Will Good or Bad A.J. Burnett Show Up Under Intense NLDS Pressure?
Now that the Pittsburgh Pirates have exorcised their playoff demons by picking apart the Cincinnati Reds in the Wild Card Game, the focus shifts to the National League Division Series against St. Louis.
To be even more specific, the focus shifts to Thursday's Game 1 starter A.J. Burnett, who is no stranger to the postseason and the vast twists that come along with it.
When the Pirates acquired Burnett from New York two years ago, it was basically laughed off as a nothing move for a franchise that was going nowhere fast.
I wrote just before the deal was made that I thought Burnett would be a perfect fit for the Pirates because there wasn't nearly as much scrutiny or attention from the Pittsburgh media and the differences between a lineup in the AL and NL would help him.
There have been a lot of good things that the hard-throwing righty has done in his two-year stint with the Pirates, but should we expect to see the "bad" Burnett with the pressure and intensity amplified?
If we are just going off postseason numbers, the easy answer to that question would be absolutely not.
Burnett earned a lot of goodwill from Yankees fans for his performance in Game 2 of the 2009 World Series against Philadelphia when he went seven innings and gave up one run with nine strikeouts, yet it often gets overlooked that he started Game 5 and went just two innings, giving up six runs with four hits and four walks.
That is a small snapshot of the good and bad Burnett offers, so here is a complete look at Burnett's postseason stats up to this point.
Those numbers are not pretty, though they aren't exactly surprising if you have followed Burnett's career. We are talking about a pitcher who threw a no-hitter in 2001 with nine walks and seven strikeouts.
However, just looking at those numbers isn't totally beneficial because players change from season to season and we are looking at an incredibly small sample size of which it would be wrong to form a complete opinion.
That's not to say Burnett hasn't been, for the most part, bad in the playoffs—he certainly has been. But should we always expect him to do this because he did it in seven games with the Yankees?
No. Pitchers grow and evolve over time. The things Burnett was doing in 2009 won't necessarily be a factor today because his fastball velocity is down nearly two miles per hour and he's throwing his off-speed stuff 7 percent more now than he did back then (h/t Fangraphs).
These changes force us to look at things more closely associated with the present-day Burnett, so we should point to the team he will be facing in the postseason (St. Louis) and what the 2013 season tells us.
First, here are Burnett's 2013 numbers against the Cardinals:
Burnett made more starts against the Cardinals in 2013 than any other team, which can be both good and bad. He has had a lot of success against them, but the more looks a team gets at a pitcher, the more comfortable they will be in the box.
Those six starts have been split equally (three at home, three on the road), and in typical Burnett fashion, the best of the six starts was immediately followed by the worst.
On August 31, Burnett threw seven innings of one-run ball with four hits, six strikeouts and one walk on 92 pitches. September 6 was one of his worst starts of the year with three innings, six hits, five runs (all earned), one walk and four strikeouts.
If you believe momentum is a thing in baseball, good luck trying to figure out whether Burnett or the Cardinals have the upper hand after looking at those two stat lines.
Yet that seems to be the story of Burnett's career. He's always going to be inconsistent because his control is erratic and his curveball has so much snap that it can be difficult for the catcher to keep in front of him.
If we want to look at current history heading into the postseason, let's look at how Burnett finished the 2013 season. He made five September starts, including the one against St. Louis, with this stat line:
The 4.35 ERA was Burnett's worst for a single month this season in which he made more than two starts, but his 3.70 strikeout-to-walk ratio was his second-best this season after a 4.00 rate in August.
Burnett's OPS against has gone down the last three months, from .878 in June to .661 in July to .660 in August to .642 in September.
Lest you worry that Burnett was doing this against inferior competition, four of his five September starts came against St. Louis, Texas and Cincinnati (twice).
Despite his run of success against the Cardinals in the regular season, that lineup might be the worst matchup for him in the playoffs.
We might think of the Cardinals as being a powerful lineup because they were, by far, the top run-scoring team in the NL. They scored 783 runs, third in all of baseball and 77 more than Colorado, but ranked just 27th with 25 home runs.
How do the Cardinals do it? With a deep, balanced lineup that hits a ton of doubles (322, most in NL) and doesn't strike out (1,110, second fewest in NL). They don't walk a lot, but that contact-oriented approach allows them to get away with an aggressive style.
Burnett is a pitcher who will never have pinpoint control, making him vulnerable against a team that can capitalize on those mistakes. His stuff is so good, at least when he's right, that he can get away with things that 98 percent of pitchers can't.
Does this mean Burnett will be in peak form or revert back to the end of those Yankee days in this year's postseason?
We know Burnett is guaranteed one start in the NLDS, with the possibility for one more if the series gets extended to five games.
Who is the most important player for the Pirates in the NLDS?
That might be the worst possible scenario for the Pirates. Burnett is a different pitcher at PNC Park than he is anywhere else. He had a 2.37 ERA with 69 hits allowed and 113-32 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 95 innings at home, compared to 4.22 ERA with 96 hits allowed and 96-35 strikeout-to-walk ratio on the road.
Burnett allowed 15 extra-base hits in Pittsburgh and 34 on the road. He's a pitcher who needs to feel comfortable in order to succeed, which isn't going to happen in one (or two) games at St. Louis.
We praise the Cardinals fans for being the nicest in baseball, but that only goes so far when you are talking about the postseason and a chance to win another World Series. They aren't going to cheer Burnett walking to the mound.
Speaking selfishly because he's fun to watch in peak form, I want Burnett to succeed in the postseason. You want to see two teams, especially when they know each other as well as the Pirates and Cardinals do, go head to head at the top of their games.
But even with his vast improvement as a member of the Pirates, a strong performance against the Cardinals during the regular season and an excellent finish to the year, Burnett is a hard pitcher to trust in this spot.
We won't get Burnett circa 2011 postseason against the Cardinals, but if you were being honest with yourself, the smart money would be closer to the "bad Burnett than the "good" version.
Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted. If you want to talk baseball, feel free to hit me up on Twitter with questions or comments.
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