Baseball Magazine

AJ Burnett Needs to "trust His Stuff"

By Meachrm @BaseballBTYard
It's safe to say that Yankees starter AJ Burnett is having a rough season and more specifically, a rough month.  His stats for the month of August are as follows:


August                                                                               17.23521217122.3810.70

At this point, all indications point to him being removed from the rotation after his next start if the trend continues any farther.  
As a general rule, I've always felt that it is better to learn from other peoples' mistakes and tribulations rather than having to go through them yourself.  It can save you a lot of time and heartache.  Unfortunately, that's not how human nature works in many cases.  Sometimes we just need to experience the events ourselves to learn and grow.  However, if a pitcher wanted to learn from what AJ Burnett is going through, here is one tip.
Ultimately, a pitcher has to "trust his stuff."  
I have not seen AJ pitch much this year but I did catch a few innings of a start a couple weeks ago.  It was a so-so outing in general but what jumped out to me was a single pitch he threw in the middle of the game.  It was a 3-2 curve ball that missed badly in the dirt for ball four.  
A curve ball in a 3-2 count can be a good strategy in certain situations (ex. Albert Pujols batting, 2 outs, 1st base open) but it can also be a sign that the pitcher no longer "trusts his stuff."  A lot goes into that phrase but it basically means that the pitcher no longer has confidence that a particular pitch or pitches are good enough to get batters out.   In the case of the 3-2 curve ball, it may indicate a lack of confidence in his fast ball. 
As the numbers below indicate, the average velocity of Burnett's fast ball has been slowly decreasing over the past few years. 
Year        Avg. Vel. 2007         95.9 mph2008         94.4 mph2009         94.2 mph2010         93.1 mph2011         92.7 mph(Source:
This, of course, is the natural progression that a pitcher goes through as he gets older.  Unfortunately for AJ, his fast ball is now perfectly centered in what is referred to as "Perfect Hitting Speed."  Click HERE to read an entire post I wrote about that subject.  In the post I also included this visual to understand the concept better.


_?_ mphto_?_ mphPerfectHittingSpeed


In 2007, his 95.9 average velocity was securely in the "Above" category which I said allows a pitcher more room for error when it comes to location.  When you throw 95+ mph, the fast ball alone can get you out of a lot of jams.  However, his current 92.7 average has dropped him down into the "Perfect Hitting Speed" for major league batters.  When this happens, a pitcher needs to have the following in order to have that same success:  
  • Good movement on his fast ball
  • Good location with that fast ball
  • At least one good off-speed pitch that can be thrown for strikes in order to force batters to think of something other than the fast ball.  

The frustrating thing for the Yankee manager, pitching coach, GM, etc. is that AJ Burnett already has two of those three things.  He has good natural movement on his fast ball and he has a nasty knuckle curve ball.  The problem is not with his "stuff."  The key problem right now is that AJ himself may not think his stuff is good enough any more.  When a pitcher gets into this mind set, he begins to think some or all of the following:
  • I need to throw harder to get back into the "Above" category.
  • I have to be perfect with my fast ball location or I'll get killed.
  • My off-speed pitch needs to be better than before because hitters know I will be throwing it more.

All three of those beliefs usually start a pitcher on a downward spiral.  Throwing harder almost never works because when done, a pitcher usually overthrows which causes the fast ball to flatten out (less movement) and come up in the strike zone (easier to hit).  When a pitcher believes he has to be perfect with anything, he begins to nibble at the plate instead of just going after the hitter.  This is where the attempt to "trick" a batter with a 3-2 curve ball comes in.  Thinking an off-speed pitch needs to be better than before causes a pitcher to force it instead of just throwing it.  This is where the curve ball in the dirt comes in.  "Forcing it" might get a pitcher to grip it tighter in an attempt to increase the spin and improve the break.  He could try to pinpoint his location with it instead of just letting it go.  There are many forms but the general point is this:  All of these adjustments are caused by the pitcher thinking his stuff is not good enough any more on its own.  

Aging pitchers will always need to make adjustments as their body changes.  However, sometimes pitchers will overcompensate and not "trust their stuff."  From where I sit, AJ Burnett still has "enough" velocity to get major league hitters out.  He also has "enough" movement and a more than "enough" curve ball.

Unfortunately, AJ may not share that same opinion.  He needs to start trusting his stuff if he wants to get back on the path to success.  That's easier said than done though.  The good news for Yankees fans is that sometimes all a pitcher needs is one good outing to turn it all around in his favor.  We'll see.

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