than Garcia pitching in four games and blowing out his shoulder again, or Colon doing his best Sidney Ponson imitation.

Now, a lot of these things could be covered just as well by Nova working out of the bullpen as a longman or other relief role. By sticking him in the bullpen, we minimize the damage he could potentially cause, we give him major league experience, and we take advantage of his major league stuff. While I can see the good side of this, I personally don’t think it’s the way to go. There’s no way to say if shifting a pitcher between the bullpen and the rotation actually messes with them, but I’d rather not take that chance. I’d be more comfortable with Nova in the bullpen if I knew that the Yankees had absolutely tried as hard as they could to fit him into the rotation. Some players, obviously, are going to be relievers all their lives. Some players are just not cut out for the rotation. But Nova’s proven that he at least has starter potential, and I don’t know if his seven starts in 2010 count as ‘tried as hard as they could.’ For Nova to not be in the rotation right off the bat should only be the result of a bad Spring Training (not happening) or a total meltdown, rather than the general mediocrity we saw out of him in his first year.

Additionally, Nova pitching those starting innings might give other clubs some (more) ideas about him; the Nova-as-a-trade-chip angle is not a new one. I’m pretty sure that no one is interested for trading for Bartolo Colon, though perhaps signing him to a bloated contract will catch Tony Reagins’ eye. Garcia is equally unappealing for other clubs. If the Yankees pump Nova up as a starter, his trade value could pull in a better haul than if he’s performing as a longman. The hype machine is obviously not as important as winning, but if Nova is just as good as Garcia or Colon, there’s no reason not to use him, if nothing else than to pump up his trade value.

This decision would be easier if, straight out of the Spring Training gate, two pitchers had performed stunningly and one had fallen by the wayside. This isn’t the case, so we’re left looking at all our options and trying to figure out the pros and cons of each one. In the end, my Yankees rotation has Nova and Garcia, with Colon in the bullpen in case one of our actual starters goes down with an injury. If nothing else, it gives us a reason to keep an eye on Spring Training games besides all our awesome prospects and Jorge Posada turning double plays at first base.

Friday night open thread

The Yanks lost a pair today as both Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova weren’t sharp. That’s pretty much the headline today.

In baseball news, Chuck Greenberg is out as CEO of the Rangers. Strange happenings there. Apparently he and Nolan Ryan weren’t getting along. I guess violence and apathy don’t go hand-in-hand these days.

In more serious Yankee news, Kei Igawa cannot reach his family in Japan following last night’s tsunami. The club has donated $100,000 to the early relief aid, and the Igawa family is in our thoughts right now.

2010 Amateur Spending

The draft and international budgets are largely unknown to us lowly fans, and many of us ask why the Yankees don’t just blow everyone out of the water and sign every decent player around. It doesn’t work like that of course, since one team’s decent player is another team’s can’t miss superstar and another team’s non-prospect. And besides, there’s  point of diminishing returns even with prospects.

Baseball America provided a list of each team’s draft spending from 2008 through 2010 last summer, and more recently published a list of each club’s spending on the international market. When we add the two together, we see that the Yankees spent a total of $11.92M on amateur players last year, the seventh most in baseball. The Pirates ($16.9M) and Blue Jays ($15.77M) were far and away the biggest spenders, followed by the Nationals ($12.78M), Astros ($12.41M), Red Sox ($12.3M), and Rangers ($12.06M). The Indians, Mariners, and Orioles were the only other clubs to spend eight-figures on amateurs, and the league average was just over $9M. They’re not blowing everyone out of the water, but the Yankees were far from cheap when it came to amateur talent in 2010.

If you want to see a chart with all this info broken down and tallied up, click here. All told, the 30 clubs combined to spend just north of $270M on amateur players last season.

Spring Training Game Thread: Playing Two

We'll be watching you today, Phil. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

It’s a bit grey and only around 50 degrees in New York this afternoon, but down in sunny Florida, the Yanks are gearing up to play two games at the same time. The club has some split-squad action today as Ivan Nova and the outfielders head to Dunedin to take on the Blue Jays while the infielders stick around in Tampa to face the Braves. Phil Hughes gets the start, and the game will be on the YES Network at 1:05 p.m.

Unfortunately, those of us watching at home will miss the chance to watch Jesus Montero. He’s catching Ivan Nova today, and in the field, the other game features Eric Chavez at first and Ronnie Belliard at second. Those two are battling it out for a reserve spot on the Yanks’ bench.

In the game we get to see, we have the lineup:

Jeter SS
Jones LF
Teixeira 1B
Rodriguez 3B
Posada DH
Nuñez 2B — I’d hate to see Eduardo batting sixth anytime after March.
Romine C
Maxwell RF
Krum CF

Hughes P

On the bench, we have Gustavo Molina; infielders Addison Maruszak, Corban Joseph, Carmen Angelini and Bradley Suttle; and outfielders Ray Kruml and Brett Gardner. Rafael Soriano, Steve Garrison, Joba, Pedro Feliciano, Eric Wordekemper, Andrew Brackman, Hector Noesi and Luis Ayala will be in the bullpen. It is unlikely, however, that Brackman will get in the game.

2011 Season Preview: Fourth and Fifth Starters

As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will go up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

The Yankees currently have a few pitchers battling for two rotation spots, but it really comes down to three. For this preview we’ll look at the trio.

Freddy Garcia

Best Case

(Dave Martin/AP)

If only this were 2007. That year Garcia’s best case scenario was a solid No. 2 pitcher. But he hurt his shoulder that year and threw just 58 innings. Since then he’s struggled to stay healthy. The ray of hope here is that he threw 157 innings last year, which is more than he threw in the previous three years combined. He also produced serviceable numbers. That leaves some room for upside projection.

Last year Garcia had to acclimate himself to life with a sub-90-mph fastball. That’s not an easy adjustment for any pitcher — we can look to Javier Vazquez as an immediate example. Now that Garcia has something of a full season under his belt with his diminished arsenal, there’s a chance he can harness it and produce better results in 2011. We’ve already seen in spring training that he’s working on all four pitches. If he mixes and matches and uses his changeup to his his advantage, there’s a good chance he can top last year’s results.

The Bill James projections have him at a 3.89 ERA — though a 4.57 FIP — through 148 innings. That seems like an aggressive forecast for even a best case. But since Garcia is nothing but a prayer anyway, let’s peg this as his best case. The chances of it happening are maybe one in 100,000, but maybe the Yanks hit the lotto.

Worst Case

The worst case with a pitcher with Garcia’s injury history always involves considerable time on the shelf. With Garcia it would probably mean getting rocked during the month of April and then getting hurt. That would inflict the maximum pain. Not only would they get just a few starts out of him, but then they’d lose the chance for him to get into a groove and compensate for those poor performances.

While Garcia looks good now, and while he pitched decently at times in 2010, he provides no guarantees for 2010. His worst case is considerable — perhaps the worst of the three, since he stands the chance to cause the most damage. He likely has a longer leash than Colon, which could backfire for the Yankees.

What’s Likely To Happen

A player with Garcia’s stuff and injury history is tough to peg for a likely case, because there’s so much room for variance. I don’t think it’s likely that he starts 28 games again this year, but the Yankees don’t necessarily need that. I also think that if he does make, say, 20 starts, that he has a few very good ones in him. So where does that leave us for a likely scenario?

I’d say that the most likely case is between 15 and 20 starts with between a 4.30 and 4.60 ERA. Garcia showed last year that he can survive with a sub-90 fastball and his arsenal of secondary pitches. This year he brings more experience to the table. I think that raises the bar, if only slightly.

Bartolo Colon

(Kathy Willens/AP)

Best Case

If Colon breaks camp with the team he will have bad games. In the best case scenario he won’t have so many of those bad games, and they’re like four innings, five runs than two innings, seven runs. There’s also the occasional start where he gets a couple of lucky hops and some solid defensive plays and keeps the other team at bay. Mix in a few five- or six-inning, two or three run performances and it becomes a decent part of a season.

How big a part of the season? Colon is 38 and hasn’t been healthy since 2005. For him to make it through May would constitute a positive outcome. That would make for something like 15 starts at a 4.50 ERA — that magic number. Not bad, not great, blows some games, makes some a little easier. Marcel has him at 66 innings and a 4.36 ERA. The Yanks will take that early in the season. It could be worse. It could be…

Worst Case

Sidney Ponson circa 2006. In 2008 he might have had a 5.85 ERA, but he also had the occasional game where he’d walk more than he struck out, but only allow two or three hits and luck his way into a win. The 2006 version of Sidney Ponson was far more putrid. His best game was his first, four runs in 6.2 IP. After that it was some of the worst pitching I’ve had to endure since the early 90s.

If, after 16.1 innings, Colon, like Ponson, has allowed 20 runs — and has an OPS allowed of .988 — then I presume the Yankees will cut him. That’s a pretty putrid case by any measure. The only way it could get worse is if they let him continue pitching. Considering the implications of doing so while competing the AL East, I have faith that they will not. Ponson’s 2006 had better be the worst case, and even then I hope they’d cut it a bit shorter.

What’s Likely To Happen

It’s no fun saying it, but the most likely case if Colon makes the team involves him pitching a few terrible starts, a few serviceable starts, and then getting hurt. No one wishes injury on the guy, but let’s be realistic. He hasn’t been healthy since 2005, and it’s highly unlikely that changes after five years of injury and inactivity.

Ivan Nova

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Best Case

The book on Nova is that while he pitched well last season, he struggled when facing a lineup for the third time. That’s because he relied mainly on two pitches, throwing almost two-thirds fastballs and then mostly the curveball otherwise. If he works in his changeup more, and it’s even an average offering, his upside becomes considerable. His best case would have him resembling a No. 3 pitcher.

If we’re talking about Nova’s best case, and his best case makes him a No. 3-type pitcher, then his best case also involves him breaking camp with the team, since that’s how he provides the most value. That would make his season line something along the lines of 30 GS, 190 IP, 4.00 ERA. To say that would be tremendous is an understatement.

Worst Case

Nova’s worst case involves him impressing enough in spring training that they part ways with Colon, and then he bombs to start the season. Then, after a month, he goes back to AAA and the Yankees implement a revolving door. No one works out, and Nova comes back, only to pitch poorly again.

This is the risk involved with any unproven pitcher. This scenario isn’t particularly likely, but it’s still within the realm of possibility.

What’s Likely To Happen

Right not it appears as though the Yankees will build depth and start Nova in the minors. He’ll make up it, of course, since the Yankees won’t get through 162 games with just Colon and Garcia in the 4/5 spots. What’s likely is something similar to last year, with certain improvements.

With all this in mind, I’d peg Nova’s most likely case As somewhere between his Bill James and Marcel projections. That is, a strikeout rate in the mid 6s per nine, a walk rate in the high 3s per nine, a few home runs, and an ERA between 4.00 and 4.50. That might seem like a wide range, because it is. We know little about what Nova can do in the majors, so a wide range becomes necessary.

Mailbag: Chavez, Nunez, Martin, Hall of Famers

Curious about how viable Jorge Posada is as a backup first baseman? Or Eduardo Nunez usurping Ramiro Pena as the utility infielder or CC Sabathia‘s Hall of Fame chances? Then you’ve come to the right place, the RAB Mailbag. If you want to send in a question, use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Bart asks: I know the Yankees are wanting Chavez to spell Tex at 1st base but if he is having trouble playing that position is there any chance they let Jorge be the backup 1st baseman? Then have Chavez to play 3rd when Arod needs to DH or sit. I’m assuming Chavez could also sub in RF if it were a desperate late game need.

I’m not sure about Eric Chavez playing the outfield, he might be too fragile to be running around there, but Posada can definitely serve as the backup first baseman. We’ve already heard that he’ll see some time there during the spring, and he does have 28 games played (15 starts) at the position in his career, so it’s not completely foreign to him. My only concern is that Jorge’s defense would be so bad, Jason Giambi-esque considering how poorly he moves around, that it’s basically no difference between he and the worst Chavez case defensively at first.

Either way, both guys can play first base if needed, though it won’t be pretty. Nick Swisher is always an option there as well.

Patrick asks: Eduardo Nunez: What are his chances of replacing Ramiro Pena as the Yankees utility player? It seems that he is really having a great spring and with Pena’s offensive deficiencies it may be time to swap them out. What have you been hearing?

I’m no insider, so I haven’t been hearing anything, but it certainly seems like Nunez has passed Pena on the utility infielder depth chart. He played some outfield the other day, and he’s also received more plate appearances than any other player in camp so far (Pena isn’t far behind, to be fair). Nunez can do a little of everything – hit, defend, run – whereas Pena can only do one thing really well, and that’s play defense. I’m no Nunez fan, but certainly offers more than Pena and would fit but better off the bench.

The only question is: how serious are the Yankees when they say Nunez is a future starting shortstop? If he really is, then end him to Triple-A to play everyday. I’ll live with Pena coming off the bench once in a while just so Nunez can get regular at-bats to work on his approach and what not.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Rich asks: What do you think will happen if Russell Martin returns to form and has an all-star season? Do you think it’s more likely he gets traded by the deadline, or the Yankees move Montero for pitching and hold on to Martin until Romine, Sanchez or whoever is ready?

If Martin returns to his 2007 form, I’ll do the happy dance. What the team does really depends on the other guys. Is Montero clearly ready and capable of taking over behind the plate at the big league level? If so, then I’d trade Martin for (hopefully) a starting pitcher. If not, then I’d hang on Martin and reap the benefits. It would be a great, great problem if the Yankees ended up having too many quality catchers (in their 20’s).

Mark asks: I was wondering, before the season begins, it may be fun to have an article about current Yankees and their Hall of Fame chances. Obviously Jeter and ARod are the front runners. But what about Jorge? Or CC? What do they (and the rest of the team) have to do from here on to be considered for the Hall?

The three surefire, no doubt it, first ballot Hall of Famers on the team are Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Mariano Rivera, clearly. Those three will waltz into the HoF. The borderline guys are Posada and CC Sabathia in my eyes. Both Mark Teixeira and Robbie Cano a) have a long, long ways to go, and b) need to take their game to another level before we can begin this discussion.

Posada’s candidacy depends on your criteria. He’s better than Jim Rice, so by that standard he gets in. If you’re a small Hall person, then he doesn’t make the cut. My heart says that Jorge belongs in Cooperstown because he was essentially the best catcher in baseball for a period of eight to ten years, bridging Mike Piazza and Joe Mauer, but my head says he doesn’t. Great player that is seemingly under-rated by Yankees fans, but a notch below HoF level. No shame in that at all.

As for CC, he obviously has a whole lot of playing time ahead of him. He’s 30 years old with 157 career wins to his credit, so he has a very real shot at 300. For comparison’s sake, Roger Clemens had 172 wins at age 30, Greg Maddux had 165, and Randy Johnson had a whopping 68. Sabathia’s right there with those guys, and if he hangs around long enough to get that 300th win, he’ll head to Cooperstown on the first ballot. Do I think he’s a HoFer? Not right now, of course not. But he’s already halfway there, and most guys don’t make it that far.