Facing elimination in Detroit tonight, Yankees manager Joe Girardi reluctantly hands the ball to A.J. Burnett. The much-maligned Burnett wasn't supposed to make a start in this series, but a Game One rainstorm that eliminated an off-day after Game Two foiled those plans. Now, the fate of the Yankees' season may rest on whether the right-hander can avoid getting taken deep on his fastball.
During the regular season, Burnett had a huge discrepancy between his ERA (5.15) and his xFIP (3.86), which estimates a pitcher's ERA based on strikeouts, walks and a regressed home run per fly ball rate. He struck out plenty of hitters (8.2 per nine innings pitched) and showed so-so control (3.9 BB/9), but he coughed up 1.5 homers per nine innings pitched. There's some degree of bad luck involved when a guy surrenders a big fly 17 percent of the time that batters hit a fly ball -- Burnett's career HR/FB% is 11.3 -- but badly-placed fastballs are big concern.
Opponents have swatted 23 home runs on Burnett fastballs this season, and have a .593 slugging percentage against the pitch that is 161 points above the league average. Among starters, only Ross Ohlendorf, Armando Galarraga, Brian Matusz, Kyle Davies, Edinson Volquez, Esmil Rogers and Barry Zito saw their fastballs get scorched more often. Many of Burnett's fastballs have been thrown at or above the belt:
Nearly 70 percent of Burnett's fastballs have been thrown to the middle or high portion of the zone (distributed about equally), and 21 of his fastball home runs given up have come in those locations. Belt-high fastballs are a no-no for most every pitcher, but Burnett isn't fooling hitters when he challenges them up in the zone. His miss rate with high fastballs is just 12 percent, compared to the 21 percent league average. Unless Burnett pounds hitters are the knees, he gets hammered:
Opponent slugging percentage vs. Burnett's fastball by pitch location
High: .617 (.380 league average)
Middle: .670 (.472 league average)
Low: .380 (.407 league average)
Odds are, Burnett (and his fastball) isn't as bad as his ERA suggests. But don't expect Girardi to stick with him in a jam tonight. Girardi told reporters, "I could have a very short leash (on him)." Given New York's strong back of the bullpen and Burnett's propensity to tire -- his OPS the first time through the order is two percent better than the league average, but it's 20 percent worse the second time and 42 percent worse the third time through -- it's the right call. Before then, Girardi and the Yankees will have to hope that Burnett can keep the ball down in spacious Comerica Park.