Deconstructing AJ Burnett

Tough to watch

This past week, there were two outstanding, granular breakdowns on what’s been going on with AJ Burnett this season. Mark Simon of ESPN looked at his curveball, and found that in his first 6 starts out of the All Star break, he allowed just 15 hits on that pitch. But recently has see the movement on the breaking ball go from a 6 inch vertical break to just 4 inches leading up to the Twins game last week where he gave up 7 runs in just 1.2 IP. So for whatever reason, be it fatigue over the course of a long season or the diminishing of his stuff at this point of the season due to age, he’s not getting the same break on his curveball. Further, he found that he’s throwing the pitch right over the middle of the plate recently, which he rarely did prior. Here’s a quick chart from the article showing the breakdown on the pitch:

A.J. Burnett
2011 Season

Before Break After Break
Outs with Curve 128 43
Hits vs curve 16 15
K with curve 73 19

The next came from Jonathan at RLYW which looked at how he fares on pitches up and down in the zone. He found that Burnett’s knuckle curve has been his overall best pitch, especially when located down and out of the zone. As good as his curve has been (or was, before August) his fastball has been equally horrendous. The money quote was this:

The decline of his fastball is probably the biggest culprit here, as hitters are putting up a .439 wOBA against it, ranking him in the bottom 1% of the league (Only Edinson Volquez and Kyle Davies have been worse with their fastballs). That number has been increasing every year since PitchFX data began keeping track (2008: .364, 2009: .385, 2010: .403).

The takeaway? His stuff simply isn’t as good as it used to be. Look at his contact rates on pitches outside the zone. They’ve exploded from a low of 36.8% in 2005 (last year with Marlins) to 60.7% in 2011. A swing and miss pitcher like AJ makes his living on those pitches, and he’s just not missing bats like he used to. Of course, pitchers (emphasis mine) can do well with far less velocity than AJ currently sports. But AJ has never had the type of control or variety of arsenal that would allow him to get by with less velocity. He’s among the league leaders in Wild Pitches on a near annual basis, and even an outstanding defensive catcher like Russel Martin has been able to do little to prevent another top showing in 2011. The Yanks have tried to get him to incorporate the change up more this year (and he has) but its still a pitch he’s employed just 10.5% of the time. It’s an average pitch in terms of effectiveness, but that doesn’t mean its good, just that hitters aren’t looking for it since the overwhelming majority of his offerings are fastballs and curves.  In the minds of hitters he’s still a 2 pitch pitcher, so hitters always have a pretty good idea of what’s coming.

AJ has always been all about pure, raw ‘stuff’. His ability to make hitters uncomfortable with a 95+ fastball and devastating curve. At age 34 with a long rap sheet in terms of health, the stuff has diminished. The fastball has been declining in velocity for for the past 5 seasons, from a high of 95.9 MPH in 2007 to 92.7 MPH this year. Anyone who watches the catcher’s glove when he pitches knows that he’s never had the ability to paint the black with it consistently. We’ve been through two pitching coaches, neither of whom has been able to get AJ to be more consistent with his control or have him make the adjustment from thrower to pitcher. Brian Cashman can decry the Oliver Perez comparisons all he wants, in my estimation they are apt. He’s lost the ability to make hitters uncomfortable with his stuff, and has never had a Plan B. This isn’t a bad stretch or small sample, but a steady annual decline in the velocity and effectiveness of the fastball. He hasn’t had a quality start since the end of June, and has given up 30Runs and 44 Hits in just 22.2 IP for the month of August. The good news is you won’t have to watch much more of this, because the Yanks can’t continue to run a guy out there who doesn’t give the team a chance to win.

0 thoughts on “Deconstructing AJ Burnett

    • Duh, Innings!

      “Take the gun, leave the overpriced fifth starter being paid like a number two starter.”

      LOL

  1. Frank

    I agree 100% the Yanks can’t continue to run him out there,so the question is who do they run out there? My first thought is Noesi but I don’t think he’s pitched enough. Or do they bring someone up like say Warren? Burnett’s ongoing flameouts, coupled with Colon hitting a wall and the never ending saga of the mysterious Mr. Hughes, all point to a brief appearance in the playoffs.

    • The thing that keeps AJ in the rotation is the schedule. Doubleheader tomorrow, and very few days off the rest of the way. But with the way he’s throwing the ball, you can’t run him out there more than another 1-2 times. It’s all but a guaranteed loss, and by his nature things seem to come unglued very quickly.

      I think he makes his next start, but another clunker and my money’s on someone like Noesi getting the call. We’ll be into September at that point, so you can easily replace his long man role with someone from AAA. Or maybe him and AJ swap spots on the staff. But I don’t think the Yanks will make him work out of the bullpen. He’s too temperamental and might resist it. My guess would be they’ll just say “He’s working on the side” and let the calendar on his 2011 campaign expire.

  2. Great post, Steve. Best and simplest explanation for the A.J. situation that I’ve read yet.

    Last night HAD to be his last start of the season.

  3. Andrew

    Yet they still will run him because Cashman & Girardi refuse to accept the fact that Burnett was a one-hit wonder. His stuff is totally gone, yet they left him in to give up 9 runs in 5 innings anyway. What a bunch of jokes. I say scrap Burnett and just go back to a 5-man rotation. I almost guarantee you that Sabathia will start pitching much better than he has recently once the rotation goes back to five.

    • JohnnyC

      It’s quite a reflection on Cashman et al.’s ability to evaluate major league pitching when you can say that AJ’s stuff is totally gone…and yet he’s averaging almost 93 mph on his FB. Here’s a guy who’s pitchability is next to zero — how can you commit 5 years/$82 million to a 32 year old who shows no aptitude for pitching not throwing? Did they really believe they’d have the luxury of watching this guy move to the back of the rotation?

      • He’s not going to reinvent himself mid-season, that’s why I suggested earlier they have him work on the side the rest of the year. But AJ said himself last night that he’s aware of the fact that he doesn’t throw as hard as he used to anymore, so maybe he ready to get religion on the change up.

        Personally though, I’m not optimistic. He’s already incorporated the change up more and his results are getting worse, though its not the fault of that particular pitch. His fastball is getting destroyed, more and more each year. If you want to ‘pitch backwards’ you have to throw your breaking pitches for strikes early in the count, and as I said in the piece I’ve never seen him as a guy who has that kind of control. As RLYW showed, his curve is at its best when its down and out of the zone.

        Again, I’m not optimistic on him being anything but a reliever, where 2 pitches is fine, his stuff could play up, and you can limit the damage.

        • JohnnyC

          They will try to trade him this off-season. The improvements he must make in order to pitch at an acceptable level are nearly impossible for a soon-to-be 35 year old with 2 pitches he has no command over. His remarks after the game show a true lack of self-consciousness. He doesn’t throw 97-98 anymore? Duh.

          • Duh, Innings!

            I’m tellin’ y’all:

            Burnett and $9.75M to Atlanta for Derek Lowe.

            Cost of Burnett to the Braves for 2012: $15M (the Yanks kick in $1.5M towards Burnett’s $16.5M salary for 2012), the same as they would be paying for Lowe if they kept him.

            Cost of Lowe to the Yanks for 2012: Same as they’d pay for Burnett if they kept him.

            Cost of Burnett to the Braves for 2013: $8.25M ($6.75M less than what they’d pay for him in 2012, half of Burnett’s 2013 salary.)

            The Braves don’t want Lowe’s $15M on their payroll for next year. They won’t release him thus eat that $15M or be able to trade him even if they threw in cash. Enter the Yanks and Burnett. I’m pretty sure the Yanks privately want to get rid of Burnett, or would get rid of him if there was a taker. Burnett is five years or so younger than Lowe and could thrive in the league with no DH and the inferior bottom of the order with the pitcher batting. He would be pitching for a team who has a hands-off fanbase and media. Atlanta is a short flight away from his home in Maryland. He makes no starts, one start, or two starts vs. an AL team in the regular season.

            Lowe would be a one-year only proposition for the Yanks and he isn’t Burnett. If he sucks, the Yanks could simply release him.

            I would consider this trade to be more a $9.75M buyout to get rid of Burnett’s remaining $33M than paying $24.75M for Lowe.

            I think the Braves would go for it. If he turned in a 14-11, 3.75-4.50, 30-32 GS, 180-200 IP type 2012 for them, they’d have him for only $8.25M for 2012. You’d be hard-pressed to find a free-agent in his early-mid 30s willing to take just a year and $8.25M let alone the year part of that contract after posting those numbers.

  4. Duh, Innings!

    Btw the reasoning behind my trade idea is Burnett is overall not a bad pitcher, he’s just a bad pitcher for the Yanks.

    I will always be grateful to him for helping the Yanks win Game 1 of the 2009 World Series after Sabathia lost Game 1, for that he gets a pass for his so-so 2009 and awful 2010.

    I want the Yanks to trade Burnett not because I dislike or hate the guy – I like the guy cuz he has a warrior mentality – it’s just it’s not working out for him here and it seems like it could only get worse. I will say that if the Yanks somehow win this year’s World Series, Burnett should definitely get a ring because he was part of the triumph like Frank Thomas was part of the White Sox 2005 triumph even though he didn’t play in the postseason (or was it just the World Series?) He should also be kept and the mentality everyone should have going into 2012 is “Hey we won it all last year, Let’s start anew.”

    The best we can hope for is the Yanks win it all this year so Burnett can start afresh with two World Series rings as a Yankee on his hand, two more than Mussina, Brown, Vasquez, Johnson, Contreras, Wright, and Pavano have as Yankees. He already has one more as a Yankee than all those guys.

    He has to start games in September cuz of all the makeup games unless the Yanks want to give Noesi, Warren, Phelps, or any two among them a shot.