It’s becoming increasingly clear that A.J. Burnett’s days with the New York Yankees are numbered. He has become the lightning rod of frustrations in its pitching staff, as his maddening inconsistency and inflated pricetag weigh heavily in the minds of fans and pundits alike. The obvious issue that goes with the trade rumors that have engulfed Burnett and the Yankees—who clearly would love to be rid of him from both a performance and financial perspective—is twofold.
First, who would be a taker for Burnett? And secondly, will he ever regain the form he showed in his 2008 or 2009 seasons, in which he was a 5.5 and 3.5 WAR pitcher respectively?
Many teams have been floated as potential destinations for Burnett and his contract. The leading candidate thus far has been the Pittsburgh Pirates. It would seem to be a positive move: He would be going to a young squad desperate for veteran pitchers in an easier division than the pitcher’s morgue that is the AL East. Other teams suggested in the chase for A.J. have been the White Sox, the Orioles and the Athletics.
The A’s have been one of the most unpredictable teams this offseason and this was only bolstered by the signing of Yoenis Cespedes, and as the mystery team reigns supreme, don’t be surprised if the A’s make a play for Burnett.
Regardless of which team he is playing for come Opening Day, the question is how well he will be able to perform.
At 35, Burnett’s days as a power pitcher in the big leagues are surely numbered. He is reaching the age where we can no longer say year after year, “He has some of the best stuff in the world, he just needs to put it together.” Burnett no longer has some of the best stuff, and it’s the primary reason he has become so ineffective over the past two seasons. In fact, the consistent drop in his raw ability has been staggering since his 2008 season, which will no doubt go down as the best of his career.
What made Burnett work so effectively during his time in Florida and Toronto was a nasty combination of an electric four-seam fastball and a darting two-seam fastball, the latter generally functioning along the lines of a sinker or cutter. With these two pitches at the top of his arsenal, Burnett could toy with hitters using his change-up and curveball.
The variations in power and speed among these pitches have given him the ability to strike batters out at a very high rate, but have also led to many control problems over the years. Now, Burnett is hitting the stage in his career where his natural ability is unable to overwhelm hitters and he is being forced to adapt his approach.
Burnett has begun to lose his velocity and is losing his ability to deceive hitters as a result. His fastball’s average velocity has dropped from 94.4 mph in 2008 to 92.7 in 2011. The drop itself isn’t the end of the world until you consider that his change-up has actually increased in speed from 86.2 mph in 2008 to 88 mph in 2011.
Hitters have a harder time figuring out what you’re doing when there is a difference of 8.2 mph between your fastball and change than they do when the difference is only 4.7 mph. What these numbers tell us is Burnett is losing arm speed with age and his ability to change speeds is being affected.
With such an elongated, reaching delivery, he simply can’t get enough behind his pitches to consistently get outs the way he traditionally has.
(Note the leveling off of velocity and pitch distribution)
To his credit, Burnett has been trying to adapt to his lack of velocity, though perhaps not in the optimal way. He’s pitching to contact at a much more noticeable rate, as evidenced by his 49.2 percent groundball rate—the highest of his career since 2007 and highest by far in three seasons with the Yankees. But he is still being victimized by an inability to make batters miss. As a result, Burnett is clearly losing faith in his fastball: Last season he had a paltry 4.84 percent whiff rate, down from 6.02 percent in 2010 and 7.89 percent in 2008.
His lack of success with the fastball is reflected in how often he’s turning to it. Burnett threw the four-seam fastball less than 40 percent of the time for the first time in his career, while his two-seam fastball was thrown just 10.6 percent of the time, down from his career averages of 20-30 percent. Why the drastic drop? Because the fastballs he’s throwing are getting taken for a ride, as 17 percent of the fly balls he gave up went over the fence for home runs.
While he is notorious for being a “thrower”—a trait which is largely responsible for his recent difficulties—and not a true pitcher, does this mean he can’t be effective at the big league level with the dropoff in velocity? I would argue it doesn’t, as his Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) of 3.86 shows us that the disproportionately high home run rate inflates Burnett’s line.
Among 2011 Yankees pitchers, Burnett ranks behind only CC Sabathia and Bartolo Colon in xFIP. Yet, in terms of major league pitchers, only Edinson Volquez had a higher percentage of fly balls go for home runs.
Burnett has flirted with such a high HR/FB ratio only once before (2007) and I fully expect his 2012 season to have a ratio much more consistent with the league average of 10.6 percent.
Despite a lack of velocity, Burnett’s pitch movement has stayed relatively consistent.
While it may seem that this conclusion is tailored to find an ends for Burnett, I ultimately believe that he will find a way to adapt to his increasingly limited natural ability.
Despite the decline in velocity, the movement on his pitches has remained proportional to that of his most successful seasons. He has found a way to use his curveball more actively in all situations; he is turning to the hook for every third pitch on average and causing batters to whiff roughly 44 percent of the time.
Moreover, while he no longer can blow the fastball by batters, he has become better at spotting it; his called strike percentage on the fastball is at an all-time high and over 20 percent for the first time in his career. In many ways, he’s re-learning how to pitch after all these years as he searches for a way to overcome his fading raw ability.
It’s not the A.J. Burnett we used to know and drool over, but it’s an A.J. Burnett who could be just as effective from a pitching standpoint. He’s no longer a top of the rotation starter in the AL East by virtue of his age if nothing else, but there is no reason why Burnett couldn’t be a 2.5-3.5 WAR pitcher once again. If he lands on a team in a weak division and a pitcher friendly park, he will be someone to keep an eye on.
References & Resources
All statistics are courtesy of Fangraphs
PITCHf/x data and graphs are courtesy of Brooks Baseball
There may be a discrepancy between what I term a “two-seamer” and what the data term a sinker or cutter. My classification is based on past explanations of Burnett’s approach done by former Jays and Marlins pitching coach Brad Arnsberg.