(It's the dreaded return of A.J. Two-Face)
After the additions of Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda, it seemed like a forgone conclusion that A.J. Burnett's days as a starting pitcher for the New York Yankees were over. It had already been reported that Cash shopped him around at the Winter Meetings while offering to eat $8 million of his remaining contract, and that was before the Yankees were flush with the rotation depth that they now have. Once Pineda and Kuroda were in the fold, it seemed obvious that Ninja Cash already had the next move lined up to rid himself of one of his biggest mistakes. And yet, we found ourselves still talking about A.J. Burnett as a current member of the Yankees, which leaves the frightening door of opportunity open for him to somehow be the 5th starter in 2012. It is a door that many of us do not want to see A.J. walk through, but we may have no choice if Cash can't find a deal to move A.J. that works for him and the team. That being the case, we might as well prepare ourselves for what A.J. has to offer, which, given his performance up to this date, won't be much. While most of A.J.'s 2011 stats could be used to create optimism for a better 2012, there are some trends within the numbers that make me think 2012 and beyond will be more of the same.
The biggest problem with A.J. is that his value is derived almost entirely from the quantity of innings he has pitched, not the quality of the innings (save for Game 2 of the '09 World Series). Innings eaters are a valuable asset to have in the rotation, but for $82 million most people would expect better than the back end production A.J. has put up in those innings, and justifiably so. His 5.26/4.83 ERA/FIP split in 2010 didn't pass the eye or the smell test, and neither did 2011's 5.14/4.77 follow up. A.J. has been consistently erratic and inconsistently effective, marred by bouts of problems with his mechanics, inability to repeat his delivery, and little or no command of either of his two pitches. He has tried to combat this with the attempt to develop a changeup, but mid-30s is hardly the right time for a pitcher with command problems to attempt to master a new pitch.
In order to be a successful two-pitch starter, a pitcher better have a damn good fastball, and for the early part of A.J.'s career he has. But over the last handful of years A.J. has seen his fastball velocity steadily decrease, from 95.9 MPH in 2007 with Toronto (the earliest year PITCHf/x tracked it on FanGraphs) to 94.4 in '09, 93.1 in 2010, and 92.7 this past season. As the velocity has decreased, the value of A.J.'s fastball has plummeted with it, both by standard pitch value measures (-14.1 in '09, -16.2 in '10, -34.0 in '11) and as measured by PITCHf/x (-12.4, -10.1, -28.1). It's also no secret that the majority of A.J.'s fastballs tend to be located in the middle to upper part of the strike zone (see heat map below for an example), which is not a good place to live when you're losing your heat on the pitch. Even when paired with a curve that was surprisingly above average in 2011 (8.9 rating standard/10.7 PITCHf/x), a low-90s fastball with little movement that consistently hits the heart of the plate is going to do more harm than good for a two-pitch pitcher, and it certainly hasn't done A.J. any favors.
(Courtesy of FanGraphs)
When a pitcher's throwing a flat fastball with decreasing velocity down the meaty portion of the plate, the expected result would be a lot of contact. Surprisingly enough, this actually wasn't the case for A.J. in 2011, as his contact rate dropped from 81.6% in 2010 to 76.5% in 2011. His in-zone and out-of zone contact rates, 54.3% and 90.4% respectively, also decreased from their rates of 2010. An explanation could be that hitters were laying off more of A.J.'s offerings that they didn't like, especially his curveball when he couldn't locate it, but his 2011 swing rates don't support that theory. In direct contrast to his contact rates, A.J. generated more swings (43.8%) and more out-of-zone swings (30.3%) than he did in 2010, and his Swinging Strike rate of 10.0% was a high for him as a Yankee.
These trends last season certainly help to explain A.J.'s elevated K/9 total (8.18), but they should also lead to a better ERA and FIP result. A pitcher generating more swings, more swings and misses, less contact, and striking out more batters while walking fewer than he did the year before should result in much more than the marginal improvements in ERA and FIP that A.J. experienced in 2011. The answer for why that didn't happen lies in the contact A.J. is generating, specifically the quality of contact, and the insight that leads into what might be happening when batters face A.J.