After his train wreck of a 2010 season, it may be hard to remember how good a pitcher Burnett can be. Let’s forget 2010 for the moment. With the exception of 2010, Burnett has never had a season in which he’s pitched at least 100 innings and had an ERA+ below 100. From 2005-09, Burnett managed to pitch at least 100 innings each year, make at least 21 starts each year, and pitch to ERA+’s of 116, 115, 119, 104, and 119.
There are some who think that Burnett’s best years were before he joined the Yankees in 2009. But 2009 might have been the best year of Burnett’s career. As the Yankees fought their way to the 2009 World Series championship, Burnett pitched 207 innings at a 114 ERA+. It wasn’t as nominally impressive as the 122 ERA+ he put up over 204.2 innings in 2002, but if you believe in giving people extra credit for playing in the A.L. East, then Burnett’s 2009 was actually more impressive than his 2002 season in the N.L. East.
Let’s go back to the original question: who on the Yankees’ Plan B rotation might raise his performance in 2011 and add 3-4 wins to the Yankees’ projected total? From 2005 to 2009, A.J. averaged a bWAR of 2.7. Compare that to Burnett’s 2010 bWAR of -0.1, and we have our answer: if Burnett can return to his form from before 2010, the Yankees could get those three extra wins.
Didn’t we say earlier that we should forget 2010?
Burnett’s 2010 was a horror show for the ages. Actually, Burnett’s 2010 consisted of two shows: through May, Burnett had a 6-2 won-loss record and a 3.28 ERA. From June on, Burnett won 4 games, lost 13, and had a 7.47 ERA. His June ERA of 11.35 was the worst monthly ERA in Yankee history by a pitcher with a minimum of five starts. His final overall 2010 ERA of 5.26 was the worst in Yankee history for any pitcher with at least 175 innings thrown.
During the month of June alone, Burnett allowed an obscene 22% line drive rate (versus a 17.6% rate for the season). Furthermore, after posting a groundball heavy GB/FB ratio in April and May, his batted ball rates reversed course in June, trending slightly toward fly balls. Not coincidentally, Burnett’s home run rate skyrocketed: he allowed a whopping 27.3% HR/FB ratio in June (versus 11.6% for the season). Adding further insult to injury, Burnett’s control completely betrayed him in June, when his BB/9 rate jumped from 3.03 in April/May to 6.65. These three factors combined to create a perfect storm that derailed Burnett’s once promising season.
So what happened to cause Burnett’s 2010 season to fall apart? If we knew the answer, we’d be coaching pitchers and not writing blogs. But figure that at this stage in his career, Burnett relies primarily on two pitches: his fastball and his curve ball. According to Fangraph’s pitch type value scale, Burnett’s fastball has been a below league average pitch for the last three years, but his fastball was no less effective in 2009 than it was in 2010. It was Burnett’s curve ball that failed him in 2010: this pitch went from 16 runs above league average in 2009 (4th highest in baseball) to 3.9 runs below league average in 2010.
No pitcher is going to survive a major league season by relying on only two pitches, both of them below league average.
If Burnett can rediscover his curve ball, he should be able to pitch as effectively in 2011 as he did in 2009. The Yankees have focused this spring on improving Burnett’s mechanics, evidently believing that the key for Burnett is to reduce his side-to-side movement. We don’t take much stock in spring training statistics, but Burnett has had a good spring so far: a 2.77 ERA in 13 innings pitched, allowing nine hits, striking out 11 and – perhaps most importantly – not walking anyone. This compares very favorably to Burnett’s 2010 spring, when he allowed 22 hits and walked 13 batters in 19 innings pitched.
Yankee fans have reason to feel cautiously optimistic about x-factor A.J. Burnett. If Burnett pitches up to his 2009 form, then the Yanks’ Plan B starting rotation looks reasonably solid. If not … well, then we may soon be writing here about other x-factors, like Bartolo Colon, or Kevin Millwood.
An X-factor of Kevin Millwood is enough to send cold chills down our spines.