A.J. Burnett and the label

A.J. Burnett ponders why it was so. - Hannah Foslien

Was it luck? Did he change? Was it the Stadium, or was the source of AJ. Burnett's struggles in New York just his own head?

A.J. Burnett has been getting a lot of attention lately, as he leads the National League in strikeouts. Inevitably, with the success of former Yankee pitchers who struggled comes the mainstream conclusion that the players just could not handle the pressure of playing in New York City. Usually, the assumed culprit was the intense media focus, or it was the intense pressure to win right now that other teams apparently don’t stress to their players. Of course, the assumption as well is that there is something deficient within the player himself to handle these outside issues. Burnett is just the latest to be tagged with this affliction. Here is the most recent labeling of Burnett that I saw. It’s a synopsis of this article, but ironically provides more detail than the actual column to think about. Is the only real conclusion that Burnett just couldn’t do it in New York City like the mainstream view believes?

I’ve compiled all of the seasons that Burnett has pitched more than 150 innings on the chart below. This gets rid of the small sample size noise during years in which he suffered injuries, which was a common problem for him during the early portion of his career. I excluded his first full season in 2001, due to the lack of data regarding ground balls etc… There’s a lot of interesting things in here.

Burnett

Team

IP

K%

BB%

K:BB

BABIP

LOB%

GB%

HR/FB

ERA

xFIP

vFA

2002

Marlins

204.1

24.1%

10.7%

2.3

.266

71.4%

42.8%

6.1%

3.30

3.77

2005

Marlins

209.0

22.7%

9.1%

2.5

.298

68.3%

58.4%

9.4%

3.44

3.20

2007

Jays

165.2

25.5%

9.6%

2.7

.261

76.4%

54.8%

17.7%

3.75

3.51

95.9

2008

Jays

221.1

24.1%

9.0%

2.7

.314

70.5%

48.5%

9.6%

4.07

3.51

94.4

2009

Yankees

207.0

21.8%

10.8%

2.0

.295

75.9%

42.8%

10.8%

4.04

4.23

94.2

2010

Yankees

186.2

17.5%

9.4%

1.9

.319

68.8%

44.9%

11.6%

5.26

4.49

93.1

2011

Yankees

190.1

20.7%

9.9%

2.1

.294

70.0%

49.2%

17.0%

5.15

3.86

92.7

2012

Pirates

202.1

21.2%

7.3%

2.9

.294

74.1%

56.9%

12.7%

3.51

3.40

92.2

2013

Pirates

56.0

31.6%

8.3%

3.8

.292

76.9%

55.0%

8.3%

2.73

2.60

92.1

Looking at his Yankee years, he clearly put up the worst string of ERA of any portion of his career. So what happened? His first year was decent posting a 4.04 ERA in a year when the league average was 4.50. However, there were signs of trouble already. His ground ball rate plummeted to 42.8%, while both of his K% and BB% went in the wrong directions. This resulted in an xFIP reading greater than four for the first time in his career. He got a bit lucky with a higher than usual strand rate for him.

The thing that pops out the most is the degree to which his ground ball rate has vacillated over the years. You don’t usually see someone who can be such an extreme top of the league worm-burner of a pitcher suddenly shift to below league average and back again to this degree. His Yankee years were consistently below 50% by this metric.

He also had to deal with a declining trend in his average fastball velocity. In 2009, it was fine, but the next two years with the Yankees he saw declines from the previous season. This likely was part of the reason for the decline in strikeouts in 2010. The result was his worst season with a 5.26 ERA and a 4.49 xFIP.

His last season with the Yankees seemed to show some progress from Burnett. While his GB% didn’t get back to 54-55%, it did move up to 49.2%. His K% stabilized back above 20%, and his xFIP actually turned in the best he did as a Yankee at 3.86. However, his HR/FB rate turned in another dud, like his 2007 season, with a 17% rate. The differences in 2007 were higher K%, GB%, LOB%, velocity, and the lowest BABIP of his career. The 2011 version with nearly 3 mph less on his fastball couldn’t make up for that kind of punishment from the long ball.

It is always tempting to blame the new stadium on a right-handed pitcher’s home run rate, but I don’t think it is as valid as I suspected in this case. Considering that Burnett put up a 12.7% HR/FB rate last year in one of the largest parks in the league, the issue of the short right field porch in Yankee Stadium just doesn’t cut the mustard.

His ground ball rate correlates the most with Burnett’s success or failure over the years. He was able to get away with a lower rate earlier in his career because he was pumping serious gas with his fastball. It’s still good, but he’s not able to blow hitters away at the same rate as he did earlier in his career. So why has his GB% fluctuated so much? Is he doing anything different in Pittsburgh that he wasn’t in New York?

The answer may lie in the article. Russell Martin is in a unique position since he caught Burnett both now and as a Yankee. He claims that Burnett is throwing harder and using more of the two-seam fastball and changeup. The article disputes these claims as being unsupported by the data. The table above does concur with that sentiment on the velocity, but there’s pretty good reason to believe Martin when looking at the other figures. Burnett's GB% is back up to elite levels, and his K% is also back over 20% last year. The former improvement could be explained with more two-seam fastballs, and the latter could be explained with more effective changeups. Unfortunately, the pitchFX data doesn’t seem to disseminate between Burnett’s two and four-seam fastballs, so we don’t have a quantifiable data point to examine the actual pitches themselves in this case, but the circumstantial evidence does support most of Martin’s claims.

The other critique of Burnett is that he just couldn’t handle the pressure of NYC. Ironically, I think the articles themselves suggest this is bunk, but just decides to ignore those who don’t confirm its thesis. In the second article, the Pirates manager, Clint Hurdle, subscribes Burnett’s success to actually having more pressure in Pittsburgh. He’s their guy, according to the manager, and not just another pitcher in New York. While I subscribe to that reasoning about as much as I do to the other thesis, you have to admit that it’s at least a valid argument against the label that he can't take pressure. His responsibility to the Pirates team is significantly more than what it was to the Yankees. The Pirates were actually competitive last year, and were viewed as having a shot at winning the division in the summer. He was not pitching for a team playing out the string, despite their final record.

The process of categorizing is an important one in the development of human cognition. It allows us to sift through large amounts of inputs and variables and focuses our attention on the most important elements. It allows us to be both believers and skeptics. However, it can also be a trap. When we turn these categories into boxes the process gets dangerous. We just shove analysis to the side because it’s easier than doing the work. Usually we box things because they’re not really that important to us. The downside of boxing Burnett into that label is really only an issue for the general manager of the Yankees. Siding with the view of unnamed baseball executives, while ignoring those closest to the actual production, is the result. It is just easier, but I don’t think it’s correct in this case. It likely isn’t correct in any case. I could understand it more if we were talking about small sample postseason play, but even the article points to Burnett’s best moments as a Yankee in the 2009 postseason when the pressure to succeed was at its greatest. What I see is a player that has adjusted to his aging curve and declining velocity. The fact that he’s doing it in an easier league in a more forgiving ballpark only helps. He’s not going to have a 30+% strikeout rate at the end of the season. I know strikeouts are up, but not by 50%. He will regress, but he’s probably going to have a pretty good year just based off of the great start. The answer is the ground ball rate. Let’s dump the label, though.

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