Contemplating A.J. Burnett, Relief Pitcher

What’s there to say about A.J. Burnett?  He’s having an incredibly tough time right now, and this after looking like he’d made improvements from his career-worst 2010 campaign. These days, his ERA and FIP are both within a tenth of a run of his 2010 totals.  The Yankees’ “too many starters” dilemma has been a theme for a month now — since Phil Hughes returned from the DL and Ivan Nova came up from the minor leagues. On top of that, the Yankees get starts from ace CC Sabathia, Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia. So while some untimely weather and a finger injury to Garcia has put off Joe Girardi’s decision about whom to bump from the rotation, it looks like Burnett is still lined up to pitch against the Red Sox on Thursday. After his next start, it might not be a bad idea to try him out as a short reliever.

It feels like we’ve been saying it for a while, but one can’t help but wonder if Girardi has to pull the plug on Burnett if he has another clunker. After his disastrous nine-run outing against the Orioles on Friday, his August ERA is now at a tick under 12 and his FIP has been at 5.50 for the month. His normalized 4.16 xFIP is more reasonable, telling us that opponents have been smacking homers off of him at (probably) an unsustainable rate. So yes, he’s probably seeing some bad luck, but he’s still been pitching quite poorly.

With Hughes and Nova both pitching well, it doesn’t seem reasonable to kick one of them out of the rotation when the team needs to return to a five-man — though the Yankees have already seen Hughes excel out of the bullpen (in 2009, he gained 2 mph and saw his strikeout rates soar after being moved into a relief role). Given Burnett’s recent struggles, he’s looking like an obvious choice to be sent out, in spite of his veteran status and enormous contract. Something that’s become apparent is that Burnett has shown a tendency to lose some steam during games.  Taking all four-seam fastballs from his Yankees tenure (2009-2011) and averaging their velocities by pitch count, you can see that he’s not the same pitcher once he gets deep into his start:

A trend for plate appearance outcomes is less discernible, but lumping his plate appearances into two buckets (innings 1-4, innings 5+) indicates that his ability to get strikeouts and swings-and-misses deteriorates in the later innings.

+-------------+-------------+-------------+-------------+-------------+-------------+
|             | PA          |      K%     |     BB%     |    Whiff%   |  CU Whiff%  |
+-------------+-------------+-------------+-------------+-------------+-------------+
| Innings 1-4 |     1601    |     21%     |    12%      |    23%      |    44%      |
+-------------+-------------+-------------+-------------+-------------+-------------+
| Innings 5+  |     841     |     16%     |    11%      |    18%      |    33%      |
+-------------+-------------+-------------+-------------+-------------+-------------+

With this in mind, I’d like to see the Yankees try out Burnett as a one-inning guy for the rest of the year.  At this point, the Yankees have to think of any way possible to squeeze some value out of Burnett, and they have two basic options: keep pitching him every fifth day and hope he figures it out, or make a change. Given that that the Yankees already have five competent starting pitchers, Burnett’s stuff might play well in relief, and a move to the bullpen should be given serious thought.




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50 Responses to “Contemplating A.J. Burnett, Relief Pitcher”

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  1. Yirmiyahu says:

    How do we know that Burnett’s decline in velocity and whiff rate over the course of a start is any more precipitous than your average starter?

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    • mbrady16 says:

      Agreed. According to this graph he’s losing at most 2 mph per start from first pitch to 100. That seems to be normal if you aren’t Justin Verlander.

      From what I understand, AJ’s problem has been with his command and control and I’m not sure how a relief role would help that.

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    • DD says:

      My thoughts exactly. Why not compare him to at least Hughes, Garcia, Nova and Colon?

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      Indeed. MLB-wide starting pitchers this year:
      1st time through the order: 19.6% K rate, 8.1% BB+HBP rate
      2nd time through the order: 17.2% K rate, 8.2% BB+HBP rate
      3rd time through the order: 15.5% K rate, 8.4% BB+HBP rate
      4th+ time through the order: 14.8% K rate, 8.7% BB+HBP rate

      Source: http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/split.cgi?t=p&lg=MLB&year=2011

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    • baty says:

      Either way, if you look at the big picture, it’s a dramatic difference from what he’s had to work with in the past. Going from a guy who early in his career was reaching the upper 90s to a guy now, who late in the game is barely touching 90, is pretty significant. That has to be a tough hurdle for a pitcher to get around. If you can’t redevelop your repertoire then major struggles seem to be obvious. And it seems that he hasn’t been much of a pitcher to make adjustments throughout those years.

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    • RobMer says:

      I would say it doesn’t matter how Burnett’s decline in velocity and whiff rate compares to other pitchers. What matters are the results, which have been quite nasty. He’s been more effective early and falls apart the further he gets into each start.

      AJ’s basically a two-pitch pitcher who has lost a couple miles off his fastball from when he was in Toronto. He can still get it up to 94 as a starter, but it’s rare to see him eclipse 95 anymore. Put him in the pen where he knows he’s only pitching one or so innings and he can amp up his fastball and rely on his two-pitch combination to blow away most hitters.

      It’s quite possible AJ might be lights-out out of the bullpen. No team in their right mind would pay a reliever $16.5 million a season, but at this point it will be much more beneficial for the Yankees to pay that money to an effective and perhaps even dynamic reliever than an ineffective starter.

      They have the opportunity now to find out. They should find out.

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  2. curious says:

    Doesn’t he walk a ton of guys? Not exactly a characteristic you would like to see in a guy coming out of the bullpen

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    • DD says:

      To mbrady and curious: Most relievers have a higher BB rate, which is why they are relievers – control ain’t their thang. He has significant swing and miss stuff, and those guys tend to increase their K rate when they are only exposed to hitters once a game as opposed to 3-4 times.

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      • mbrady16 says:

        I wouldn’t agree with this. If relievers have a higher average BB/9 rate, there could be plenty of factors in play including late-game strategy. Relievers have to throw strikes just like any pitcher, and most of them aren’t like Carlos Marmol.

        There are varying reasons why guys get shifted to the bullpen, and it’s not primarily because of control. I would say guys with lower stamina, hard-to-repeat deliveries and those considered to be injury risks are more likely to be bullpen guys than those with bad command and control; I just wish I had hard evidence to back that up.

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      • Yirmiyahu says:

        Indeed, BB rate is the only stat that relievers as a whole fare worse at than starters.

        Anecdotally, quality relievers tend to be high-velocity guys with swing-and-miss stuff (albeit only one or two pitches) with control problems. We can argue about that, but it’s not really important. The fact is that control problems aren’t an impediment to being a successful reliever.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        They’re usually rleievers because they have limited pitch variety.

        A reliever with 3-4 quality pitches would most likely be a starter.

        Pitchers are often relievers because they excel at one thing. Either they have high velocity, or the have a funky release point/delivery, or they have an outstanding out pitch that they throw repeatedly.

        These things are highly effective over 1 inning, but would drastically lose effectiveness over sequential IP.

        I’m not sure I would want to turn the ball over to AJ Burnett in a close game.

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    • baty says:

      You can’t say that his BB issues will directly translate as a relief pitcher. His BB rate is a symptom, and it might change with the move… I think part of the key is the lost velocity in pitch differential as the gap in velocity between his fastball, CB, and change up have narrowed quite a bit over the last few years.

      He used to work with about a
      94.5 mph fastball
      87mph change up
      82mph curveball

      currently it’s been trending towards
      92.5 mph fastball
      88mph change up
      82 mph curveball

      TFor instance, that change up to fastball gap is quite different, and he’s using the change up more than he has in the past.

      With the fastball chart presented in this article, I wonder what’s happening with his 2 other pitches as well. Are they suffering from a loss of velocity as well? or is the change of speed gap in between narrowing later in the game even more. I assume pitch movement might be different as well.

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    • Tremont says:

      How is David Robertson doing? Check his bb rate.

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      • mbrady16 says:

        How is Tim Collins doing? Check his BB rate.

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      • Tremont says:

        I wasn’t suggesting that all guys with high bb rate are good relievers. And Collins’s bb rate is not just high; it’s astronomical. He doesn’t get nearly enough k’s to make up for it. My point was that a bb rate in the 4 per 9 range isn’t a huge obstacle for major success out of the pen, whereas it’s very, very difficult to be a big time starter with that kind of bb rate.

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  3. YankeeBaseball says:

    At this point, the only role I can see AJ Burnout in is a mop up man in blowouts. Then at least his maddingly typical degeneration will be meaningless to the standings and he will save overworking the bullpen.

    Better: Trade him straight up for Carlos Zambrano, a move that might end up helping both teams. Burnett would undoubtedly do better in the NL with no pressure and no DH to face. And Zambrano could get it together and excel under Yankee’s pitching coach Larry Rothschild, who he had a good relationship with when Rothschild was the pitching coach in Chicago…

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    • jim says:

      yeah, chicago is a great place to go for pressure relief

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    • RobMer says:

      So what you’re saying is the Yankees should trade one ineffective, overpaid starter who might be a bit of a head case, but is regarded as a good clubhouse guy that his teammates like, for another ineffective, overpaid starter who is batshit crazy?

      No thanks. I think the Yankees would rather keep Ted Bundy in Chicago.

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      • Kyle says:

        Zambrano is a better hitter than Posada at this point and if he can’t pitch, he was hitting .318 and has hit 6 homeruns, 4 twice while having RBI numbers that would give him around 80 to 90 RBI around 4 times had he gotten 500 at-bats.

        So the Yankees have a legitimate power threat. He’s also been decent when pitching from the bullpen. He’s also 10-0 the past two seasons when his team gets him 6 plus runs. Sabathia gets almost as much run support so maybe he will get some hype for Cy Young consideration next year.

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  4. Seideberg says:

    When would the Yankees even use Burnett out of the pen? They already have Rivera, Robertson and Soriano for the 7th, 8th and 9th innings, Logan for lefties, and Ayala, Noesi, and Wade pitching well this year in middle relief. If there is anything they need out of the bullpen, it’s another LOOGY. The Yankees have the best bullpen in the AL this year. Why would they want to sully it with the likes of AJ Burnett? His salary is a sunk cost. They should just cut him loose, in my opinion.

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    • Ugueth says:

      But this can also be said about basically whichever Yankee starter gets bumped from the rotation. if Hughes is removed what does he become, the official “6th inning guy”? That’s kind of ridiculous.

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      • Joe says:

        You might as well just move everyone to the bull pen. Seriously, the current Yankees bull pen could probably give you 3 good complete games every 5 days. Add 6 more decent arms and you would get better results than any starting rotation out there.

        I’ve always been curious what would happen if a team went with an all-reliever pitching staff. I think some minor league team should try it out, acting as a relief-pitching farm for their club while experimenting with this strategy. Obviously, you can’t just put that into effect at the major league level. If it doesn’t work, it would be a disaster that would take a decade to fix.

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      So you’re suggesting removing Sabathia from the rotation and converting him to a LOOGY? Sounds great.

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    • Tremont says:

      He is a perfect candidate for a career renaissance in the pen; basically a 2 pitch guy, wears out after a few innings, shaky control. I think he could be a terrific reliever. Before throwing $35 mill in the garbage, isn’t it worth a look?

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      • baty says:

        I think he’s absolutely worth a look. You can argue that most relief pitchers in the bigs have experienced similar failures in a starting role to what AJ is experiencing right now anyway. So why couldn’t AJ be just as successful as they are under that diminished role of a relief pitcher. Kind of twisted logic, but that’s usually where it begins.

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      • RobMer says:

        Yes. It’s totally worth the look.

        No team, including the Yankees, will simply cut a player who is owed $33 million for the next two seasons until they exhaust all options. AJ will be picked up immediately by other teams who would only have to pay him the minium. The team across town, the Mets, would instantly pick him up for league minimum. Imagine how galling it would be to the Yankees if he went to the DH-less league and pitched in a nice big fly-ball park like CitiField and started putting up good numbers. Yeah, that would be painful, which is why it’s not happening and why the Yankees aren’t cutting AJ.

        His two-pitch, good fastball, swing-and-miss arsenal might play well out of the pen. Let’s find out, if not for this year than next year. I fully expect the Yankees to give Burnett one last shot at the rotation in 2012, but he will be on a very short leash. They have too many prospects that are beginning to pile up in AAA, so they will be looking for a way to fit them in the rotation. AJ is the likely victim right now and the pen is his likely destination.

        After 2012, who knows, but he’ll be with the Yankees for at least one more season before they decide to cut him and move on. They should find out if he can work out of the pen and get some value.

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  5. Brian says:

    Burnett blows.

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  6. Hurtlocker says:

    This guy’s problem, much like Zambrano, is not the speed of his fastball but the empty cavity between his ears. These guys need Psychological help to get back on track, they have proven athletic ability, but lack the mental ability to apply that skill to the baseball field.

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    • JoshTFL says:

      Good thing you’re a psychiatrist, right?

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    • Pette says:

      I hate when people use this excuse. You have no evidence for this. Rght now it is much more likely that his pitching talent is simply isn’t what a lot of people seem to think it is.

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    • jim says:

      or he’s a 34 year old starting pitcher well into his decline phase, who wasn’t terribly good to begin with.

      nah, on second though, we’ll just go with your thing.

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  7. Pette says:

    Let me rephrase that since I suck at typing. Burnett’s control is awful, and you have no evidence to conclude that this is because he is a mental case.

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  8. Ziggy Barone says:

    Burnett needs a shrink…since the (supposed) best in the world are in NYC….why hasn’t Yankees brass already done this…(unless is it under wraps…if it is…guess what…We want a refund and get a new Doctor)….

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  9. Ziggy Barone says:

    Burnett for Z….let’s do it!!! Even if we have to give the Cubs some $

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  10. Ziggy Barone says:

    He can sell peanuts in between…Hot Dogs or Drinks is too much pressure for AJ…

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  11. James says:

    Something else to consider is just how bad he is with runners on base. Perhaps it’s a mechanical thing (i.e. can’t pitch from the stretch), but Burnett absolutely crumbles with runners on base. His OPS jumps over 100 points with a runner on. True, most pitchers deteriorate with runners on, but not to that extent. Plus, if anyone has seen him with a runner on third, it feels like it’s almost automatic that the runner comes in. With his control, he practically loses his curveball in that situation. He’s far too limited as a reliever.

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  12. Cory says:

    This would might be a good idea except for the fact that he struggles just as much, if not more, in the early innings (or low pitch counts) as he does later on.

    So even though he has the velocity on his fastball, it doesn’t mean he has pitched any better.

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  13. Adrock says:

    Having been in the presence of AJ Burnett twice at Spring Training, and having seen him behave like an absolute prima donna jackass both times, my theory is that bad karma has led to his deteriorating results.

    My prescription: rescue several kittens from trees, help some old ladies cross streets, see what happens.

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  14. Aaron says:

    Lotsa good suggestions! AJ is infuriating.. tough to watch lately even… but the Yanks are def not gonna cut him and let him have any type of success with a rival or any team- just think of the repercussions if he has success with a different team. This could block many FA pitchers in the future from coming to NYY.

    I agree, why not exhaust every option first. He could be servicable in the pen. Mariano was a failed starter too.. I remember bringing the family to a game Mo started in 95, he got crushed for 6 runs in 3 innings! AJ is no Mariano.. but you see my point I hope.

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  15. Tanned Tom says:

    Some posts have ignored two items: 1) that Burnett has been a lesser pitcher with the Yanks than he was in Toronto, from day one. and, 2) he wasn’t all that good to begin with. This was just a bad signing.
    With his composure issues he is unsuitable to be a reliever. That leaves 2 options, that he stabilizes and becomes a 30 start, 180 innings, 4.70 ERA guy in the 5th spot in the rotation, or that they trade him. His salary makes it likely you’d have to take back another bad contract. Burnett for Zambrano is interesting, Z is only 30 and has really only had this one bad season. But he throws at hitters and his teammates hate him. Though they are anxious to get rid of him, so maybe this can be done straight up. Other bad contracts around the majors include Zito (who has not been as bad as his press) Adam Dunn (who might see a revival aiming at right field in Yankee stadium), Alfonse Soriano (please no, talk about lack of effort). If we don’t have to assume some other clubs mistake to be rid of our own, then we’re going to have to give him away, pay some of his salary and take two AA players for him.

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  16. sing says:

    this Complete OK ,
    seattle

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  17. marana says:

    this is Great news i really dont Cers
    marana

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  18. locks says:

    to like in the spot its really good
    federal way,Wa

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  19. locks says:

    good luck and very great post thanks
    alpharetta

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  20. Eyal says:

    GO Yankees, make my day(:

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