Is A.J. Burnett As Bad As Everyone Says?

ST PETERSBURG, FL: Pitcher A.J. Burnett #34 of the New York Yankees wipes his brow as he talks with catcher Jorge Posada #20 during the game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

This season, 42 American Leaguers pitched enough innings (162) to qualify for the ERA title.

It's interesting: While the generally accepted standard for being a good pitcher is striking out twice as many batters as you walk, 35 of those 42 pitchers cleared that bar, which suggests we might have to raise the bar.

Or perhaps ignore it? Ivan Nova went 16-4 with 1.72 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 39th in the league ... and fellow rookie Jeremy Hellickson, starting this very afternoon for the Tampa Bay Rays, posted a lovely 2.95 ERA this season despite a 1.63 strikeout-to-walk ratio that ranked 41st.

By now, I'm sure you're dying to know ... Who had the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio in the American League?

Brad Penny, who's been consigned to the Tigers' bullpen for their Division Series.

Anyway, this piece isn't about Brad Penny or Jeremy Hellickson or Ivan Nova. It's about Penny's teammate Rick Porcello and Nova's teammate A.J. Burnett, who happen to be starting for their teams in tonight's Game 4 between the Tigers and the Yankees.

In Game 3, we witnessed a duel between the American League's two leading Cy Young candidates through most of the season. In Game 4, not so much. This season Burnett went 11-11 but earned the enmity of Yankee fans across the land with his 5.15 ERA and unpredictable pitches. Porcello went 14-9 and everyone in Detroit still likes the youngster, but his 4.75 ERA doesn't exactly inspire confidence, and until recently Jim Leyland reportedly toyed with the idea of starting Brad Penny in Game 4 instead.

This sort of matchup does occasionally occur in the postseason. Even to the Yankees, as Michael Salfino writes in the Wall Street Journal:

Twice before in the Derek Jeter era, the Yankees have seen a similar postseason matchup of high-ERA pitchers—and prevailed both times. Against the Rangers in the 1996 ALDS, Kenny Rogers (4.68 ERA) started against Texas's Bobby Witt (5.41) in a 6-4 Yankees victory. And in that year's ALCS, Rogers faced the Orioles' Rocky Coppinger (5.18) in an 8-4 Yankees win. Rogers was gone from both games by the fourth inning, and reliever David Weathers registered the win in each game.

The Derek Jeter Era ... Hrrrmmm. I guess it's either that or the Mariano Rivera Era, right? I prefer Rivera, but let's see who retires first.

Anyway, Jeter and Rivera are both still around but Kenny Rogers and David Weathers are not. Another guy who's not around any more: Jaret Wright. As at least one wag has mentioned, the Yankees were in roughly this same spot five years ago against the Tigers: Game 4 of the Division Series, with Wright and his 4.49 ERA taking the mound in a must-win game for the Yankees.

Wright didn't survive the third inning, the Yankees wound up losing 8-3, the Tigers wound up in the World Series, and Wright never won another game in the major leagues.

Those first three things might happen again tonight, but Burnett's still got some wins left in him. Maybe even including tonight.

Statistically, there's one big difference between Burnett and Porcello, and it's not strikeouts and walks.

Burnett's 2.08 SO/BB ratio is 34th in the league, and Porcello's 2.23 is 30th. No difference.

Their earned-run averages are close enough to ignore.

The big difference is this: Burnett's given up 31 home runs this season, Porcello 18.

Now, I know what you're saying ... There's a perfectly good explanation for that difference: Porcello's a ground-ball pitcher (Justin Verlander said so on TV last night!) and Burnett probably isn't.

Well, Porcello is indeed a ground-ball pitcher. So is Burnett.

Porcello finished this season with the sixth-highest ground/fly ratio in the American League; Burnett finished with the 13th-highest figure. Yes, the difference in their ratios -- 1.73 for Porcello, 1.52 for Burnett -- does mean something and does help explain that 13-homer difference between them.

But it helps just a little. There are two better, more meaningful explanations.

One, Porcello pitches roughly half his innings in a tough park for power hitters, while Burnett pitches half his innings in a park that's friendly to power hitters. Particularly lefty-hitting power hitters.

And two, there's been a huge difference between their percentages of fly balls that carried the fence. Ten percent of the fly balls that Porcello allowed this season turned into home runs. Ten percent is a perfectly average figure, no matter who the pitcher. This season, Felix Hernandez, Josh Beckett and James Shield all gave up home runs on roughly 10 percent of their fly balls. Move along folks, nothing to see here.

A.J. Burnett? His HR/FB was off the charts, his 17 percent leaving every other (qualifying) American League pitcher in the dust.

Is this just who A.J. Burnett is? Does he have a tendency to give up long fly balls, when he gives up fly balls?

Historically, no.

Historically, Burnett has given up homers on 11 percent of the fly balls he has allowed.

I don't mean to discount Porcello's skills or Burnett's limitations. But I strongly suspect that if you made Burnett a Tiger and Porcello a Yankee and gave them both average luck in 2011, it's Porcello that everyone would be worried about.

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