The good folks at ESPNNY asked me to contribute to this last night but I was unable to due to a prior commitment, but there’s a PRO/CON worth reading. First, the PRO:
The point is, it may not be essential for Burnett to repeat the numbers he put up for the Blue Jays in 2008, when he went 18-10 with a 4.07 ERA, a season good enough to persuade the Yankees that he was worth a five-year, $82.5 million investment. [...]
But the fact is, if the rest of the staff does its job, A.J. Burnett as a No. 3 may be exactly what the Yankees need him to be.
And the CON:
Burnett is not a bad guy or a bad pitcher, but he is a big tease. In football, he would be the guy who dominates the pre-draft combine. He has all the tools, but he can’t fully take advantage of them. [...]
If you don’t take my word for it that Burnett is not a legit No. 2 then ask the Yankees — or, at least, judge their actions. They tried so hard for Cliff Lee. They prayed for Andy Pettitte. Why? Because they didn’t think Burnett could really be the No. 2 they need.
Now, neither of those snippets are particularly eye-opening or earth-shattering; they couldn’t be given a 300 word limit. However, the kernel of truth is evident: The Yanks don’t need AJ to be a #2 pitcher (ie: 15+ wins); they need him to be more consistent than he was last year.
Wallace Matthews has some additional quotes from a chat with AJ here, and Matthews is right, they do not inspire much confidence (though they fly right in the face of the first set of quotes up top):
“I thought about it on the flight home. And by the time we landed, I realized I didn’t do anything [all season]. Pitched one game in the postseason. I mean, what’s going on? That’s not what I came here to do. I came here to win, I came here to pitch, I came here to be behind the big man, and I didn’t do any of that last year. You look back and I wasn’t really a factor. And then I was done with it. It got me depressed every time I thought about it. So I just stopped thinking about it.”
AJ, ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away.
GAKIII has a bit more from AJ, including his tattoo, from which I enjoy an ironic chuckle:
“I listened to people I shouldn’t have,” Burnett said about last year’s 10-15, 5.26 ERA train wreck. “When you listen to a lot of people you get worries in your head. If I could do it all over again, I would have been left alone.“
According to Burnett, his mental alertness also has to improve.
“I have to be mentally strong,” Burnett said. “In the good games I was locked in, and the bad games, mentally I was not there.”
Again, we’re back to the running Good AJ/Bad AJ dialogue that illustrates that the problems are cerebral not physical. We have to put faith in new pitching coach Larry Rothschild that he can get the AJ Express back on the rails and keep it on the rails. Which, according to a separate GAKIII article, is going well so far:
The first day they talked for four hours getting to know each other. The next, Rothschild made an adjustment with the right-handed Burnett’s landing leg.
“My leg should be going down, not swinging,” said Burnett, whose breaking ball flattened out and fastball lost velocity when the leg had too much swing in it. “I have to make sure it’s going down.”
Now, for the deeper dive on what happened to AJ in 2010 versus 2009, taken from a posting I ran during the playoffs:
Where’d AJ’s fastball go? [T]he dark line in the box represents the average speed per inning and Burnett’s average FB is down some 1+ MPH this year and down 2 MPH from 2007. Now, according to FanGraphs, AJ’s throwing that FB more often than last year (69.0% vs 65.9%) at the expense of his curve ball (27.4% vs 31.0%). Does this matter? Well, AJ’s FB “value” remains negative (as it was last year) but less so, so it’s less bad, as it were. The real problem seems to be that his CB value, once a major strength of AJ has turned negative: 16.0 last year vs -3.9 this year.
Much has been made about AJ’s declining (plummeting?) K rate, which currently stands at 7.0/9IP, down nearly 1.5 from last year and and down 2.5+ from his career high (9.56 per) in 2007 in Toronto. AJ’s swinging strike %, per FanGraphs, is at a career low 7.9%. Add a declining FB to a now-ineffective CB and you have AJ Burnett, circa 2010.
We’ve spoken about AJ plenty here this year, but this is a new look at the problem.
AJ’s ineffectiveness really manifests itself with 2-strike counts. With the charts below, you can see that Burnett is less in-the-zone this year versus last year. Could that be because of his decreased FB? No matter the reason, AJ’s staying away from the zone with two strikes, allowing batters to wait for something more to their liking.
Up, up and away! The heat charts below shows the swinging strike locations for AJ. This year, more strikes up in the zone. Up in the zone is bad news. Hits/9 are up this year (9.8 vs 8.4 last year), HR/9 slightly higher at 1.21, while K/9 are down (as mentioned earlier) at 7.0 vs 8.5 last year. Is this his ineffective curveball manifesting itself? If it’s not diving down, it’s getting hit.
Location, location, location. I’ll let Brian explain this one: “The chart below seems to show Burnett getting less called strikes up in the zone (more blue up top in the 2010 plot). This could be for one of two reasons: 1) he’s not throwing as many pitches up in the zone or 2) he’s not getting that call this season. But, since we see that he’s getting more swinging strikes up in the zone from the previous plot, maybe people are just swinging more at those pitches and therefore there are less strikes CALLED up in the zone.” Sounds good to me. The chart:
Ahead in the count, behind in the count. Here are the charts of AJ pitching both ahead and behind in the count, this year versus last:
Just for giggles. And lastly, a contrast of AJ and Mariano Rivera: