AJ Burnett went into Thursday's start against the Boston Red Sox as the odd man out in the New York Yankees starting rotation. After changing his mechanics three days ago and holding baseball's best offense to two runs in 5.1 innings yesterday, Burnett has bought himself time in September to prove that he can contribute in the playoffs.
Burnett mentioned to the media that he changed his delivery by eliminating the twist, and by simplifying the motion he can focus more on the location of each pitch. However, the new delivery has lowered Burnett's release point.
Looking at the PITCH/FX data from last night's start, Burnett's delivery is noticeably different from his start against the Orioles last Friday. In fact, his new delivery has given him the same release point that he had during Game 2 of the 2009 World Series, which is considered Burnett's best start as a Yankee.
The change in release point allowed him to keep his fastball down against the Red Sox on Thursday, and the few mistakes he left up were the ones that cost him runs. It is only one start, but this delivery seems to allow Burnett to miss down in the strike zone more instead of having his pitches run down the middle or up and away.
There have been many explanations this season for Burnett's troubles, and what needs to be done to lead Burnett to success. Burnett has implemented his changeup more this season, with a career-high 10.6 percent use rate. Additionally, Burnett's average fastball has decreased to a career low 92.7 mph, but he has demonstrated better velocity over his last three starts. In his start against the Phillies in the 2009 World Series, Burnett averaged 93.5 mph with his fastball. He averaged 93.4 mph with the pitch last night.
The key to Burnett's success has always been his fastball location. When he gets ahead of hitters, he can get opposing batters to swing at his curveball out of the strike zone. His location this year has lead to a poor 15.5 percent home-run/fly-ball ratio, and while 2011 has been a failure, Burnett has improved in some aspects. His 48.1 percent ground ball rate and 9.2 swinging strike percentage are his best since joining the Yankees.
Like last season, Burnett has been the victim of a below average strand rate (68.2 percent). His xFIP of 4.02 suggests that he should have fared better this season, and I maintain that Burnett can have a strong September if he can keep his home run rate down. His 1.44 WHIP this season is comparable to his 1.40 WHIP in 2009.
Joe Girardi hasn't announced his rotation past this weekend, but my guess is he will stick with the six-man approach. Bartolo Colon could use the rest, CC Sabathia could use an extra day of rest after his 128-pitch performance on Tuesday, and Phil Hughes needs to build up more innings. Furthermore, Burnett needs more innings to test out his new delivery. Time is of the essence for Burnett, but for another week he seems to have held on.