What’s Wrong with A.J. Burnett?

In April, following a short start lasting all of four and one-third innings against the Miami Marlins, A.J. Burnett was diagnosed with an inguinal hernia. If you’re squeamish, don’t look it up and just take my word that it’s a rather uncomfortable injury. Burnett said he could deal with the pain and discomfort and pitch through it, however.

It seemed like it was a good decision initially. Following the diagnosis, Burnett posted a 0.98 ERA with 25 strikeouts and five walks in 27 2/3 innings over his next four starts. His performance since then is a completely different story. Including Wednesday’s outing against the Washington Nationals, Burnett has a 7.25 ERA with 32 strikeouts and 22 walks in 36 innings over six starts.

After the ugly outing against the Nationals, his walk rate is up to 11.6 percent, which would be his highest since walking 17 percent in 2003 as a 26-year-old, and only the second time he has had a double-digit walk rate dating back to 2004 (2009, 10.8%). His strikeout rate is down to 18.9 percent, his lowest since striking out 17.5 percent in 2010 and the second-lowest out of his last ten seasons. And just to put aside any possibility that sequencing could be the explanation, his overall swinging strike rate is down to 7.6 percent, the lowest of his career. Aside from his May 8 start against the Toronto Blue Jays in which he allowed three home runs, the long ball hasn’t been much of an issue.

Burnett’s ground ball rate is down seven percent, back to previous levels before he joined the Pittsburgh Pirates, who used infield shifts to help him rack up the outs. His fly ball rate has stayed the same at around 24 percent, so all of that seven percent has gone into line drives, which is up to 26 percent, by far a career-high (the league average is 20%). His velocity is down between 1 and 1.5 miles per hour on all of his pitches compared to last season, including 1.2 MPH on his sinker.

There’s no bad luck at play. His BABIP is right at .300, his strand rate is right around the 71 percent average, and so is his 11 percent HR/FB rate. In fact, given his high line drive rate, one could make the case that his results have actually been better than we would expect.

If the poorer performance is linked to his inguinal hernia, that is only something Burnett and the Phillies’ training staff can say. In the case that there is a link, it might be worth giving Burnett a break by putting him on the 15-day disabled list.

In the case that the injury has nothing to do with Burnett’s performance, then the Phillies are in a tough spot. It’s easy to just say Burnett should pitch better, but he hasn’t changed his pitch mix by much at all, and hasn’t been noticeably more or less in any particular part of the strike zone. It’d be just as easy to say that Burnett should induce more ground balls, but if he could, he already would have. Given Burnett’s age — he’s 37 years old — and declining velocity, it could be that this is what he has to offer at this stage in his career. Additionally, Philadelphia is not Pittsburgh. The home ballpark is more hitter-friendly and the Phillies’ catchers are not nearly as good at framing pitches as the Pirates’ catchers.

The Phillies do have an option with Burnett for 2015, and this season is just about bust anyway. Burnett’s 2015 option is quite interesting. Rather than spell it out, here’s everything from Cot’s Contracts:

2014:$7.5M, 2015:$15M mutual option ($1M buyout) or $7.5M player option
buyout paid if Burnett has fewer than 30 starts in 2014 & one side declines
2015 player option increases to $8.5M with 24 GS in 2014, $10M with 27 GS, $11.75M with 30 GS, $12.75M with 32 GS
annual performance bonuses: $0.5M each for 24, 27 GS. $0.75M for 30 GS
limited no-trade protection

It might be worth giving Burnett some time off if his hernia is interfering with his performance. Get him healthy, perhaps for a strong second-half run, and hope he’s better next season. Otherwise, the Phillies might have simply and predictably bought a lemon.

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  1. tom b

    June 05, 2014 09:45 AM

    kinda a slippery slope to use hernia and the fact the seasons over anyway to sit burnett and avoid his option. i’m not against it but why stop there. sit rollins and the rest of the players to avoid having to pick up their overpriced options as well. if you are going to punt then punt

  2. Bob

    June 05, 2014 02:40 PM

    His sinker ball rate is way up per pitch f/x and his four seam fastball rate way down. Maybe he’s either going with the sinker more for whatever reason (keeping the ball down at CB park, loss of velo on fastball, consequence of the hernia injury . . . no way of knowing) or the difference between the two is not as perceptible as in the past. In fact, his sinker ball rate has never been close to being this high.

    As you note, the cause of concern is the declining groundball rate. It seems a significant portion of those line drives falling for hits are towards Marlon Byrd in right. Maybe play Byrd a little shallower?

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