AJ Burnett's Decline May Be Tied To His Curveball

2)     64.6%

When the Yankees signed AJ Burnett to a five year, $82.5 million contract in December 2008, they knew they were getting a volatile pitcher. They knew they were getting a guy with a history of injury, and inconsistency, and bouts of immaturity. They knew they were getting a guy with top-tier stuff but without top-tier dependability. AJ Burnett was a known entity.

At the same time, the Yankees were getting a guy fresh off more than 220 innings. They were getting a guy fresh off 231 strikeouts, with power and groundballs to make up for occasional fits of wildness. They were getting a guy who, over the previous five years, had posted a 3.78 ERA over 131 starts. There was a reason a pitcher with Burnett's colorful past was able to come into such money. His pitches were good, and his numbers were better. It made sense for the Yankees and their fans to be optimistic.

Now fast forward about two years. Burnett's ERA is up in the 5's. He's averaging fewer than six innings a start. His strikeouts are as low as they've been since he was a kid, and with the Yankees approaching the playoffs, Burnett has nobody's trust. He isn't seen as an asset. He's seen as a question mark, as a weakness on a Yankee team with few others.

It's clear that something's gone wrong. Something that Burnett used to be able to do, he is no longer able to do as consistently or effectively.

There could be a number of things, actually. Most likely, Burnett isn't being undone by a single vital flaw. But here I've identified one, and one that I think is a pretty big deal. See, Burnett, for all intents and purposes, is a two-pitch pitcher. Though he has a change he'll throw a handful of times a game, he works primarily off of his fastball and curve. The fastball's there to set hitters up, and the curveball's there to put them away.

And, lately, the curve hasn't been able to put them away quite like it used to. What follows are opposing hitters' contact rates against Burnett's curveball over the years:

Year

Contact%

2008

53.8%

2009

57.5%

2010

64.6%


In 2008, hitters missed nearly half the time they swung at Burnett's curveball. Now they're making contact with well more than three-fifths of their swings, and though a contact rate of 64.6% on a curve is still rather good, it isn't spectacular. It isn't what it was.

And you can see this show up in his splits. In 2008, after getting ahead in the count, Burnett struck out 42.9% of opposing hitters. In 2010, that's down to 31.7%. His curveball isn't getting as many whiffs, which means he isn't getting as many whiffs, which means he isn't getting as many strikeouts, which means he isn't having as much success.

That's a problem. Unfortunately for the Yankees, I don't have the solution. With three years and $49.5 million left on AJ Burnett's contract, they're going to want to find it. They're going to at least want to look everywhere they can.

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