The playoffs suck. In a way at least. There’s always one team’s fans that end the season ecstatically. But for the rest of baseball fandom, there are those upsetting moments, even before the season is done. Like realizing that your Yankees’ entire season is now on the shoulders of none other than A.J. Burnett.
It’s enough to joke of boycotting the game or sarcastically call the season done. But all is not lost until the final pitch, and moon flowers bloom in the darkest of night. Could A.J. be the Yankee’s moon flower?
Burnett has had a bad season. No season in which you produce a 5.15 ERA in 190+ innings can be considered a good season. August, in particular, was a horror show for Yankee fans. He pitched 22+ innings and gave up 30 earned runs. Batters hit .415 off of him that month. The blogosphere called for his head.
But take a peek at his peripherals and a different season emerges. Burnett arrested a three-year decline in his swinging-strike rate and put up a strikeout rate that looked a lot like his career number (8.18 K/9 this season, 8.22 K/9 career). He walked a few more than he usually did, but coaxed a few more ground balls than he had over his career. Even if he lost a little velocity off his fastball (92.7 MPH this year, down from 93.2 MPH last year and 94.3 MPH career), his curveball regained its excellence (according to pitch-type linear weights).
Mostly, the long ball was the problem. He gave up 31 home runs in 2010, and that was the first time he’d ever given up more than 25 in a season. His 17% home runs per fly ball rate this season was the second-worst number of his career and well off his 11.3% career rate.
Give Burnett a league-average home run rate, and he looks like a decent pitcher. His 3.86 xFIP was in the ballpark with Jered Weaver (3.80 xfIP) and Ryan Vogelsong (3.85 xFIP) this year. Here comes the moon flower.
Well, not quite. Those home runs happened, and they were part of a pattern. Over his career, Burnett has given up more home runs to righties overall (1.08 HR/9 vs RHB, .80 HR/9 vs LHB). He’s also been giving up more home runs to righties as he’s hit his post-peak period. Before 2006, he’d never given up a home run per game to right-handed batters in his career — since, he’s given up more than 1.31 per nine every year save one. This year, he gave up 1.81 home runs per nine against them. And before you give him a little boost for pitching in Comerica, know that statcorner believes the park encourages right-handed home runs by 8% more than the average park.
We can’t just pretend that his fading fastball velocity doesn’t matter, either. Though he pitched better in September than August, his four-seamer hit a wall in the final month. In his final five starts, he averaged 92.1 MPH on the pitch, another half-tick below his seasonal average — which was a half-tick below last year’s number. Pitch-type linear weights had the pitch worse than it’s ever been (31.4 runs below average).
With the season on the line, Joe Girardi will be on the edge of his seat and ready to call for help from the bullpen. It probably makes sense to monitor the gun and see what sort of fastball life Burnett is showing, just as it probably makes sense to be aware of righty slugger Miguel Cabrera’s upcoming place in the order at all times. Phil Hughes, whose stuff has played better in short stints, will be ready to bridge the gap to the bullpen. If Burnett gets through the lineup once with shaky velocity and fly balls to right-handers, it might make sense to pull him early.
It has come to this. One mostly unscathed trip through the Tigers lineup may actually count as a precious bloom from a pitcher whose work has been anything but flowery all year long. That’s the ‘beauty’ of the playoffs.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.