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Sinker Saving A.J. Burnett

A.J. Burnett continues to defy the odds. When the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired him from the New York Yankees, it was considered nothing more than a salary dump for the Yanks. At that point, Burnett had endured two straight seasons with a +5.00 ERA, and was entering his age-35 season. 35 season. Very little was expected of Burnett. But something clicked when Burnett arrived in Pittsburgh. At an age where most pitchers are trying to survive, Burnett has been able to thrive. But the Pirates saw promise in Burnett. By stressing his sinker, the Pirates have been able to turn his career around.

Burnett’s home run rate became a major issue his last few years in New York. He also struggled with an elevated fly ball rate. The biggest culprit was Burnett’s four-seam fastball. The pitch had the highest fly ball rate of all his offerings, and resulted in 56 home runs from 2009 to 2011. Upon realizing this, the Pirates decided Burnett would be better served relying more on a sinker.

The results can be seen almost immediately. The last two years, Burnett’s ground ball rate has shot above 56%. He’s also managed to do a much better job limiting home runs, though the change in home park may have helped in that area. Not much else has changed in Burnett’s approach. He’s used his curveball slightly more often with the Pirates, but not enough to make a huge difference. His usage with his change up has been the same. The team basically wanted Burnett to drop his four-seam fastball, but continue doing everything else at a similar rate.

Burnett hasn’t completely done away with his four-seamer. He’s still using the pitch 24.16% of the time with the Pirates. By not relying on it as often, it’s become a more useful pitch. With the Yankees, hitters rocked his four-seam fastball, hitting .328 with a .598 slugging percentage. That’s dropped to a .302 average and a slightly more acceptable .484 slugging percentage. The four-seam fastball still isn’t a great offering, but it’s no longer one of the worst pitches around.

That’s not the only area where Burnett say improvement. He’s also been able to control his walks a bit better with the Pirates. This was more evident during his first season with the team, as his walk rate has jumped back up in 2013. Still, Burnett’s ball percentage with every pitch has dropped once he went to Pittsburgh. That could be a result of the Pirates cleaning up his delivery. Both Burnett’s horizontal and vertical release points have been far more consistent after he joined the team. Taken from the fantastic BrooksBaseball.net as usual:

Burnett release points

Burnett VRP

The two charts on the left represent Burnett’s horizontal and vertical release points in the three seasons prior to joining the Pirates. The two on the left show Burnett the last two seasons. It’s clear that he’s been far less erratic with Pittsburgh, which might explain why he’s been able to make some progress with his walk rate.

The Pirates deserve all the credit for Burnett’s turnaround. They were able to identify a fixable problem, and bought low on a player with a high upside. The move may have been written off as a joke two years ago, but Burnett is paying off in a big way for the Pirates.