What makes these Bad A.J. outings particularly frustrating is how simple the problem with them can seem at times. Though people spend a lot of time pondering why Burnett is so inconsistent, as I’ve written many times it’s actually not that hard to figure out; when Burnett can’t control his curveball, you can bet the rent it’s going to be a Bad A.J. night. And that’s exactly what happened tonight, as A.J. threw just 14 of his 30 curveballs for strikes, two of them swinging. When he consistently can’t put the breaking ball in the strikezone like that, hitters are just going to let it go and sit on the fastball. And sure enough, the fastball was the pitch Boston did there damage on tonight, as according to Brooks Burnett’s fastball carried a linear weight of 1.2660. Additionally, Burnett was able to get only two swinging strikes with the pitch in the game. Long story short, the Red Sox were sitting on his fastball and making solid contact.
Frankly I don’t see anyway out of this pattern for A.J. so long as he’s a two-pitch pitcher. Without another secondary pitch he can trust, Burnett is totally at the mercy of his command of the curveball on any given night, and his fastball just isn’t good enough to get him by when everyone knows they can just sit on it all game. Burnett really needs to develop another pitch he can go to consistently to keep hitters off balance, especially on nights when he’s having trouble throwing the curveball for strikes. He toyed with throwing more changeups earlier in the season and seemed to be having some success with that, but he threw just 7 changeups tonight.
From a bottom line standpoint, A.J. Burnett has generally been an above average starter in his career, and my guess is that he’ll be an above average starter again. The problem with Burnett has always been that he supposedly hasn’t been able to fully harness his “great stuff.” The truth of the matter is that his stuff has always been a bit overrated. Yes he throws his fastball reasonably hard and he has a tremendous hammer, but that’s really all he’s got. You can probably make it as a fastball-curveball pitcher in the big leagues if both of those offerings are legitimately plus pitches, but Burnett’s fastball has never really struck me as a great pitch. Burnett has always leaned on that curveball to make him effective, and always will unless he works in some other offspeed or breaking pitch to go to when h simply doesn’t have the feel for the deuce. And until then, we’ll all be holding our breath, wondering if this is going to be a good A.J. night, or a bad A.J. night.