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.


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.

Mike is the co-Editor-in-Chief of It's About The Money. Outside of blogging baseball, Mike is also a musician, a runner, and a beer lover.

About Michael Eder

Mike is the co-Editor-in-Chief of It's About The Money. Outside of blogging baseball, Mike is also a musician, a runner, and a beer lover.

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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

  3. “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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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

  10. 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.

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

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.