For Those Who Dissent, Our Fifth Starter Should Be AJ Burnett

Despite all that I’ve found, all that I’ve read, and all the optimistic data I’ve calculated, there is nothing that will make me like A.J. Burnett. Simply put, I strive for consistency, every baseball fan, manager, player, and general manager does; Burnett is as erratic as a starting pitcher gets. You can see it in his hit by pitch totals, you can see it in his wild pitch totals, you can see it in his walks, and worst of all you can see it in his ERA. Despite the trade rumors, Burnett is likely the Yankees’ die to roll for the next two years, so it’s time we discuss how unlucky his 2011 season was.

First, let’s look at two starting pitchers.

2011 Regular Season
Player K/9 BB/9 HR/9 GB% FB% LD% xFIP
Pitcher A 8.18 3.92 1.47 49.2% 32.3% 18.5% 3.86
Pitcher B 9.12 3.57 0.67 47.9% 33.0% 19.1% 3.36

Pitcher A, A.J. Burnett, has one less strikeout and half a walk more per nine innings than Pitcher B, but that pitcher also plays in the National League, increasing his strikeout rate and decreasing his walk rate on the pitcher hitting ninth. The big difference between the two is the HR/9 rate; Burnett gives up more than double the amount of homeruns than Pitcher B. From there the ERAs are startlingly different. AJ finished with a 5.15 ERA in 2011, while Pitcher B, Giant’s ace Tim Lincecum, finished with a 2.74 ERA.

One number above predicts that the two should have had closer performances, that was xFIP. In case you’re unfamiliar, xFIP assumes that a player will put up a league-average HR rate (10.6% HR/FB) and applies it to their FIP. It’s one of my least favorite statistics because some pitchers can be more prone to homeruns based on their type of pitching or stadium. While AJ does pitch in a homerun prone stadium, he is not a fly ball pitcher, and his career average 11.3 HR/FB% is very close to the league average. For that reason, the 3.86 xFIP is significant in showing how unlucky his homerun rate was. 17% of his fly balls were homeruns in 2011, which is a number that you’d assume is bound to stabilize in 2012.

(Antonelli/News)

If you don’t have full faith in the xFIP numbers, there is another statistic that might convince you. Pitch Type Linear Weight was created with the introduction of Pitch f/x, and its purpose was to calculate the run value of a specific players pitch. If you read this Fangraphs article on how to use it, you’ll see that these numbers can help in determining how certain pitch types faired, however you will not be able to use the numbers to predict how good or bad a pitch was. The main reason for this is sample size, and as we’ll see with Burnett’s Run Values (RVs), BABIP can skew the statistic. To fix the problem, Expected Run Value (RVe) was created, which records the contact of a pitch as ground ball, fly ball, or line drive, and runs it through league average outcomes, unlike the actual outcomes used in Run Value.

With RV and RVe, we get two numbers, one that shows the effectiveness a pitch had and one the effectiveness it should have produced. Back in September, Beyond the Boxscore took a look at the “Unluckiest” pitches in 2011 and found that AJ’s four-seam fastball was one of the worst fairing pitches in the game. The article is a must read if you’re a statistics nerd like me. The difference between Burnett’s total run value and expected run value for 2011 was +20.556, which was second behind only Max Scherzer. This means that his four-seam fastball was hit for 20 extra runs than it should have been. Giving up 20 fewer runs would put Burnett’s ERA at 4.21, remarkably closer to his xFIP.

As much as I dislike A.J. Burnett, his numbers indicate that he ran into some extremely bad luck last year. With the revelations of his xFIP and RVe, there’s a case to be that he has upside to sit in the middle of the rotation. Predicting him has been a losing battle his entire career, but when you consider the money owed and possible production, AJ should be the fifth starter.

36 thoughts on “For Those Who Dissent, Our Fifth Starter Should Be AJ Burnett

  1. Steve

    You mean erratic.

  2. AJ Burnett must be Charlie Brown. Always so unlucky. Maybe this year someone will hit a ball so hard it knocks all his clothes off.

  3. RYan

    I dunno. I know there’s all these advanced stats and all to explain why someone sucks but I watched all of his starts (unfortunately) and he’s no Tim lincecum. I know linceum has a very unique delivery that’s deceptive. I think the fact that he developed a good changeup has offset his FB velocity decrease and helped maintain it’s effectiveness. If AJ develped a lincecum Changeup maybe his “luck” would improve.

    • Lincecum’s pitch selection has little to do with it, its all about results. With the numbers that we have, if we move AJ to the NL West he’s going to be a very above average pitcher, because of the ballparks/fewer homeruns. AJ’s problem was the almost 1 out of every 5 flyballs off of him were homeruns. That number is unsustainable for almost any pitcher. If we plug in his a league average homerun rate, he should have had a 3.86 FIP; if we plug in his career average homerun rate, he should have had a 3.89 FIP.

  4. bpdelia

    Listen i am a true believer in saber stats. I like fip and most dips stats. However any Stat that is telling you an burnett is only. 5 runs per 9 worse than Tim fucking lincecum is suspect. Rather than make me confident of an an rebound what you have done is put the final nail in the xfip coffin for me. I never really liked it that much and this shows why.

    Tell you what…i will quite literally right now bet you 1000 dollars that burnetts era is more than .5 runs higher than lincecums this year. I’m totally serious. If you wont take that bet then i don’t think you are confident enough in the dips and peripheral stats abilities to predict ajs. Performance this year. In which case this post is a bit intellectually dishonest.

    ‘m just as inclined to scoff at most people who talk about the rte test or their gut but come on. This is ridiculous. Any number that predicts burnett being even close to lincecum going forward is worse than useless

  5. UYF1950

    “As much as I dislike A.J. Burnett, his numbers indicate that he ran into some extremely bad luck last year.” He obviously ran into some extremely bad luck last year as well then.

    When does “bad luck” turn into just plain bad performances? Is it after 3 years, maybe 4 years. The point is, in this posters opinion AJ stinks and his salary stinks. End of story.

  6. roadrider

    Interesting analysis Michael but I’m not sure I buy the conclusion that AJ was more unlucky than he was bad last season, particularly where the HRs are concerned.

    This is based strictly on visual observation and as such could be influenced by my sometimes faulty middle-aged memory (I’d tell you how old I am but I’m afraid you guys would calculate my decline curve and that would be even more depressing than a typical AJ start) and the usual biases associated with observational analysis (I do watch most of the games though).

    Anyway, it did not seem to me that AJ was plagued by a bevy of wall scrapers. When he gave up a bomb there was usually little doubt and they seemed to occur more frequently in his “blow-up” innings where the command went south and he was forced to come over the plate more than he’d like to (or intended to). In other words, this was not like Catfish Hunter yielding solo homers here and there. I have difficulty seeing that as a result of luck.

    I don’t know how this could be captured in a single statistic but perhaps if we could look closer at this HRs (how many occurred in innings where he gave up a crooked number of runs, how many came with men on base, etc.) we might get a different picture.

    Just a thought.

  7. I’m also not sure why I should care that AJ’s four seam fastball “should be” merely really bad instead of awful.

  8. Jim P

    Could he just be tipping his pitches? At least, his fastball. Batters prepared to, well, batter the ball might be something outside of luck which would account for the high HR rate.

  9. RYan

    AJ is exactly why the yankees want Pineda to develop a changeup. When AJ’s hook isn’t working or he’s unable to throw it for strikes they sit on his fastball and when they hit it, they hit it hard. When He threw 96 all the time, like Pineda does now, he got away with throwing pitches over the middle of the plate but not anymore.

    • T.O. Chris

      The difference is AJ never had the kind of command that Pineda does now. Pineda has an extremely advanced feel for pitching and locating, neither of these is something AJ posses now let alone at a young age. Yes the Yankees want Pineda to continue to develop his third and possible fourth offering, but he isn’t AJ Burnett because of the enormous difference in control.

  10. AJ Burnett is not unlucky. He has been historically bad for two consecutive seasons. I get what xFIP is trying to do, but quite frankly, it is nothing more than a toy. The most relevant fact is that in 400 innings, Burnett has an ERA well over 5.00, and there’s no compelling reason to think he’ll be much better in 2012.

    • I encourage you to read the article at Beyond the Boxscore. Without it, I’d be wary of the xFIP.

      The difference between this season and last is the GB% and HR/FB%. Burnett was flatout bad in 2010, 2011 was a different season.

      • I’ve read the article. I also saw every start. I am pretty confident concluding that Burnett was very bad in both seasons. In an effort to reinvent the wheel, I think sabermetrics gets side tracked by trying to determine “expected performance” instead of simply evaluating actual performance by placing it in proper context.

  11. All the rationale in the world will never convince me to be confident in AJ again. We should try to trade him and, if no takers, chalk the $30 Million up to “bench pie-thrower”. But I got to believe somebody like Baltimore or Pittsburgh would take a flyer for $2.5M a year.

    • T.O. Chris

      If we’re paying 28 of a 33 million dollar contract over the next 2 years we should just keep him. Unless we are getting a legit full time DH back, or some other equally useful piece I’d rather just start Burnett in the 5th spot and take the 188-200 innings.

      • The money’s lost either way. Burnett pitching 180 terrible innings for us doesn’t make it any less of a waste

        • T.O. Chris

          If he can pitch 190 innings even slightly under a 5 ERA he’d be one of the better 5th starters in baseball. That’s the beauty of adding both Pineda and Kuroda, AJ doesn’t have to be anything more than an innings eating 5th starter. You can start Hughes in Scranton, have Freddy come out of the pen, and if Burnett falls apart early put him in the pen or DFA him and eat the whole thing.

  12. tommy cassella

    get it through that thick scull of yours that bad luck has anything to do with bumnett’s pitching performances. the yamks made a terrible mistake when they signed him. if he’s not hitting batters he’s throwing wild pitches. seeing him pitch makes me sick. two years ago i saw him pitch against the mariners and the first three men who came to the plate scored. never in my life havi i heard such booing.that said a lot about the man’s popularity. the yanks lost that game 8-0 and bumnett gave up all eight runs. bad luck. yeah,right

    • T.O. Chris

      He may not have been very good the last two years but he wasn’t a terrible signing. The Yankees don’t win the World Series in 2009 without him, that’s a fact. He allowed us to go with a 3 pitcher rotation in the playoffs, making up for not having a decent 4, and he won game 2 of the World Series after Sabathia lost to Lee in game 1.

      I will never look at Burnett as a signing we shouldn’t have made because of that first year. I always looked at his signing like making a deal with the devil for a World Series ring. We got the ring the first year and had to deal with the last 4 years of the contract after that, I’d do it again for that 2009 championship.

      • How is that a fact? The Yankees won the 2009 WS 4 games 2, and went 3-1 in the four games not started by Burnett. There’s no way to prove the Yankees would have won the WS without him, but there’s also no way to conclude they couldn’t. Instead, it makes more sense to simply evaluate Burnett’s performance, and by doing so, it’s hard to find much redeeming value in his Yankees career.

  13. Joe M

    At 30 mil, and no takers, you have to see what happens in spring training. As the 5th starter, without #2 starter pressure, and with the wife, girlfriend, issue now exposed and somewhat behind him, AJ, may be relaxed enough to get back to where he used to be when the Yankees got him. His stuff is still electric,his control has been less than stellar, but his stuff is not any less electric and effective, when he is on, ahead of the batters, focused, and under control. AJ may be the surprise of 2012.

    • T.O. Chris

      His stuff is actually less electric than when he was signed. When we signed AJ in 2009 he averaged 94.2 MPH on his fastball, last year he averaged 92.7 MPH on his fastball. 1.5 MPH loss on your fastball velocity is huge for a player like AJ Burnett, and considering he’s lost velocity every year since 2007 it should only continue to decrease ion 2012.

      The meme that Burnett has “great stuff” is just not true. At this point he still has a great curveball, but the fastball is pretty average now. Which really hurts because he is a 2 pitch pitcher with bad control.

      • In the Beyond the Boxscore article, it shows that while his fastball was below average, it wasn’t really that bad. It has always been a setup pitch for the curveball, so its not like we should look for run value in the four-seam. Despite the velocity, its still a very useful pitch if and when those homerun numbers stabilize.

        • T.O. Chris

          Yes but still the notion that he still has electric stuff is false. He once had some of the best pure stuff in all of baseball, today his stuff is much more normal than even what it was in 2009. The problem with being a 2 pitch pitcher with bad control is one of the pitches doesn’t have to become awful for a serious decline, it simply has to regress some and the results can change significantly.

  14. RYan

    On Francesa Cash refered to Pineda,Nova and Hughes as potential #2 starters going forward, didn’t mention Burnett.

    • T.O. Chris

      Burnett would be at best a 5th starter. However that’s actually a good thing, because he compares favorably with other 5th starter options in the league. It takes a lot of pressure off of him to be more than he is in the 5th spot, which may also help some.

  15. Alex Geshwind

    It’s a reasonable argument. I’d make the point that Burnett’s xFIP last season was far out of line with the rest of his Yankee career. I wouldn’t be too ready to believe those underlying skills are back. I’d also point out that Burnett’s bad luck came entirely in the form of a poor HR/FB rate and that Burnett has a history of poor HR/FB rates going back five years. His FIP was 4.77 and while certainly some of that was misfortune I’d be careful in simply believing he’s going to revert to a league average HR/FB rate. Giving him partial benefit of the doubt you might project an ERA near 4.00… but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to project the same from Freddy Garcia, who is cheaper and a short term commitment, or Phil Hughes who has the potential to make a major long term impact. Burnett just doesn’t fit.

    • I have faith in those league average homerun rates in xFIP because they are actually very close to his career homerun rate.
      League Average is 10.6
      Burnett’s Average is 11.3

      If you want to plug 11.3 into the xFIP equation, instead of 10.6, you Burnett would have had a 3.89 xFIP. Not a huge difference. The idea that he’ll put up another season of 17.0% HR/FB is crazy though.

  16. Michael P.

    I am a gambling man. Betting adds a bit of fun to sports, heck any sport even ones you don’t normally watch. There is a saying amongst gamblers “if your consistently unlucky, you need a new angle.” Yes he might have just been unlucky last year, and bad the year before, and sure having 190 innings thrown from your 5th starter is awesome. But from an organizational standpoint I would prefer the rotation to be more top heavy with the 5th spot open for pitching prospects. A team like the Yankees can do this by signing a CC, trading for Pineda, and hopefully next offseason signing a Hamels/Cain/Grienke. After that you let your farm system fill in the rest and develop your own pitchers to move up in the rotation when the older players contracts expire.

    Burnett doesn’t allow the Yankees to utilize their farm system in this way. If he is on the team next year, he wouldn’t be asked to just be the 5th starter or he would block a pitching prospect who offers what he doesn’t have; upside. Going forward he has no place on this team. Anyone who can’t pitch like a 3 or 4 at least doesn’t really deserve a place on the Yankees starting rotation simply because the Yankees are capable of finding someone every single offseason who can pitch like a 3 or 4. Burnett isn’t a payroll albatross, but he has started his own movement to Occupy the Yankees 40 Man Roster.

    • RYan

      Agreed. Burnett has pitched himself out of the rotation due to his age and ineffectiveness over the last 2 seasons. When AJ was signed I thought he’ll probably get injured but he’ll be good when he pitches. I never imagined he’d be perfectly healthy 3 years in a row and just plain suck over the last 2.

  17. Ignoring FIP in this equation doesn’t allow for a fair comparison. A.J.’s FIP was 1.60 higher than Timmy’s, and that’s a big difference to leave out.

    Also, believing in his xFIP means you believe that his astronomical HR/9, which have climbed all three seasons since joining the Yankees, will return to typical rates.

    • Saying that his homerun rates have been astronomical with the Yankees is unfair.

      2009-10.8%
      2010-11.6%
      2011-17.0%
      Career- 11.3%

      The only number that is out of the ordinary is 2011, so I DO expect his homerun rate to stabilize, something that FIP doesn’t take into consideration.

  18. steveoh

    If you watched the games and understand pitching/hitting, you would know there is a good reason AJ’s fastball gets hit hard.

    He is mostly a two pitch pitcher, and when his curve is not working, and he gets behind in counts, hitters know what is coming 90% of the time. When professional hitters know what is coming, there is much more chance they hit it hard. AJ used to get away with this more because his fastball was better and he could blow guys away with it. Not anymore.

    It’s not rocket science.

    • Didn’t realize it was that simple. Tell me why AJ’s linedrive % was so low and his grounball % was so high if players were seemingly hitting rockets off him every at bat?

  19. Tanned Tom

    You got to be kidding with this unlucky theme. He sucks. His K to BB ratio is very poor, he gives up way too many HRs, he leads the majors in HBP + wild pitches, and he completely melts down when things get tough. Exactly how is this bad luck? This sounds like plain old bad pitching to me. Whereas a pitcher like Buerhle seems to be able to work out of jams, a thrower like Burnett almost never does.
    The things most within a pitcher’s control are walks, strikeouts and HRs. Using these as points of reference this player is terrible, not terribly unlucky.

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