When the Yankees signed A.J. Burnett before the 2009 season, one of the motivating factors was how well he had pitched in the division while a member of the Blue Jays. In particular, Burnett dominated the A.L. East bullies, going a combined 10-3 with a 2.50 ERA in 18 starts against the Yankees and Red Sox.
A.J. Burnett’s Performance Against the Yankees and Red Sox, 2006-2008
According to the blueprint, not only would the Yankees benefit by no longer having to face Burnett several times each season, but they would also get to enjoy his mastery of the rival Red Sox. Unfortunately, that part of the equation hasn’t gone according to plan.
A.J. Burnett’s first game in pinstripes against the Red Sox started out exactly as the Yankees had drawn it up. In the first three innings, the right hander needed only 37 pitches to keep Boston off the board. Meanwhile, the Yankees’ lineup was busy building a 6-0 lead against Josh Beckett, Burnett’s former teammate with the Marlins. Then, all of a sudden, the bottom fell out. Over the next two innings, Burnett relinquished the lead by surrendering eight runs, which was only one fewer than he had allowed to the Red Sox in 27 2/3 innings during 2008.
Since that first disastrous start at Fenway Park, Burnett’s performance against the Red Sox hasn’t been much better. In fact, based on game score, he actually had a couple of games that were worse. In all but two starts, Burnett failed to pitch at least six innings, and in four outings, he surrendered at least eight runs. With an 0-4 record and a whopping 8.70 ERA, it’s clear that hard luck has not been a contributing factor to Burnett’s struggles against Boston.
A.J. Burnett vs. the Boston Red Sox, 2009-Present
|6/9/2009||L 0-7||L||2 2/3||5||5||3||5||1||1||28|
|8/7/2009||W 2-0||ND||7 2/3||1||0||0||6||6||0||77|
|5/9/2010||L 3-9||L||4 1/3||9||9||8||3||4||1||12|
|6/8/2011||L 6-11||L||5 2/3||7||8||7||4||3||1||24|
|Total/Avg GSc||41 1/3||52||47||40||26||33||10||33.9|
What changed for Burnett when he traded in his Blue Jays uniform for pinstripes and road grays? Other than a gradual, but meaningful decline in velocity, there really isn’t much of a difference between how Burnett pitched in Toronto and how he has attacked hitters in New York. Normally, a diminished fastball would be a good explanation for declining results, but in this case, Burnett’s velocity in 2009 was on par with his days as a Blue Jay, so that can’t be the answer.
If Burnett hasn’t changed much, maybe the Red Sox have? With the exception of David Ortiz, there really hasn’t been one constant in the lineup over Burnett’s six years in the division. Then again, in the two periods covering his time with the Blue Jays and Yankees, the Red Sox have posted a near identical wOBA against right handers. So, even though the hitters in the lineup have changed, the Red Sox’ performance against right handers has not.
Before dismissing this theory, it is worth noting that when Burnett was in Toronto, the Red Sox lineup was 13.3 runs below average against the curveball. During his Yankees’ tenure, however, Boston batters have rated 13.8 runs above average against the hook. Considering how much Burnett relies on the curveball, maybe this is the reason the Red Sox have turned the tables on him over the past three seasons? When you add in Burnett’s fastball decline alongside the Red Sox prowess against that pitch, as well as his lack of slider, a pitch that has seemed to give the current Boston team trouble, it could just be that Burnett’s arsenal is no longer a good match for Beantown batters.
AJ Burnett’s Pitch Selection vs. Red Sox’ Pitch Value
|2006||TOR||-4.1||67.0% (94.9)||8.7||28.8% (81.4)||-2.6||4.2% (88.0)|
|2007||TOR||8.2||66.7% (95.1)||13.9||26.3% (82.1)||-1.7||7.1% (88.1)|
|2008||TOR||-5.9||64.7% (94.3)||13||29.2% (81.2)||-0.1||5.0% (86.8)|
|2009||NYY||-14.4||65.9% (94.2)||16||31.0% (82.0)||0.8||3.1% (87.8)|
|2010||NYY||-14.3||69.0% (93.2)||-3.9||27.4% (82.2)||2.2||3.5% (88.4)|
|2011||NYY||-4.8||61.3% (92.5)||4.7||29.4% (81.9)||1||9.3% (88.1)|
Note: “w” represents runs above average for each pitch. Figures in parenthesis represent the average velocities for each pitch.
A third theory that has become increasingly popular maintains that Burnett’s declining results against the Red Sox haven’t resulted from a change in mechanics, pitch selection, or opposition, but rather from something deep inside the enigmatic pitcher’s head. It would be easy to chock up Burnett’s perplexing struggles to a psychological weakness, and maybe that is the case, but such an answer seems more like a copout than a meaningful diagnosis.
Whatever the reason for Burnett’s struggles against the Red Sox, the reversal of fortune has been dramatic. After so many poor starts against their chief rival, it might be time for the Yankees to simply admit this part of the master plan has gone astray and work to avoid having Burnett face Boston in the future. Unfortunately, Burnett is no longer a Red Sox killer, but if Joe Girardi keeps sending him out there against Boston, his status as a Yankee killer will remain.