Monday, August 06, 2012

A.J. Burnett's amazing success

For most of A.J. Burnett's tenure with the Yankees, fans of that team usually called him some variation of A.J. "Freakin." Burnett. That team's fan base were so so frustrated so often that many ringing cheers rang out upon the trade of Burnett to the Pittsburgh Pirates on February 19 of this year. Those fans did not care that the Yankees agreed to pay a lot of Burnett's salary to pitch for another team. All that mattered was that he did not have to aggravate them anymore. Now a spattering of those same fans wonder in social media if the Yankees should have kept him. Such is the season A.J. Burnett is having for the Pirates in 2012.

As a writer who writes for a Yankees site in his other life, Burnett was a good source of fodder. In fact, one of the first pieces ever written for that site was an article titled, "How A.J. Burnett drives us crazy." So imagine the amazement from this desk that A.J. Burnett in 2012 is now 14-3 with an ERA of 3.19, a WHIP of 1.153 and most importantly, a FIP of 3.59. Not that there is unhappiness at the development. By most accounts, Burnett is a great guy and a great teammate and Burnett's success is a win for the good guys. It's just so unexpected that he is pitching so well.

How much of a factor is it that Burnett has moved to the National League? A lot of experts believe such a move is a big deal. But pitching for the Pirates means a lot of exposure to the Reds and the Cardinals who are not exactly snoozes in the offensive department. He has beaten the Reds three times this season. He has beaten the Cardinals. He beat the Tigers twice in interleague play. Sure, denigrate the improvement seen this year from Burnett by moving to the NL if you'd like. From this angle, such denigration seems unfair and inappropriate.

Yes, the pitcher bats in the National League. So you can have that point. Burnett has faced the pitcher for 36 plate appearances, which is not all that much and predictably, they have a .313 OPS against Burnett. But Burnett is getting the rest of the lineups out too. His OPS against for non-pitchers is .660. That is not a number to sneeze at.

A few remarkable statistics jump out at you when looking at Burnett's numbers. First are the walks. For his career, Burnett has walked 3.7 batters per nine innings. During his years with the Yankees, that figure rose to 4.0 per nine. His rate this season? 2.71. You have to go all the way back to his 2006 season to find a number like that in his career. Despite a slightly lower strikeout rate than his career stats, his strikeout per walk rate of 2.73 is his highest since that 2006 season.

The other statistic to look at is also about control. A.J. Burnett has led the league in wild pitches three times including last season. He has averaged thirteen wild pitches for his career. But that rate skyrocketed with the Yankees where he threw 58 of the stinkers in three seasons or an average of 19 a season. This season, Burnett has thrown three wild pitches. Three! The same goes for hitting batters. Burnett has averaged hitting batters about ten times a season. He led his league in that category in 2010. But he has only hit three batters this season.

One of the easiest ways to see the improvement in Burnett's control is his pitches per inning. Here is a breakdown of the last four seasons in that statistic. You will see that Burnett has dramatically increased his efficiency and is throwing far less pitches per inning:
  • 2009 - 16.15 pitches per inning.
  • 2010 - 16.49
  • 2011 - 17.11
  • 2012 - 14.69
One last control note: Burnett's first pitch strike rate of 61.2 is his highest since 2004. He isn't fooling around.

Burnett's hits allowed per nine innings is also down dramatically. Burnett is allowing 7.7 hits per nine innings compared to the 8.2 rate of his career and the 9.0 he recorded in his years with the Yankees. His ground balls are up dramatically as well. His 55.6 percent rate of ground balls on contact and his 2.20 ground ball to fly ball ratio are easily the best he has recorded since 2005.

One of the biggest knocks on A.J. Burnett is that he could not take pressure. It is an ill-deserved reputation. His win against the Reds yesterday was absolutely critical for the Pirates. They had to have that win. Plus, his clutch stats are off the charts. In high leverage situations, his 4.50 strikeout to walk ratio is at its highest. He has allowed a .601 OPS against in those situations. In late and close games, his OPS against is .466! 

In short, A.J. Burnett has been absolutely terrific for the Pirates. He has come through when the team needed him. He has lowered his bad events and increased his efficiency. If you have runners in scoring position and two outs, your chance of scoring is slight and you will bat with an OPS of .488 in those situations. Does his success have to be pooh poohed away because he has switched leagues and gotten out of New York? Not from the seat. He has been fabulous this season for the Pirates and is a big reason they are one of the surprise teams of 2012.


Anonymous said...

The reason is obvious- Ray Searage is a great pitching coach

Tanned Tom said...

I understand the Reds and the Cards can hit, but moving to the NL must be worth a full run on his ERA. Fact is it was good to trade him. An over 5.00 ERA 2 years in a row warrants a one-way ticket out of town. I'm interested to see how he does in August, during which he was terrible in NY.

Anonymous said...

@ tanned tom:

according to baseball prospectus (thru august 6th) average nl and al era are 3.99 and 4.09, respectively. for 2011, they were 3.82 and 4.08, respectively. it seems unlikely that more than a quarter run could be attributed to the switch of leagues (all other things equal).

i'm not normally one to attribute baseball success/failure to abstract touchy-feely things but i have a hard time arguing burnett's improvement has not been psychological/social.

burnett, himself, has given much credit to being reunited w/ his old battery mate, rod barajas. additionally, in the bronx, burnett was just another veteran. in pittsburgh he is a veteran leader on a young team w/ talent/potential that leans on his experience and guidance.

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Great stuff, Anon. Thanks

Peppy 97 said...

Who cares what or why? He likes the Burg and doing well and the Burg likes him

Anonymous said...

A.J. Burnett was always a good teammate with the Yanks....just couldn't pitch in NY (with the Yanks)....had nothing to do with pitching coach or mechanics....some guys are cut out to pitch (or play) under pressure 24/7 and some guys aren't....with the Yanks,every game is supposed to be won...and, if not, the pressure builds....some players can handle that...AJ could not (and I'm sure, in a moment of honesty, he would admit it..)...
He has great stuff and with his head on "right" he was a great pick up for the Bucs......the trade was good for AJ, the Pirates and the Yankees.....