Friday, April 30, 2010

Has A.J. Burnett Changed His Approach?

It's common to hear baseball players talk about altering some element of their personal strategy but not have the numbers back up their story. The tasks that both pitchers and batters have to perform occur on a razor's edge with tons of variables and are complicated by the fact that there is someone else on the other side of the equation who wants the exact opposite thing they do. So a player can say they are taking a different tack, try very hard to do it, but struggle to get quantifiable results.

So far this season, A.J. Burnett has fallen on the opposite end of the spectrum. He's hasn't done much talking about adjusting his approach, but he's been pitching great and gotten it done a way that runs counter to the type of pitcher he's been in the past.

Traditionally a guy with a propensity to both strikeout and walk a lot of batters, A.J. has seen both of those rates drop to roughly 2/3 of their career norms. At the same time, he's given up more hits, throwing slightly more strikes and is getting more outs on the ground.

About 3/4 of the pitches Burnett has thrown in 2010 have been fastballs, a proportion that he hasn't approached since his days with the Marlins - and back then he was a different kind of pitcher. Burnett has admitted that in those days he was overly concerned with trying to light up the radar gun, but one of the reasons that Brian Cashman was impressed by him during their free agent courtship was that he claimed that Roy Halladay has instilled in him that pitching was about much more than velocity. So far this season, Burnett has been pitching like a poor man's version of his old mentor - with a two-seamer instead of a cutter and a curve instead of a slider -which is still pretty damn good.

Why the increase in fastballs this season? According to Burnett, it's partially because he's still not comfortable using his curveball.

On paper, it doesn't make sense that Burnett would benefit from throwing more heaters. Last year, his fastball was one of the worst in the Majors and his hook one of the best. So far (working with small sample sizes obviously) both pitches have been pretty close to average.

If you believe the PitchFX data from FanGraphs, Burnett has thrown more two-seamers than in years past. Like, a lot more. Since 2007, only about two percent of his pitches were classified at two-seamers, but this year that proportion is nearly 1/4. It's worth noting that Joe from RAB thinks that this could be a result in a change in the PitchFX system, but based on Burnett's results and comments, I'm inclined to believe there is something there, even if the change isn't as drastic as the the numbers seem to indicate.

In last night's postgame interview, A.J. said that his two-seamer "was running all over the place". He also talked about letting batters hit the ball more than once:
I don't have to strike everybody out. I can let them put the ball in play - here it is, hit it - and more times than not, they'll make plays behind me.

...I’m learning more and more how to throw the ball to both sides of the plate with movement, and trusting my defense. We've got Hall of Famers everywhere behind me playing, so just let them hit the ball.
To distill this into a neat little cliché, he seems to be talking about pitching to contact. And the fact that he's walked fewer batters, struck out fewer and allowed more hits than in the past backs that up.

Perhaps putting the ball over the plate and trusting his defense wasn't something Burnett had planned on, but a place he's found himself in somewhat accidentally because his hook wasn't there for him yet. He's been forced to mix in his two-seamer and found that it could be an effective out pitch - except it's useful for inducing ground balls instead of tallying up strikeouts.

I don't mean to imply that Burnett has reinvented himself as a pitched on a whim at age 33. Of course, everything we are talking about in this post comes with a small sample size caveat and could be nothing more than a fuzzy memory when July rolls around. But he seems to be pitching differently and getting positive results and when he finally finds his curveball, he could be even more dangerous. One way or another, he's not going to finish the season with a 2.43 ERA. But it's hard not to be encouraged by what we've seen so far.

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