Burnett Struggles On Short Rest

Last night, A.J. Burnett was a mess. He couldn’t command his fastball or his curve, continually getting himself into counts where he had to throw a strike, and the Phillies took advantage. He gave up six runs in two innings and dug the Yankees a hole that they couldn’t climb out of. He was also pitching on three days rest for the first time all season.

For many people, those two facts represent a causal relationship. Burnett struggled badly while going on short rest, so therefore, short rest caused the bad pitching. Unfortunately, life is never that simple.

The usual critique against bringing a pitcher back on short rest is that his stuff won’t be as crisp as it usually is. Burnett, however, was throwing his regular gas last night. His fastball averaged 94.2 MPH this season, and he sat at 93.8 MPH in his brilliant game two outing. Last night, his fastball averaged 94.5 MPH. Same deal with his curveball – 82.0 MPH on the season, 82.3 MPH last night.

In terms of velocity, Burnett had his usual arsenal. His fastball still had sink, and his curveball still had bite. The problem was that he couldn’t throw them for strikes. Here’s the strikezone plot, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:


There are 16 magenta colored squares on that plot representing Burnett’s curveball. Eight of them aren’t even close, and only four of them were in the strike zone. It doesn’t matter how much movement you have when you miss the plate by that much. Hitters aren’t going to swing, you’re going to fall behind in the count, and all that’s left to do is groove a fastball. Command, not a lack of stuff, was Burnett’s undoing.

Of course, there’s the possibility that Burnett’s inability to throw strikes was due in part to his altered schedule. However, that’s something we simply can’t know. Burnett is not exactly the model of consistency. In five different starts during the regular season, he gave up six or more runs. On April 19th, he walked seven batters, and he issued six free passes on two other occasions. And, of course, he got torched in the first inning by the Angels in the ALCS less than two weeks ago. He did all of that on regular four day rest. Consistent command of his pitches is never something Burnett has had, and he probably never will. He’s a guy with great stuff who doesn’t always pitch up to the level of his natural abilities.

How much did the loss of one rest day affect Burnett? We don’t have any idea. Historically, he’s performed well on three days of rest, and his stuff was as good as ever last night. While Burnett did pitch poorly last night, and he was pitching on short rest, we simply cannot conclude that the latter was the cause of the former. It may have been, and probably was, some kind of factor. How much of an effect it had, we simply cannot know.

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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

18 Responses to “Burnett Struggles On Short Rest”

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  1. Joe R says:

    If you want a fun, small sample of 4 games to back your case even more, Burnett has a career .572 OPS against on 3 days rest in the regular season.

    This may be worth noting more, though:
    Career with days rest –
    4: .685 OPS against, ~3.79 FIP, 924 1/3 IP
    5: .704 OPS against, ~4.25 FIP, 444 IP
    6: .663 OPS against, ~4.07 FIP, 182 1/3 IP

    It doesn’t look like extra rest helps Burnett in his career, so maybe having to work on short rest once in awhile doesn’t hurt him either.

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  2. Ken says:

    Good post, but I would object to the comment that Burnett is “a guy with great stuff who doesn’t always pitch up to the level of his natural abilities”. There is no reason to think that the ability to throw a fastball 94mph is natural, but the ability to consistently throw it for strikes isn’t.

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  3. Steve P says:

    This is who Burnett is. As Dave pointed out, his stuff was there, it was as “nasty” as it always is, but the command wasn’t and he’s established that from start to start the command will always be a question mark throughout his decade long career, regardless of rest.

    This should also put an end to the idea that Jose Molina has some kind of magical powers to “control” Burnett. The fact that Girardi sat Posada in the NL park and with Brett Gardner in the lineup is laughable. The fact is, Molina should never have seen the light of day in the playoffs, and especially last night.

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  4. Rob in CT says:

    Yup. This is AJ Burnett. Sometimes he’s effectively wild. Sometimes he’s ineffectively wild. His stuff is so nasty in part due to movement that he can’t always control. His delivery looks complicated to me (I know very little here, so I could be wrong). It seems like there are a lot of moving parts. Compare to Mariano, who repeats his delivery (which strikes me as simple) like a robot.

    Posada > Molina. That this was not obvious to the manager was our first warning sign. Before any of the odd pitching changes or pinch running, there was the decision to start Jose Molina in playoff games.

    Oh, and Utley is ridiculously awesome.

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  5. neuter_your_dogma says:

    Agreed. Also seems to me that he missed the plate just as frequently in Game 2, but the pitches off the plate were closer to strikes, and the ump widened the zone just enough to keep his bordeline pitches north of Tijuana.

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    • Rob in CT says:

      I agree that the game 5 zone was a little tighter than the game 2 zone. But AJ was screwed even if he had the game 2 zone last night. In game 2, he threw lots of 1st pitch strikes and he threw lots of pitches on or *just* off the outside corner. Last night, he was wilder. It was partly that he was throwing more pitches out of the zone, but also that he was missing inside the zone (the pitch Utley sent into orbit, for instance).

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  6. TheUnrepentantGunner says:

    At the risk of defending McCarver and buck, they had an astonishing number in yesterday’s telecast.

    Pitchers on 3 days rest are 12-35 agianst those on 4 days rest over a pretty lengthy time period. Now usually that would be a big enough sample size for me to say case closed.(over 47 games, assuming the null case of a 50-50 split i think the standard deviation is only 3.7 games so this is a 3+ sigma event!)

    What i would like to know though is the circumstance. Was this an inferior team pitching their ace game 4 and underdogs regardless? Were both rotations properly stacked? (since if they were then a #1 vs a #4 should be a marked edge for the team pitching on short rest as was the case with CC vs Blanton?)

    I guess what I’d like to say is that pitching on short rest seems like a mistake generally,but a little digging of those 47 games could tell us some more about situations where it might or might not make sense.

    Anyone dorky enough to crank out some research with me tonight?

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    • Tom B says:

      don’t feel bad, it’s not like they are doing… research… they couldn’t say the stupid things they do otherwise.

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    • Rob in CT says:

      Deciding whether or not to start a guy on 3 days rest has to include the alternative option. In this case: Chad Gaudin, on about a bazillion days rest (he did pitch 1 inning in the 10-1 blowout game of the ALCS).

      A more intriguing option may have been a “bullpen game” in which Girardi utilized the depth of the Yankee relief corps. But that has its own risks.

      The problem is that if you start Gaudin and/or do a bullpen game and still lose game 5, Burnett is thoroughly capable of imploding on full rest in game 6. See: ALCS.

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      • TheUnrepentantGunner says:

        this is all well and true. i am not disputing that maybe the lack of available options + burnett’s prior history tilted the odds to a tossup of sorts.

        still, even a mediocre pitcher with a great lineup against a great pitcher witha good lineup probably should win more than ~=25% of the time.

        then again, maybe not as gaudin is awful and an all-bullpen game has knock on consequences. what i would like to do is to isolate what portion of that 12-35 is due to the shortened rest and what portion is various and assorted forms of noise.

        I have a moderate amount of technical know-how, but on something this complicated I dont trust my own work enough to attempt it solo.

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    • Andrew says:

      Chad Gaudin’s problem is that LHB absolutely kill him, batting 100 points of OPS against higher. He wouldn’t have lasted very long against the Phillies lineup either.

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    • Jack B says:

      Teams that start a pitcher on 3 days rest usually do so because they are down in the series and facing elimination. Those teams tend to be worse than the teams they are playing- which is why they are in such a position to begin with. This is one reason such a stat is misleading.

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  7. walkoffblast says:

    If you want to second guess something like the Aceves decision but chalk this one up to we cannot really know it seems kind of convenient to me.

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  8. Joe R says:

    Random note, for some reason all of this reminded me of some of the JoeChat from today. Check this gem:

    Cole (Los Angeles)

    Hi Joe Morgan, is Chase Utley the greatest second baseman of all time?

    Joe Morgan (11:10 AM)

    I don’t try to compare people to the past, because the game is different today that it was years ago. Today, the parks are smaller, the balls are livlier and the pitchers aren’t as consistent. I have always said that Chase Utley is a special, special hitter. I’ve been fortunate enough to do Phillies games on Sunday Night Baseball and he’s hit home runs during those games. And I have said that he’s the best hitting second basemen in the game. There are guys that hit more home runs than him, but he’s a special hitter.

    I just want to know how one can qualify to be an analyst when they ignore figures like OPS+, WPA, EqA, wOBA, and the great work people and groups like Bill James and Baseball Prospectus have done in statistical standization across eras (did you know Babe Ruth’s HR production relative to his era in 1927 would’ve been equal to an era of 2.923% of PA’s resulting in HR would list him at 71 HR? In a 154 game season? I think that sentence made sense but I’m not sure. Go look at his DT card, I like numbers, not writing).

    But since baseball prospectus does have translated batting stats, let’s take a looksy:
    Hornsby: .334/.397/.671, .336 EqA
    Utley: .292/.387/.526, .307 EqA

    So Hornsby kicks his ass offensively. BUT, remember that when Hornsby played, the defensive spectrum went as 1B-LF-RF-2B-CF-3B-SS-C-P. Hornsby was basically a slightly more rangy 1B, and even when defense wasn’t nearly as valuable from a 2B, he was slightly below average in his career (-17 FRAA). Utley, playing when 2B defense is way more valuable, thanks to Double Plays, is a +35 FRAA. So let’s look at their age 26-30 years in WARP-3 terms:

    Hornsby: 44.2
    Utley: 40.4

    Okay so maybe he’s not the best ever, but, wow that’s close. How Utley can play in a huge market and be the 4th or 5th most recognized player on his own TEAM is beyond me. Well, maybe he used to be, doubt he’ll be now.

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    • pounded clown says:

      “Okay so maybe he’s not the best ever, but, wow that’s close. How Utley can play in a huge market and be the 4th or 5th most recognized player on his own TEAM is beyond me. Well, maybe he used to be, doubt he’ll be now.”
      If you go to a Phillies game just about woman in the crowd wants to have his baby, and every other guy has a man crush on him. He doesn’t complain, has a puritanical work ethic (first one to the ball park, blah, blah, blah…actaully he overtrains in my opinion), had to take ice baths after games because he was playing with a hip labrum tear, undergoes surgery in the off season for said injury and doesn’t miss any playing time this season, wil get hit by pitches, runs out every hit….This guy is the quintessential Phillie. He might not have, until now put the team on his back like Howard, Rollins or Hamels but has been for few years the most revered among the fans. He’s our Jeter.

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      • Joe R says:

        Even in praising Utley, you underrated him.

        He’s been the best player on that team, easily, for the last 3 seasons. 2007, Rollins won the MVP, but Utley out WAR’d him 8.0-6.7 (in about 25% less PA’s as well, with equal PA’s, Utley would’ve beat him out 3:2). In 2008, Howard was the MVP candidate, but it would be criminally insane to say Howard was superior in any facet of the game outside of “September superclutchiness” than Utley. And FWIW, while Howard was bumbling along to start the season, Utley opened 2008 with a 1.195 OPS in April (higher than Howard’s September OPS), while playing GG level defense in a much more important spot. Rollins was also sub-par for himself with a .724.

        Like, I hate saying crap about Howard and Rollins. Both are very good players. But Howard/Rollins type players vs. Utley types are the perfect example of what’s wrong with simple “observation”, when you’re spectacular in 1 or 2 aspects of the game (for Rollins, speed and defense, for Howard, power), your abilities can be overrated; in turn, when you’re excellent in all aspects (Utley), you can get a little lost in the fact of more attention-grabbing teammates (once again, not Howard and Rollins’ fault that people think they’re a little better than they really are, Rollins is probably the 2nd best SS of the decade anyway).

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  9. BD says:

    How can Chase Utley be the greatest 2B of all time having been a fulltime player for just 5 years? If his career ended tomorrow, would he really figure as prominently in baseball history as Rogers Hornsby or Joe Morgan?

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    • Joe R says:

      He’s obviously nowhere close to being the best 2B of all time right now, but he does have an impressively comparible run of 5 years to Hornsby.

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