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Welcome Back A.J. Burnett

I would like to reintroduce you to the good A.J. Burnett. He has finally reappeared. Whatever was done with him over the last couple of seasons, we are thankful for his safe return. After two straight miserable seasons in New York where predictably the media claimed that Burnett simply couldn’t pitch in New York and contracted Ed Whitsonitis, Burnett rebounded in his first year back in the National League.

Burnett’s season didn’t start so well, however. At the end of February, he bunted a ball off his right eye, which fractured his orbital bone and required surgery. He was initially expected to miss 8-12 weeks, which put his return in early May to early June. Fortunately, he recovered more swiftly than anticipated and actually made his first start on April 21. Aside from his third start in which he blew up like Yankees fans had gotten used to seeing when he allowed a whopping 12 runs over 2.2 innings, he did not allow more than 3 runs in a start until July 3. Clearly, the injury did not affect his performance.

And his surface results were back up by skills that really surged. After typically posting pretty strong ground ball rates in the past, he took it to another level this year, ranking fifth in baseball in the metric. That helped curb his home run problem, as he once again posted a HR/FB ratio above the league average. He struggled to keep the ball in the park in away stadiums at a rate which was reminiscent of his 2011 season in New York. With over 2,000 innings pitched over his career and a career HR/FB ratio of 11.4%, it is probably right to call his true talent level in the metric as worse than league average. Of course, he has also called a hitter’s ballpark home for six seasons, so I remain hesitant to state that with confidence.

Looking back again, to mid-February this time, Burnett said that he thought changes to his delivery that the Yankees made resulted in his velocity loss. So one might assume that with the Pirates he would revert back to his old delivery and regain his lost velocity in the upcoming season, right? Well, instead his velocity fell even further. It sat at just 92.3 miles per hour, nearly two miles per hour less than he threw just three seasons prior. Surprisingly, it hasn’t really affected his strikeout rate or SwStk%, even though he’s essentially a two-pitch pitcher.

Assuming that velocity never rebounds (and it’s unlikely to given his age), at some point he is going to have some real issues since he almost solely relies on his curve ball to complement the declining fastball. The improved control he displayed was nice, and supported by a jump in F-Strike%. But, he’s going to be 36 in 2013 and both his walk and ground ball rates are likely to regress some. I have almost always been a fan of Burnett in the past, but I’m going to pass on him next year as I think he has a poor chance to repeat.