A.J. Burnett Explains It All

A.J. Burnett is at last no longer a member of the New York Yankees, and he's made an effort to explain just what went wrong, and how things got derailed.

That photo right there is proof, or at least convincing evidence, that A.J. Burnett is no longer a Yankee. As of a few days ago, he's a Pirate. Sure, he's not in camp alongside guys like Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera; he is in camp alongside guys like Chris Leroux, Matt Hague and Logan Kensing, which is neat in a different way.

For Burnett, it's all about looking forward. But that doesn't mean that we're all done looking back. Monday, Burnett appeared on The Michael Kay Show and discussed his time in New York. He touched on Joe Girardi, how he thinks things went wrong, and his overall experience. You can read about the segment here.

Burnett comes away looking pretty honest. He comes away looking like a stand-up guy. He doesn't hide from anything. There's a lot of good and interesting material in there, but there's one thing I want to talk about in particular. Burnett was asked about his fastball velocity, which dropped a little in 2010 and dropped a little more in 2011. His response:

"I think the way I changed my delivery made my velocity drop down.


[...]


At the same time, I turned a lot [in my delivery in the past]. I had deception in my delivery in 2009 that made me successful. It wasn’t anybody. They didn’t like the turn. They wanted me to be more of a strike thrower and try to get more consistent in the strike zone because I was wild in that delivery -- but then again I was more powerful and dominant in that delivery."

When Burnett refers to his "turn", this is what he's talking about:

Burnett2009_1

That .gif is from 2009. You can see that Burnett kind of turns his back to home plate before he separates his hands. What he seems to be alleging is that the Yankees didn't like the turn, and they worked to eliminate the turn, and that caused Burnett to lose a little zip and effectiveness.

It sounds good, but there's a problem - the Yankees seem to have addressed Burnett's turn only last September. That's when they started putting in some work to adjust. And then just a few starts later, Burnett reverted to the way he used to throw before. He reverted in the middle of an at-bat.

Maybe there were other times that the Yankees tried to get Burnett to turn a little less, but here's the beginning from that first article:

Before his previous start, A.J. Burnett scrambled to undo 13 years' worth of muscle memory. At the behest of pitching coach Larry Rothschild, the Yankees right-hander changed a major part of his pitching motion, one he has grooved since his earliest days as a pro.

I don't bring this up to criticize Burnett, or to call him a liar. I just bring it up because it caught my attention and led me to investigate. Now I'm even more curious.

Here's something interesting about Burnett's velocity decline - from 2009 to 2011, Burnett's average fastball fell from 94.2 to 92.7 miles per hour. But his average curveball increased from 81.8 to 82.6, and his average changeup increased from 87.1 to 88.0. Often, when a pitcher loses velocity, he loses velocity across the board. Burnett's old fastball velocity might be recoverable.

And even if it's not, the Pirates still have reason for hope. Burnett's a confusing guy, and here's what I mean. The Yankees signed Burnett to a big contract after his successful 2008 season with the Blue Jays. The Yankees sent Burnett to Pittsburgh after his unsuccessful 2011 season in New York. A statistical comparison:

Year Strike% Contact% Grounder%
2008 61.4 76.5 47.5
2011 61.5 76.7 49.2

In some ways, Burnett's 2011 season was a complete mess. In other ways, Burnett's 2011 season was encouraging. That table obviously doesn't contain all the relevant information, but it does contain a lot of relevant information. A year ago, Burnett threw strikes like he did with Toronto, he missed bats like he did with Toronto, and he generated grounders like he did with Toronto. He just allowed more homers and wound up with fewer strikeouts, which might happen again, and which might not.

There are a lot of articles out there arguing that Burnett has upside in Pittsburgh. He does. That's why they traded for him. This is another one of those articles, but I found the numbers in that table to be a little stunning. Bad Burnett isn't fundamentally different from Good Burnett. There has been one transition, but there could be a transition back.

In 2008, Burnett had a 1.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio after falling behind 1-and-0. Last year, in the same split, Burnett's strikeout-to-walk ratio was 0.8. That's much much worse. But then, in 2008, Burnett had a 4.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio after getting ahead 0-and-1. Last year, in the same split, Burnett's strikeout-to-walk ratio was 6.1. That's much much better.

Burnett's a confusing and talented guy, with either too much or too little going on in his head, depending on whom you ask. The Pirates have agreed to pay him $13 million over the next two years. You don't see a lot of guys coming off 5.15 ERAs getting $13 million contracts. But you don't see a lot of guys coming off 5.15 ERAs who offer what A.J. Burnett might.

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