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Entries in A.J. Burnett (15)


Bucs, Cards Thrive Low in the Zone

The Pirates and Cardinals will square off in the National League Division Series, thanks in large part to pitching staffs boasting top-five ERAs during the regular season. Pittsburgh and St. Louis are mirror images on the mound, and that comparison extends beyond possessing a vets with wicked curveballs (Game 1 starters A.J. Burnett and Adam Wainwright), hot-shot rookies (Gerrit Cole, Shelby Miller, and Michael Wacha, among others) and where-did-he-come-from closers once again facing doubters (Jason Grilli and Edward Mujica). These clubs are equipped for deep October runs because their pitchers pound hitters at the knees, generate grounders and keep the ball in the park at historic levels. It doesn't hurt that their backstops skillfully steal strikes on borderline pitches, either.

Waging a Ground War

Collectively, the Pirates have thrown an MLB-high 47.6 percent of their pitches to the lower third of the strike zone. The Cardinals also live low in the zone, locating there at the eighth-highest clip (43.3 percent) in the majors. Pittsburgh and St. Louis' "keep it low" philosophy has produced ground balls by the bushel -- the Pirates have the highest single-season team ground ball rate (52.5 percent) in the majors over the past decade, while the Cardinals (48.5 percent) come in eighth.

Charlie Morton (64.6 percent) is the game's top worm-burner among starting pitchers, with Burnett (58.2 percent)  also ranking in the top 10. Francisco Liriano (52.4 percent), Joe Kelly (51.5 percent), Cole (51 percent) and Wainwright (50.1 percent) are among the grounder-centric starters who figure to make a difference in this series (sorry, Jeff Locke and Jake Westbrook).

Seth Maness (70.7 percent) is the most difficult reliever to loft this side of Brad Ziegler, and lefty hit man Randy Choate (68.4 percent) isn't far behind. Mark Melancon (62.2 percent), Carlos Martinez (56.5 percent) and Justin Wilson (53.5 percent) could also alter a game with a late-inning double play.

The Pirates complement their scorched-earth policy by frequently shifting their infielders, a strategy that has paid off in the form of the fifth-lowest opponent average on ground balls hit (.230) in 2013. The Cardinals (.248) are right around the MLB average (.248). 

Historic Homer Prevention

By waging a ground war, the Pirates (0.62 home runs allowed per nine innings) and Cardinals (0.69 HR/9) have surrendered the fewest homers among all MLB clubs. Once you adjust for year-to-year variations in league wide home run levels, the '13 Bucs and Cards are both enjoying one of the ten best homer prevention seasons in club history during the Live Ball Era (1920-present).

This year's Bucs team ranks fourth in franchise history during the Live Ball Era in HR+, or a team's home run rate as a percentage of the National League average during that season. They have surrendered 30 percent fewer homers than the NL average.

Lowest HR+ for Bucs during Live-Ball Era

St. Louis, meanwhile, has given up 22 percent fewer big flies than the NL average this year. That's tied for ninth-best in franchise history during the Live Ball Era.

Lowest HR+ for Cardinals during Live-Ball Era

Stealing Strikes

Aside from inducing ground balls and preventing home runs, there's another added benefit for Pirates and Cardinals pitchers who keep the ball down -- their catchers do a great job of framing low pitches. Yadier Molina and Russell Martin both get more called strikes on low pitches thrown in the strike zone (In-Zone ClStr%) than most catchers, with Molina ranking third among all backstops receiving at least 2,000 pitches and Martin ranking sixth. Molina also gets an above-average number of calls on low pitches that are located off the plate (Out-Zone ClStr%), placing sixth in the majors. Martin is around league average in that regard.

Molina and Martin's called strike rates on low pitches, 2013

With their pitchers getting so many grounders and Martin influencing calls on stuff located at the knees, the Pirates have limited batters to an MLB-low .248 slugging percentage on low pitches this season. The Cardinals' combo of ground ball pitchers and a strike-stealing catcher in Molina has yielded a .308 opponent slugging percentage on low stuff, tied for eighth-lowest in the game. Every pitching coach stresses the need to pound hitters are the knees. But the Bucs or Cards could just ride that platitude to postseason glory.


Breaking Bad

Sorry folks, this is not about Walter White, but it's a story about pitchers who throw the hook, the bender, Uncle Charlie, a yakker, the deuce, yes, my friends...the curve ball.

This is baseball's "Breaking Bad."

2013 top 10 curveball throwers

There has been nobody who has used the curveball more frequently this season, and most often quite successfully, than A.J. Burnett.
Most curves - 2013
A. J. Burnett (PIT)1,02729294
Adam Wainwright (STL)95033263
Jose Fernandez (MIA)87628268
Scott Feldman (BAL)80429187
Edinson Volquez (LAD)70932160
Gio Gonzalez (WSH)68331155
Doug Fister (DET)64831164
Stephen Strasburg (WSH)62929157
Jose Quintana (CWS)62532144
Yovani Gallardo (MIL)62330134

Curveballs swings and misses

Here's why I think we haven't seen the best from the Rangers' Yu Darvish.

Darvish leads the majors in strikeouts, but wait until he feels comfortable calling on his Uncle Charlie a little more frequently.

You can see by the chart below, baseball's most effective curveball miss machine belongs to Yu.
2013 - Curveball Swings & Misses
Yu Darvish (TEX)9632.3%51.6%22.6%
Madison Bumgarner (SF)42639.9%42.4%24.1%
A. J. Burnett (PIT)1,02751.2%42.0%28.9%
Doug Fister (DET)64841.7%41.5%24.8%
Stephen Strasburg (WSH)62936.2%40.4%28.5%
Clayton Kershaw (LAD)41344.6%39.7%25.0%
Mike Minor (ATL)41650.2%37.3%27.8%
Jordan Zimmermann (WSH)36328.7%36.5%25.0%
Edwin Jackson (CHC)13240.2%35.8%28.3%
Cliff Lee (PHI)24145.2%35.8%32.1%

Fooling batters

There are two primary ways in which I evaluate a batter being fooled on a pitch: the first being chasing pitches out of the zone, and the second, taking the pitch for a called strike.

Now before you start emailing how ridiculous that is, I understand that circumstances, umpires, counts, and other reasons factor into a batter chasing a pitch or taking a pitch, but over the course of the season, if a pitcher is tossing balls that batters chase, have their knees buckled as they break over the plate, or just get a piece of to stay alive, the man is throwing a good curveball.

Here are the leaders:
2013 - Chase, Called Strikes and Fouled off Curveballs
A. J. Burnett (PIT)1,02742.1%29.1%28.9%
Mike Minor (ATL)41639.6%24.2%27.8%
Jose Fernandez (MIA)87637.5%41.6%35.8%
Wade Miley (ARI)8137.0%16.7%43.6%
Derek Holland (TEX)15136.4%39.8%31.7%
Mark Buehrle (TOR)23436.1%25.2%34.1%
Adam Wainwright (STL)95035.2%38.3%31.2%
Matt Harvey (NYM)35133.1%45.7%31.6%
A. J. Griffin (OAK)49732.8%31.0%33.6%
Mike Leake (CIN)42330.7%40.7%27.3%


Great pitchers know how and when to use their curveball effectively. The best example comes from baseball's best pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, who strikes out more batters on the curve than any other pitcher.

When you look at the chart below, look at all the elements we have previously addressed, including miss rate, chase rate, foul balls
2013 Curveball Strikeout Leaders
Clayton Kershaw (LAD)41314153.9%56.4%21.4%44.6%39.7%41.6%28.6%25.0%
Dan Haren (WSH)1291952.6%54.3%37.2%27.1%34.3%41.1%17.1%40.0%
Stephen Strasburg (WSH)62915752.2%64.2%43.9%36.2%40.4%50.7%29.0%28.5%
Wade Miley (ARI)812050.0%56.8%16.7%48.1%30.8%33.3%37.0%43.6%
Cliff Lee (PHI)2416947.8%58.5%24.2%45.2%35.8%46.5%26.4%32.1%
Madison Bumgarner (SF)42611346.0%53.5%22.7%39.9%42.4%33.3%29.9%24.1%
Gio Gonzalez (WSH)68315545.8%51.8%25.9%35.0%35.1%38.1%24.1%32.2%
Cole Hamels (PHI)2386344.4%53.8%21.4%41.2%34.7%37.4%27.5%34.7%
Jose Fernandez (MIA)87626843.7%69.9%41.6%48.4%33.0%55.6%37.5%35.8%
A. J. Burnett (PIT)1,02729443.5%65.4%29.1%51.2%42.0%39.9%42.1%28.9%

Hitting against the curve

Don't focus on Jerome Williams here, I want you to notice that batters are 14 (singles) in 141 PA against Clayton Kershaw's curve this season. Kershaw is the Sophia Vergara of baseball, his curves are so good.
Here are the numbers:
2013 - Hitting Against the Curveball
Jerome Williams (LAA)3238.
Clayton Kershaw (LAD)32141.
Gio Gonzalez (WSH)31155.
Jose Fernandez (MIA)28268.
Stephen Strasburg (WSH)29157.
Mat Latos (CIN)3169.
Dillon Gee (NYM)3165.
Madison Bumgarner (SF)31113.
Ian Kennedy (SD)3074.
A. J. Burnett (PIT)29294.

There's breaking bad and breaking bad

2013 - 13 Pitchers w/.300+ BA Against the Curve
Travis Wood (CHC)187.667.7141.0001.714420
Jarrod Parker (OAK)72.500.500.5001.000100
CC Sabathia (NYY)3213.385.385.6921.077521
Edwin Jackson (CHC)2223.381.435.524.959820
Kyle Lohse (MIL)3150.362.375.511.8861751
Derek Holland (TEX)3032.355.344.9031.2471175
Andy Pettitte (NYY)2952.333.333.417.7501640
Eric Stults (SD)3288.329.341.506.8472892
Jeremy Guthrie (KC)3159.322.322.508.8311953
Joe Saunders (SEA)3252.320.333.600.9331664
Miguel Gonzalez (BAL)2831.310.323.448.771940
Bronson Arroyo (CIN)3170.309.329.574.9022194
Hyun-Jin Ryu (LAD)2872.300.319.471.7912182

One final suggestion

To be added to the baseball vernacular: a hanging curve that is hit for a homer should be called? A Heisenberg...because it was breaking bad.

Liriano Thriving Low in the Zone

You could forgive Pirates fans if, upon hearing their club signed Francisco Liriano over the winter, they had bad flashbacks to Oliver Perez. The comparison wasn't hard to make: A tantalizing lefty with low 90s gas, a wipeout slider...and the aim of a blind-folded dart-thrower. Liriano issued five free passes per nine innings during the 2011-12 seasons, racking up a five-plus ERA and even getting banished to the bullpen for a time last May. Add in a broken non-throwing arm that wiped out the first month of his season, and expectations were low that Liriano would show the form that earned him All-Star status in 2006 and AL Comeback Player of the Year in 2010.

But Liriano is doing just that. He has punched out 39 batters and walked just nine through 29 innings pitched, and he has yet to surrender a single home run. The 29-year-old is keeping the ball in the park by pounding hitters at the knees: He has thrown 62% of his pitches to the lower-third of the strike zone, the highest clip among starting pitchers throwing at least 400 pitches this season and well above his 52% mark from 2012. Here's more on Liriano's prowess low in the zone:

  • Liriano is inducing whiffs 50% of the time that hitters swing at his low stuff, narrowly beating out baseball's strikeout king, Yu Darvish, for the best mark among starting pitchers.

Liriano's contact rate by pitch location, 2013

  • Liriano is also getting plenty of swings on low pitches thrown off the plate, as his 36% chase rate attests. The only starters with a higher chase rate on low stuff are Shaun Marcum, Johnny Cueto, Hisashi Iwakuma, Ervin Santana and Felix Hernandez.
  • With all of those whiffs and chases, Liriano is limiting batters to a .191 slugging percentage on low pitches. That's 12th-lowest among starters and over 120 points below the big league average (.314), though A.J. Burnett (.153 opponent slugging percentage on low pitches) still has bragging rights in the Pirates clubhouse.