Is There Hope For A.J. In 2012?

It's the dreaded return of A.J. Two-Face.

(The following is being syndicated from An A-Blog for A-Rod)

After the additions of Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda, it seemed like a forgone conclusion that A.J. Burnett‘s days as a starting pitcher for the New York Yankees were over.  It had already been reported that Cash shopped him around at the Winter Meetings while offering to eat $8 million of his remaining contract, and that was before the Yankees were flush with the rotation depth that they now have.  Once Pineda and Kuroda were in the fold, it seemed obvious that Ninja Cash already had the next move lined up to rid himself of one of his biggest mistakes.  And yet, we found ourselves still talking about A.J. Burnett as a current member of the Yankees, which leaves the frightening door of opportunity open for him to somehow be the 5th starter in 2012.  It is a door that many of us do not want to see A.J. walk through, but we may have no choice if Cash can’t find a deal to move A.J. that works for him and the team.  That being the case, we might as well prepare ourselves for what A.J. has to offer, which, given his performance up to this date, won’t be much.  While most of A.J.’s 2011 stats could be used to create optimism for a better 2012, there are some trends within the numbers that make me think 2012 and beyond will be more of the same.

The biggest problem with A.J. is that his value is derived almost entirely from the quantity of innings he has pitched, not the quality of the innings (save for Game 2 of the ’09 World Series).  Innings eaters are a valuable asset to have in the rotation, but for $82 million most people would expect better than the back end production A.J. has put up in those innings, and justifiably so.  His 5.26/4.83 ERA/FIP split in 2010 didn’t pass the eye or the smell test, and neither did 2011′s 5.14/4.77 follow up.  A.J. has been consistently erratic and inconsistently effective, marred by bouts of problems with his mechanics, inability to repeat his delivery, and little or no command of either of his two pitches.  He has tried to combat this with the attempt to develop a changeup, but mid-30s is hardly the right time for a pitcher with command problems to attempt to master a new pitch.

In order to be a successful two-pitch starter, a pitcher better have a damn good fastball, and for the early part of A.J.’s career he has.  But over the last handful of years A.J. has seen his fastball velocity steadily decrease, from 95.9 MPH in 2007 with Toronto (the earliest year PITCHf/x tracked it on FanGraphs) to 94.4 in ’09, 93.1 in 2010, and 92.7 this past season.  As the velocity has decreased, the value of A.J.’s fastball has plummeted with it, both by standard pitch value measures (-14.1 in ’09, -16.2 in ’10, -34.0 in ’11) and as measured by PITCHf/x (-12.4, -10.1, -28.1).  It’s also no secret that the majority of A.J.’s fastballs tend to be located in the middle to upper part of the strike zone (see heat map below for an example), which is not a good place to live when you’re losing your heat on the pitch.  Even when paired with a curve that was surprisingly above average in 2011 (8.9 rating standard/10.7 PITCHf/x), a low-90s fastball with little movement that consistently hits the heart of the plate is going to do more harm than good for a two-pitch pitcher, and it certainly hasn’t done A.J. any favors.

(Courtesy of FanGraphs)

When a pitcher’s throwing a flat fastball with decreasing velocity down the meaty portion of the plate, the expected result would be a lot of contact.  Surprisingly enough, this actually wasn’t the case for A.J. in 2011, as his contact rate dropped from 81.6% in 2010 to 76.5% in 2011.  His in-zone and out-of zone contact rates, 54.3% and 90.4% respectively, also decreased from their rates of 2010.  An explanation could be that hitters were laying off more of A.J.’s offerings that they didn’t like, especially his curveball when he couldn’t locate it, but his 2011 swing rates don’t support that theory.  In direct contrast to his contact rates, A.J. generated more swings (43.8%) and more out-of-zone swings (30.3%) than he did in 2010, and his Swinging Strike rate of 10.0% was a high for him as a Yankee.

These trends last season certainly help to explain A.J.’s elevated K/9 total (8.18), but they should also lead to a better ERA and FIP result.  A pitcher generating more swings, more swings and misses, less contact, and striking out more batters while walking fewer than he did the year before should result in much more than the marginal improvements in ERA and FIP that A.J. experienced in 2011.  The answer for why that didn’t happen lies in the contact A.J. is generating, specifically the quality of contact, and the insight that leads into what might be happening when batters face A.J.

Along with his contact and swing rates that trended in the right direction last year, A.J. also experienced the type of GB and FB rate trends in 2011 that a pitcher in Yankee Stadium would want to see.  His GB Rate increased from 44.6% in 2010 to 49.2% in 2011 while his FB Rate decreased from 37.5% in 2010 to 32.3% in 2011.  One rate that didn’t trend the positive way last season, however, was A.J.’s LD rate, which at 18.5% represented a high for him as a Yankee.  And the rate that lingers above all this discussion like a bad odor in the room is A.J.’s 17.0% HR rate from last year.  A rate that high is typically associated with bad luck, and A.J.’s 3.86 xFIP last season would agree with that.  But given everything else that’s been discussed in this post and how it all adds up to A.J.’s subpar performance, I think A.J.’s HR rate is not only the smoking gun in the case of his crappy 2011, but also the sign of the overall trend that has plagued him over his 3 years in pinstripes and will continue to do so moving forward.

As A.J.’s GB/FB rates have been trending in the right direction over the last 3 years, his HR rates have continually increased, from 10.8% in 2009 to 11.6% in 2010 to the aforementioned 17.0% last season.  This trend, combined with A.J.’s declining fastball value and his uptick in line drives in 2011, says to me that hitters, while making less contact off of A.J. last year, generally got more out of the contact they did make.  And when that contact is being made on either a fastball that’s elevated in the zone or a poorly-located curve that grooves over the heart of the plate, hitters are more than likely going to get more bang for their buck.  Since A.J. has been on this general trend of missing up and losing velocity for a while, hitters could now be familiar with it and could be scheduling their approach against A.J. accordingly.  It’s not so much the two nasty curveballs that they swing and miss at in the at-bat that matter any more; it’s the fastball A.J. grooves with 2 strikes that they’re squaring up on and driving for power.  That’s what these numbers suggest that hitters are doing on A.J. now, squaring up on him and driving his misses all over (and out of) the park  And that’s how a pitcher who the majority of the peripherals say isn’t pitching that bad can end up having such bad results.

Of course this is just my interpretation of the numbers, but this explanation is really the only one that makes sense to me in explaining A.J.’s past two seasons and predicting his future.  Sure, he might be generating more swings in general and less contact in general, with the majority of that contact being the type that typically helps a pitcher succeed.  But when he’s still making the same mistakes up in the zone with his rapidly-declining fastball, and he’s still missing his location enough with his curveball that he can get in trouble when he does, the results of those specific pitches and those specific at-bats are what carry the weight in determining A.J.’s outcomes as opposed to the entire general landscape of an outing.  It’s almost as if hitters aren’t up there looking for a particular pitch to hit so much as they’re up there waiting for the one or two mistakes by A.J. that they know they can destroy.  If that’s the case, then peripherals be damned, it’s going to be another long year in 2012 for A.J. whether he’s a Yankee or not.

At some point in his career, every pitcher is going to lose the juice on his heater.  It’s what he does to combat that loss in velocity that determines how successful he can be moving forward.  In A.J.’s case, the decline of his fastball over the past three seasons has basically crippled his ability to be an effective starter anymore.  Even in a year when almost all of his peripherals suggested he should have had a better season, A.J.’s 2011 ended up almost a carbon copy of his 2010.  That decrease in his fastball velocity combined with the continued increase in HR rates points to A.J. no longer being able to fool hitters with his stuff, and as a pitcher with little to no consistent command, that doesn’t give reason for there to be a whole lot of hope for him moving forward.

8 thoughts on “Is There Hope For A.J. In 2012?

  1. RYan

    I think this article pretty much nailed it.

  2. Tim HJ

    Really interesting analysis, Brad – thanks for the post. My only observation is that surely the $82m contract is a red herring with regard to the question of “what to do now with AJ”?

    Obviously we all agree that, with hindsight, the deal sucked. But to all intents and purposes, it’s a sunk cost for which we are never going to see full value, whatever happens – and if we’re prepared to eat some of his contract and trade for some minor piece, then don’t we have to consider the alternative (i.e. keeping him) from the same point of view?

    I guess my point is that as a fifth starter, a guy who will give us 200 innings and hopefully may win as many as he loses isn’t such a bad thing.

    You say that “Innings eaters are a valuable asset to have in the rotation, but for $82 million most people would expect better than the back end production A.J. has put up in those innings, and justifiably so.” Fair point – but considering where we are today – and ignoring the size of the contract, since that money has gone whatever happens – would it be better to have a 200-inning guy who might go 12-10 or something if we’re lucky, or trade him for a position player who likely will spend most of his time on the bench?

    Rhetorical questions I suppose – would be interested in your views, and please do explode any massive flaws in my logic!

  3. bpdelia

    I honestly don’t see the reason to not jump Matthew opportunity to have someone pay even 8,9 million of this deal. And that seems possible. At 4 to 4.5 million per year aj becomes a decent risk. The 4 million a year added to the 2 mill in the budget gives you six million for an impact player in July…..or say about 80% of cepedes salary. If the Yankees were sorely lacking depth sure. But even without burnett they may very well have one of the best 6-10 sp depth in the league. The red sod would kill for their 6-10 at ml,Aaa to be Garcia,Phelps,Warren,Mitchell,banuelos. And frankly i would rather see EVERY SINGLE ONE of those guys over burnett. He obviously is more valuable than Adam Warren. But Adam Warren is the #8 sp in the organization right now.

    • Any time Yankee fans are mentioning their Triple-A pitching depth as a strength, I’m nodding in agreement.

      I don’t think there’s any doubt that it’s that group of young pitchers that gave Cash the balls to openly shop A.J. in the first place. I know it’s certainly contributed to how harsh I’ve been on A.J. the last couple years because I would rather watch any of them pitch over Burnett as well.

  4. T.O. Chris

    I actually agree. People keep talking about the money, which I understand, but as a 5th starter in a vacuum you could do worse. Logging 32 starts from one pitcher out of the 5 hole does have value, likely more than anything you can get in trade. Which is why he probably won’t be traded

    I still have a hard time saying “the deal sucked” though. Yes the last two years have been awful, but the Yankees don’t win the World Series in 2009 without Burnett. People tend to overlook that he not only allowed us to have the luxury of a 3 man rotation throughout the playoffs (him and the schedule), but he also won game 2 of the World Series itself after Sabathia lost game 1 to Lee. That was a huge spot, if we don’t win that game we don’t win that ring. I’ll take the last two years for one World Series honestly.

    • That’s why I had to include the shout out to Game 2 in the first paragraph.

      Truth be told, I would take the last 2 years of A.J. for the World Series too. That’s a pretty fair tradeoff in my mind. But it doesn’t make me hate A.J. or hate watching him pitch any less.

  5. Thanks for the comment, Tim. And as far as your point goes, I’m totally picking up what you’re putting down.

    I’m an unapologetic A.J. hater. I’m the first in line to bash him. But I would still not be a supporter of the “just give him away” method of trading A.J. given that he does at least provide some value. That’s why I included the line early on about Cash only making the move if it was right. If the right deal isn’t there, then yeah, Cash would be wise to hang on to him, at least going into Spring Training. That being said, I would still expect A.J. to lose out in the competition for the 5th spot.

    • Tim HJ

      Thanks, Brad.

      One other factor I guess we ought to bear in mind with AJ is that if it hadn’t been for him, we wouldn’t be able to look forward to ‘pie’ every time the Yankees have a walk-off win. That’s gotta be worth a few million, in my book….
      :-)
      Tim

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