Monday, August 3, 2015

Yes, A.J. Burnett is Broken

Well, that may be my stupidest post of the year.

A week ago today, I asked whether A.J. Burnett was broken, as he'd given up as many earned runs in July as he had in any two prior months combined. My brilliant conclusion: 
Burnett's been throwing pretty much the same pitches, at the same velocities, to the same spots of late. However, he's facing tougher opponents than he did earlier in the year, and when batters make contact, they've been hitting the ball harder than in the past. There is also a fair amount of evidence that Burnett's been just unlucky of late, suggesting that he could rebound from his July performance.
So naturally, in his next start, three days later, he didn't make it out of the fifth inning, giving up ten hits and two walks in four and a third innings, charged with eight runs, seven of them earned. The next day, he was put on the disabled list with elbow inflammation. Today we learned that he has a strained flexor tendon, i.e. NOT the torn ulnar collateral ligament that necessitates Tommy John surgery, but still a serious injury, particularly for a guy who's 38. Burnett says that he's not going to go through surgery again, and if he can't come back this year, this is the end of the line for him.

Two thoughts. First, how did I manage to so thoroughly screw up my analysis? Well, as I noted, one of the markers for a physical problem is decreased velocity, and Burnett didn't show that...until his last start. Here's a graph showing his average velocity, by pitch type, for each of his starts in July, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:
Just focus on the solid lines. The velocities for his four-seam (straight) fastball (black line), sinking fastball (gray line), and curve ball (orange line) looked pretty consistent until the two fastballs fell off the table in his last start. He said that his elbow had been bothering him for a while, but also that he, like many pitchers, has dealt with elbow discomfort on and off throughout his career. Something clearly went south in that last start, and I had the misfortune of writing about Burnett shortly before.

Second, if this is the end of the road for Burnett, he'll retire with a 163-155 won-lost record and a 3.99 career ERA over 425 starts, during which he struck out 8.3 batters per nine innings and allowed 0.9 home runs per nine innings. Here is a list of pitchers with 400 or more starts with eight or more strikeouts per nine innings and one or fewer home runs per nine innings, ordered by career ERA:

Rk Player ERA GS SO/9 HR/9 W L W-L% IP H R ER BB SO ERA+
1 Pedro Martinez 2.93 409 10.04 0.76 219 100 .687 2827.1 2221 1006 919 760 3154 154
2 Roger Clemens 3.12 707 8.55 0.66 354 184 .658 4916.2 4185 1885 1707 1580 4672 143
3 Nolan Ryan 3.19 773 9.55 0.54 324 292 .526 5386.0 3923 2178 1911 2795 5714 112
4 Randy Johnson 3.29 603 10.61 0.89 303 166 .646 4135.1 3346 1703 1513 1497 4875 135
5 Curt Schilling 3.46 436 8.60 0.96 216 146 .597 3261.0 2998 1318 1253 711 3116 127
6 David Cone 3.46 419 8.28 0.80 194 126 .606 2898.2 2504 1222 1115 1137 2668 121
7 A.J. Burnett 3.99 425 8.27 0.86 163 155 .513 2702.2 2490 1315 1198 1087 2484 103
Generated 8/3/2015.

Not a bad peer group. That's three current Hall of Famers, and at least two others who have the credentials, in my opinion. No, I'm not suggesting Burnett's as good as the other six; that 103 ERA+ means that his ERA over his career was only 3% better than league average, adjusted for home park, while all the others were a good deal better. But he's been a steady, durable above-average performer who had three of his best years while wearing a Pirates uniform.

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