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A.J. Burnett and The Amazing, Disappearing Fastball

Mood Music - Maxwell's Silver Hammer by The Beatles

Like most things in baseball, there is no set formula for effective pitching.  If there were one, or if there were even basic guidelines, it would probably go like this:

- Strike some guys out.  They can't hurt you if they can't get out of the batters box.
- Don't walk guys, especially guys without much extra base power.  Make them hit their way on.
- Keep the ball off the fat part of the bat and in the infield whenever possible.

That's nothing Earth shattering, nor is it definitive.  Greg Maddux had a career 6.06 K/9 and Nolan Ryan surrendered an astronomical 2795 walks.  Deficiency in one area can be overcome with excellence in another; there are no requirements of a 95 MPH fastball, pinpoint control, or sharp breaking balls.

When a pitcher struggles, however, the root problem is often something that simple.  These last two seasons, A.J. Burnett has been an unmitigated disaster.  Even if there were a way to line up the numbers to feel more hopeful about 377 innings of 5+ ERA, I wouldn't bother.*  There's a problem here and there may not be a solution.

*For as bad as he has been, Burnett has not been without value, accumulating 2.9 fWAR between 2010 and 2011.  While this will likely cause nothing other than chirping about the usefulness of such metrics, to me it is pretty fair.  Every start that he makes (and he's been out there every fifth day) is a start that doesn't go to Sergio Mitre or one of his ilk.  

While I think we'd all like to see what Hector Noesi, David Phelps, and Adam Warren can do, there's no reason to expect anything but growing pains and a lack of confidence and patience from the organization.  It's almost impossible to throw 190 innings and not make some positive contribution, and Burnett has at the very least done that.

Burnett rebounded in a big way with strikeouts (6.99 K/9 in 2010, 8.18 K/9 in 2011) and posted a solid ground ball rate (49.2%), but the problem was gopheritis.  He allowed a career high 31 home runs, undermining what was an improved year in many other ways. To visualize, the green points below are the home runs allowed by Burnett in 2011:

Somewhat unsurprisingly, Burnett was victimized by mistakes in the middle of the plate.  More specifically: fastballs left up in the zone.**  While, anecdotally, it seems that the majority of home runs come on elevated fastballs, that still seems extreme.

*It's tough to use a luck argument when you look at the location of those home run balls, they're obviously terrible pitches.  However, when you consider that 17.0% of fly balls given up by A.J. Burnett went over the fence, compared to an 11.3% career rate and a 10.6% league average, I'd wager on that number coming down, even if it's not by very much.

For a power pitcher, who relies almost exclusively on a fastball and a breaking ball, it may surprise you (or it may not) that A.J. Burnett's fastball was the least valuable pitch in baseball in 2011, coming in at -34.0 runs.  It's tough to contextualize that, so for the sake of comparison, Mariano Rivera's cutter was +12.2 runs, David Robertson's fastball was +14.4 runs, and CC Sabathia's slider was +14.6 runs.

It's a shockingly bad number, and it's headed in the wrong direction.  In his seven pre-Yankee years, Burnett had accumulated +39.3 runs of value with his fastball, with -14.1, -16.2, and -34.0 the past three seasons.  It has gone from a weapon to a piped home run waiting to happen.

- Is it Yankee Stadium?  His home/road ERA splits seem to fly in the face of that:

2009 Home: 105.0 IP - 3.51 ERA - 13 HR
2009 Away: 102.0 IP - 4.59 ERA - 12 HR
2010 Home: 80.1 IP - 4.59 ERA - 10 HR
2010 Away: 106.1 IP - 5.76 ERA - 15 HR
2011 Home: 114.1 IP - 4.41 ERA - 19 HR
2011 Away: 76.0 IP - 6.28 ERA - 12 HR 

How Burnett's biggest problem has been the home run and yet he has managed to pitch better in the homer-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium is above my pay grade.  While counter-intuitive, it seems to rule out the short porches as the cause of his misfortune.  Furthermore, a quick look at Burnett's true home run landing spots does not reveal many cheap home runs.

- In his three years in New York, Burnett has been particularly vulnerable to giving up home runs to right handed batters.  In 2011, right handers hit 18 home runs in 89.1 innings, with left handers hitting only 13 in 101 innings.  Below is his fastball location to right handed batters:

As you can see, there were a lot of pitches up and almost no pitches inside.  This kind of game knowledge is where I'm least comfortable giving analysis, but the pitch in its current form is getting hammered.  Maybe he needs to pitch inside more to keep hitters from covering his fastball out over the plate, maybe he needs to throw the sinker more, maybe he's throwing his fastball in obvious counts.  Whatever tweaking can be done with the pitch should be done.

- An equally troubling development may be in Burnett's fastball velocity.  Below is his average fastball speed by season:

As I said at the outset, there are ways to get guys out without a 95 MPH fastball.  We've all seen enough junk-ballers and finesse pitchers to know that it can be done with control, movement, and deception.  But, with two extra miles per hour, you can get away with a few more belt high mistakes.

The culprit may very well be age.  Burnett is heading into his age 35 season and has nearly 2000 Major League innings on his arm.  As we've seen with Freddy Garcia (who is only three months older than Burnett), Mike Mussina, and plenty of others, this is often the age where challenging hitters with your fastball needs to be shelved.  Can Burnett hone his control and learn to better use his change up, cutter, and sinker?

One of the most frustrating things about Burnett is that he still has the ability to look good (although the dichotomy has shifted from Good A.J. vs. Bad A.J. to Mediocre A.J. vs. Bad A.J.).  Early in the season, I wrote about how he had been doing a better job of avoiding terrible outings, but things unraveled as the year went.  While we suffered through a customarily dismal, ERA-ballooning August, Burnett's pitching in the entirety of the second half was dreadful.

Here's what I've got:

Mostly as a product of his curveball, Burnett still has a way to get strikeouts and ground balls.  While having 95 MPH heat was a great way to keep batters from squaring him up, that velocity and late life is gone and probably isn't coming back, making it tough to imagine how Burnett can recover any effectiveness without some fundamental changes to his approach.  It can be done, but he has his work cut out for him.