A.J. Burnett and the Baseball Media's Misguided Optimism
One of the worst things baseball analysts so consistently do is blur the line between correlation and causation.
The Yankees went nine years without a championship? Blame Alex Rodriguez. The Angels and Cardinals both win the World Series? Must be because of David Eckstein. Some pitchers get better backing offenses than others? It's because pitchers "earn their run support."
In spring training, the combination of a clean slate and this massive confusion about what makes teams successful leads to a seemingly endless series of season-preview articles full of misguided optimism.
For example, when I opened up the Providence Journal on Tuesday, I was greeted by an article about New York Yankees starter A.J. Burnett, who earned $16.5 million in 2010 while going 10-15 with a 5.26 ERA.
Was it an analytical assessment of the mechanical problems that caused Burnett to slump last season, with details about how he was trying to improve? Well, look at the headline and you tell me:
YANKEES' BURNETT SHOWING SIGNS HE'S GOT HIS MIND RIGHT
In addition to asserting that Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Roy Oswalt had thrown 262.2 innings during Monday's nine-inning exhibition game, the author completely forgets to mention any of Burnett's problems with the physical act of pitching. Instead, the problem was all in his head:
"A.J. Burnett says he is pitching with a clear head. Through two spring training starts, it appears to be working for him. (...)
The 34-year-old right-hander is coming off a rough season, on and off the field. He cut both hands smacking a clubhouse door out of frustration and came to work one day with a black eye, refusing to say anything other than it wasn’t baseball-related."
Now, I understand that Burnett had a rough go of it last season, and it was probably incredibly frustrating for him. He obviously had a lot on his mind, and even if injuring oneself by attacking the clubhouse isn't unprecedented for Yankees pitchers (see "Brown, Kevin"), I in no way wish to minimize his inner angst.
But is it really a worthwhile endeavor to have this discussion without even mentioning the numbers that explain an actual on-field reason for his struggles?
Burnett's best weapon has always been his curveball. According to FanGraphs' pitch valuations, his curve was worth 71.8 runs above average from 2005-9—the best in baseball.
In 2010, something simply went wrong with his Uncle Charlie; his best pitch dropped in value by nearly 20 runs—two full wins' worth—from 16.0 in 2009 to -3.9 last season. That's a huge difference.
As a result, Burnett simply wasn't fooling opposing hitters. His swinging-strike percentage dropped to 7.9 percent (his lowest since tracking began in 2002). For the first time in seven years, he missed the strike zone more than he hit it (45.3-percent Zone percentage), and batters made contact with his outside-the-zone pitches nearly two-thirds (63.7 percent) of the time they swung,
As a result, his strikeout rate dipped below 7.0 K/9 for the first time since 2001—down from 8.5 K/9 in 2009, and 9.6 K/9 in 2007. There's your problem.
Burnett's BABIP also rose—his .319 mark was the highest of his career—but given his ineffective curveball, part of the spike could be due to hitters simply getting better contact off of him.
However, the author of this piece isn't worried about that. Why, you ask?
“My mind is clear,” Burnett said. “I’m not thinking about this and that.”
There you have it, folks. An optimistic attitude has cured all of Burnett's ills.
The writer then cites his five innings of spring training work as evidence of Burnett's improvement. On the surface, his outings seem impressive—he's held opposing hitters to no runs and two hits in his two short outings—but the caveats here go beyond the basic warnings about small sample sizes and exhibition games.
In his five innings of work, Burnett has only two strikeouts—good for a 3.6 K/9 rate. Again, don't read too much into two outings in games that don't count, but that's not a very encouraging start for a guy who struggled to get whiffs last year.
Moreover, Burnett has been the beneficiary of a .143 BABIP. Talk to me about his 0.00 ERA once his hit rate regresses to above the Mendoza line.
But hey! It's OK, because his mind is clear.
I don't mean this as a criticism that applies only to Burnett or this article—it was just one example. My criticisms would apply for just about every feature story written this spring about an enthusiastic rookie or a kindly veteran looking to make a good impression on the team in the preseason.
If sabermetricians can be repeatedly accused of forgetting that the game is played on a field instead of on a computer, why is it acceptable for writers like this to completely ignore the physical aspect of the game?
It takes more than a good attitude to be a successful player, and a surplus confidence does not make up for a lack of talent. Of course, there is a league where having fun is the only thing that matters—it's called T-ball.
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