Making Sense of A.J. Burnett's Resurgence

Burnett is strong again to finish off sweep of A's

By Josh Alper
|  Thursday, Jun 2, 2011  |  Updated 9:28 AM EDT
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Making Sense of A.J. Burnett's Resurgence

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This is the A.J. Burnett we've been looking for.

The two players who had the most to do with the Yankees 4-2 win in Oakland Wednesday have had very different seasons to this point.

A.J. Burnett pitched seven effective innings with only a Josh Willingham homer acting as a serious blemish in his sixth win of the season. Burnett struck out five, walked three and allowed three hits in a very typical looking line for him as he continues to wash away the taste of 2010.

Nick Swisher hit a three-run home run in the fourth inning to give Burnett all the runs he'd need to pick up the win. Swisher has been awful this season, a big disappointment after his excellent 2010 season, but his bat has shown some signs of life during the first six games of the road trip.

You'll note that Burnett and Swisher's results this season have been mirror images of what they did during the 2010 season. While that makes for a nifty script for a movie comedy -- "Like Father, Like Son" meets "Bull Durham" -- the really interesting part of it is that neither player is really playing all that differently than they did last year.

We've discussed Swisher in the past, but it bears repeating that there's nothing in his statistical line that would explain why he's been so bad this season. His strong play on the trip might be a blip or it might be a change in fortunes, but it isn't surprising.

The same can't be said for Burnett.

Because Burnett is winning and because he is avoiding the big innings that crushed him in 2010, there hasn't been all that much attention paid to the numbers behind his performances. Those numbers could give you some pause about rushing out to buy too many Burnett futures.

His strikeout and walk rates are nearly identical to last year, batters are hitting the same kinds of balls off of him and his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, i.e. the stuff Burnett controls all by himself) is in the same neighborhood. Despite those similarities, there are two big differences that jump out.

One is that the batting average on balls in play against Burnett is just .215, down from .279 last year. Burnett has always had low BABIPs, his career number is .237, but given all of the other peripheral numbers it is hard to believe it will remain that low going forward unless the other difference is the explanation.

Burnett is throwing a lot more offspeed pitches this season than he has in the past and he's experienced a lot of success with them. We'll see if that's something hitters will adjust to thanks to video, but, judging from the amount of swings Burnett is generating on pitches outside the strike zone, it is clearly the thing keeping Burnett from repeating last year's mistakes.

The numbers leave you with, at best, a mixed bag when it comes to Burnett. Numbers can't tell us everything, though.

Watching Burnett this season has left a more pronounced feeling of something being different from 2010. There are now prolonged meltdowns and no innings that go from zero to nightmare in the span of three batters.

On Wednesday, Burnett followed Willingham's homer by walking three of the next seven batters. None of those walks led to the frustrated, angry Burnett and, as a result, none of them wound up resulting in anything more harmful than a stolen base.

Kevin Long has gotten a lot of kudos for Curtis Granderson's newfound power, but Larry Rothschild deserves some credit for getting Burnett to try different things and approach his job with more balance. The results have been excellent thus far for a pitcher the Yankees desperately need to make a World Series run.

Josh Alper is a writer living in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter and he is also a contributor to Pro Football Talk.

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