A.J. Burnett was an absolute revelation with the Pirates in 2012 and 2013, as he followed up two lost seasons with two of the best years of his career. In 2012, a 35-year-old Burnett walked just 2.76 batters per nine innings, his best-ever mark in a career that dates back to 1999. The next season, he struck out more batters than ever before, punching out well over a batter an inning.
This year, the 37-year-old Burnett moved across Pennsylvania to Philly, and in many ways, reverted back to the guy he was in his last two years in New York. Suddenly, he was once again serving up more meatballs than the Olive Garden out by the mall, pitching to an unsightly 4.59 earned run average in his 34 starts.
His walk rate soared all the way up to 4.04 BB/9. Burnett’s control was so disastrous this season that he led the majors in walks, and it wasn’t even remotely close. As if that wasn’t enough, he also plunked more batters than any other pitcher this year, and his first-pitch strike rate was his lowest since that not-so-magical 2010 season.
Furthermore, the 37-year-old went back to being the 8.00 K/9 guy he’d been from 2009-2012, suggesting that 2013 was an outlier in that department, as suspected. The grounder-heavy profile that he was so successful with in Pittsburgh — where he posted a ground ball to fly ball ratio of 2.34 — moved back to 1.78, much more in line with his career 1.63 mark.
Speaking of his batted-ball profile, Burnett gave up a career-high 20.5% line-drive rate. Let’s first take a moment to appreciate that his career-worst season for liners was essentially league-average…and then note that a lack of line drives has always been one of the things that made Burnett a successful major-league starter in the first place.
So, why the sudden change? Burnett was significantly worse this year — compared to his Pirates stint — in almost every way a pitcher can be worse. It’s not like there was just one thing that dragged him down, it’s that nearly everything slipped at least a little bit. In fact, according to PITCHf/x, each pitch in Burnett’s arsenal was less effective than it was last year.
With that in mind, I started combing through his PITCHf/x data, where I found a rather interesting little tidbit. It’s no secret that Burnett’s knuckle curve has long been his best weapon — a pitch so good that Eno wrote an entire(ly awesome) article about it last year. The offering’s horizontal movement — moving about 5-6 inches for most of 2012-2013 — faded away in 2014. The pitch just wasn’t cutting across the zone nearly as sharply, as you can see in the graph below.
When your out pitch is a curveball, and that curveball loses ~1.5 inches of horizontal movement, you’re gonna have a bad time. If you read Eno’s article that I linked above, you know that Burnett has two different knuckle curves; one that has a 12-6 motion, and another that looks a bit more like a slider.
What I find fascinating here is that the vertical movement on Burnett’s curve was roughly the same as last year, but he just couldn’t get the horizontal movement he usually does. Going back to Eno’s piece again, I found this one sentence particularly relevant:
If he establishes the over-the-top one first, the sidearm one usually follows.
It’s almost as if Burnett just pitched an entire season with the 12-6 curve “established,” but without the sweeping sidearm curve following suit, like usual.
The real wild card here is the fact that Burnett pitched the entire season with an inguinal hernia, which he had surgically repaired immediately after the season’s end. Burnett himself said that it bothered him all year, and it’s not unreasonable at all to believe that pitching with a hernia for six freaking months would negatively affect one’s performance.
Pairing the fact that he just pitched an entire season hurt with his return to Pittsburgh — and pitching coach Ray Searage — and there’s actually room for optimism here. It might sound crazy to put the “sleeper” tag on a guy who will be 38 years old — and coming off a total clunker of a season — but that’s exactly what I’m doing.
Physically, he won’t be pitching an entire season with a hernia, unless he’s super-unlucky and gets another hernia. Mentally, he’s back in the same environment where he very recently experienced considerable success. The move back to pitcher-friendly PNC Park certainly can’t hurt, either.
For fantasy purposes, why not take a shot on Burnett next year? In pretty much any mixed league, it won’t take any more than a $1 auction bid or a very late-round pick to acquire him. After all, he just had a terrible season in all the ways I just discussed! To be honest, I wouldn’t be all that surprised if a fully healthy Burnett bounced back and had another 2012. He almost certainly won’t be as good as he was in 2013, but another A.J. Burnett 2012 is absolutely worth “risking” a bench spot on.
Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.