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Breaking Down A.J. Burnett's Zones

So now A.J. Burnett may really lose his spot in the Yankees rotation. I wanted to see if there was anything he's done this season that may provide hope that he could bounce back. When I broke down the zone location to up, middle and down, I found something pretty interesting.

First, the bad:

2011 A.J. Burnett - Up in the Zone

Basically the middle of the strike zone includes any pitch that hits the middle seven inches of the zone (which is normalized depending on the height of the batter). So anything above the top of that seven inch mark (whether inside or outside the actual strike zone) is designated as 'up'. The same applies for pitches down in the zone which you will see further down in the post.

This season, A.J. ranks in the bottom 21% of the league in opposing batting average (.271) on pitches up (min. 500 pitches thrown in that zone). The league average is .240. His opponent slugging percentage of .474 ranks in the bottom 11% of the league and is nearly 100 points worse than the league average. Sadly, this is actually an improvement over last season when he ranked in the bottom 5 and 3 percent of the league in opponent average (.318) and slugging (.588) respectively.

2011 A.J. Burnett - Middle of the Zone

When throwing over the middle of the zone, Burnett has not only been flat out terrible, he's basically been the worst pitcher in the league. He ranks second to last in opponent batting average (.379), and dead last in opponent slugging percentage (.707), opponent wOBA (.452), and HR/FB (23.3%).

Yet, here's how he's done on pitches down in the zone:

2011 A.J. Burnett - Down in the Zone

As bad as A.J. Burnett has been throwing middle and up, he's been that awesome on pitches down. Batters are hitting just .117 against him in 259 plate appearances decided on a low pitch (1162 total pitches), which is the best in baseball this season. Opponents are also slugging just .157 on low pitches, which also leads the league.

Most of this success on low pitches is probably due to his knuckle curve, which has been by far his best pitch this season (and has accounted for 50.9% of his low pitches). Opponents have a .188 wOBA versus his curve this season compared to a .407 wOBA against all of his other pitches. Burnett obviously can't rely on just one pitch, and we're seeing that quite clearly this season. The decline of his fastball is probably the biggest culprit here, as hitters are putting up a .439 wOBA against it, ranking him in the bottom 1% of the league (Only Edinson Volquez and Kyle Davies have been worse with their fastballs). That number has been increasing every year since PitchFX data began keeping track (2008: .364, 2009: .385, 2010: .403).

His stuff is simply getting worse. Maybe moving him to the bullpen will help him regain something, but is it best for a Yankees pen that has been exceptionally good this year?


Andre Ethier's Power Outage

From 2008-2010, Andre Ethier established himself as one of the better power hitters in the National League. The Dodgers outfielder clubbed an average of about 25 home runs per season, slugging .504 in the process. But as L.A. languishes in 15th place among NL clubs in run scoring this year, Ethier has gone deep just 10 times while slugging .416. The lefty hasn't hit a homer since July 25, a stretch of 88 at-bats.

A major reason for Ethier's power outage is that he's not driving pitches thrown inside and at the knees like he usually does. From '08 to '10, he golfed low-and-inside pitches for extra bases:

Ethier's in-play slugging percentage by pitch location, 2008-2010 Ethier slugged .469 against pitches thrown low and inside over that three-year stretch, besting the .343 league average for lefties by a considerable margin. But in 2011, that hot spot has disappeared:

Ethier's in-play slugging percentage by pitch location, 2011He's slugging a paltry .188 against low-and-inside offerings, without a single homer hit on a pitch thrown in that location.  

The Dodgers have a difficult decision to make with Ethier after this season. The 29-year-old is pulling down $9.25 million this year, and he's got one year of arbitration eligibility remaining before he hits free agency after 2012. Even with a tepid season so far, Ethier will easily make eight figures in 2012 should he go to arbitration.

If the Dodgers think his power will recover, then Ethier is likely worth the cash. If not, the cash-strapped club might choose to let someone else pay for a lumbering corner outfielder with mid-range pop.


C.J. Wilson Cutting Path to Big Payday

Plenty of former starters transition to the bullpen and find success firing in shorter stints. Last year,  C.J. Wilson made the much more difficult move from the 'pen to the rotation look easy, topping 200 innings pitched while helping the Rangers reach the World Series.

Wilson has performed even better during his free agent walk year in 2011. His strikeout rate is up, his walks are down, and he has shaved a half-run off his fielding independent ERA:

2010: 7.5 K/9, 4.1 BB/9, 3.56 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)

2011: 8.1 K/9, 3.03 BB/9, 3.06 FIP

The 30-year-old lefty's improvement, coupled with the paucity of other top-level starters on the market, has MLBTradeRumors' Tim Dierkes predicting that Wilson could land a $100 million contract this winter. Teams interested in adding Wilson can take heart in the fact that he has done a better job of keeping right-handed batters off base in 2011, thanks to the effectiveness of his cutter and his slider.

In 2010, Wilson allowed righties to reach base at a .333 clip that was above the .325 league average for left-handed pitchers versus righty batters. This year, Wilson is holding opposite-handed hitters to a .292 OBP (.328 league average).

As you might expect, Wilson is issuing fewer walks versus righties (under eight percent in 2011, compared to nearly 12 percent last year). But, rather than throwing many more pitches over the plate, he has cut his rate of free passes issued to righties by getting batters to chase more of his high-80s cutters and sliders out of the strike zone.

Take a look at right-handers' swing rate by pitch location against Wilson's cutters and sliders in 2010, compared to 2011:

Right-handed hitters' swing rate by pitch location vs. Wilson's cutters and sliders, 2010Right-handed hitters' swing rate by pitch location vs. Wilson's cutters and sliders, 2011Righties chased about 28 percent of Wilson's cutters/sliders last year, well below the 37 percent league average for right-handers versus lefty pitching. This season, though, Wilson is getting righties to go after 38 percent of his cutters and sliders.  

Wilson already owns same-handed hitters (.287 OBP against from 2010-2011). Should he maintain most of his gains against righties, he might just be worth a nine-figure investment.