First Pitch: A.J. Burnett and the Problem of One Bad Inning

A.J. Burnett has had one bad inning in the majority of his starts in the last two months. (Photo Credit: David Hague)
A.J. Burnett has had one bad inning in the majority of his starts in the last two months. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

No matter what happened with A.J. Burnett tonight, you can’t win when your offense only sends the minimum amount of batters to the plate. That said, Burnett struggled tonight in the seventh inning, continuing a trend where he has had one bad inning in almost all of his starts since early August. I talked about this after his last start, but didn’t really dig into the issue. Tonight I wanted to look at innings and pitch counts and see if there was any sort of trend, and anything the Pirates could do to prevent that big inning. Let’s go over each of his troublesome starts.

August 10th

In the first five innings, Burnett gave up one run on two walks and four hits. In the sixth inning he gave up five runs on a walk and four hits. Burnett had 79 pitches prior to the start of the sixth inning, averaging almost 16 pitches per inning prior to that. He threw 20 in the sixth inning before being pulled with two outs.

August 15th

Burnett went the first four innings without allowing a run. In the fifth he gave up five runs on six hits, getting just one out on a bunt pop-up by Lance Lynn. Burnett only had 47 pitches thrown in his first four innings, and threw 29 in the final inning before being pulled.

August 25th

This wasn’t a bad start, as Burnett gave up one run in the first seven innings. In the eighth inning he gave up three runs, with one of them coming off Tony Watson. Burnett had already thrown 107 pitches before coming out and throwing nine pitches in the eighth inning. The Pirates were losing 1-0 when he came back out, and lost 4-0.

September 6th

Burnett gave up two runs in the first, then three in the third, which ended his day. He threw 65 pitches, averaging about 22 per inning.

September 11th

Burnett started with five shutout innings, then gave up two runs in the sixth. In the seventh, Burnett gave up three hits and recorded one out. Three runs scored, with two scoring off Jeanmar Gomez. Burnett was at 66 pitches through five innings before running into trouble. He threw 23 pitches in the sixth, putting him at 89 pitches on the day.

September 16th

Burnett threw six shutout innings tonight, then gave up two runs in the seventh, getting two outs. He was at 92 pitches when he entered the 7th inning, and threw 15 in that frame.

No Common Trend

You wish there was some easy thing to point to, like “Pull Burnett after 80 pitches” or “Don’t let him pitch past the sixth inning”. That’s not really the case. There aren’t really any trends with pitch counts, but there might be some with innings.

His September 6th start was horrible, and kills any innings trends, so let’s remove that as an outlier for a moment. Looking at the other starts, he went four innings every time without issues. He went five innings four out of five times with very few issues, before running into problems. He didn’t always have problems in the sixth inning though. Twice he struggled in the sixth. Twice he struggled in the seventh, and one of those times he also had problems in the eighth.

If you add in the August 4th, August 20th, and August 31st starts (AKA, the good starts from Burnett in the last two months), you’ve got three more starts where he was fine through five innings. So maybe five is the magic number. The problem with this is that you’re cutting out four good innings on August 1st, two on August 20th, two on August 25th, two on August 31st, and one tonight. That’s 11 additional innings in a month and a half that needs to be made up by the bullpen, which doesn’t have to be taken by the bullpen. That’s not counting the bad innings, which you’d gladly let the bullpen take. So is it worth losing 1-2 additional good innings from Burnett just to avoid the monster inning that he always seems to run into?

The better solution might be to have a quick hook after the fifth inning. If Burnett gives up a single in the sixth, get someone up. If he gets into a jam, don’t give him the opportunity to get out of it. That should definitely be the case in September with an expanded bullpen capable of handling more innings. It might be a little more difficult in the playoffs with a limited roster.

Burnett is one of the best pitchers on the staff, but for whatever reason he’s been prone to the big inning the last two months. The Pirates can’t move away from him because of his talent, and the solid innings he gives before that big inning rolls around. They can recognize that this has been a problem lately, and make every effort to avoid that big inning by limiting Burnett after five, and possibly even pulling him after six with no exceptions. They might lose a few good innings, but if that helps avoid the one bad inning every time, it’s worth it.

Links and Notes

**The latest episode of the Pirates Prospects podcast is out, featuring special guest Rocco DeMaro: P3 Episode 19: Catching Up With Rocco DeMaro

**Cashner Near-Perfect as Pirates Lose 2-0

**Pirates Notebook: You Learn Something New Every Start

**Pirates Name Andrew Lambo and Tyler Glasnow Player and Pitcher of the Year

**Wandy Rodriguez Expected to Pick Up His Player Option

**Tyler Glasnow Exceeded Baseball Prospectus Expectations

  • Burnetts struggles IMO have been weather related. He seems to struggle when the temperature is 80+ if you look at his bad starts.

  • I have noted this before but Burnett opponent OPS, increases dramatically each time through the lineup, .532, .638, .754. No other Pirate’s starter suffers this type of magnitude increase, granted Jeff Locke doesn’t start with a .532 opponent OPS.

    Burnett is has been somewhat unlucky and more so of late. His ERA is half a run higher than his xFIP, among comparable starters by xFIP no one has that degree of difference, outside two or three pitchers with high HR/FB ratios. Additionally his BABIP in Sept is .391, and August .339. (There is some regression in there b/c in June/July is BABIP was unsustainably low.)

    smurph is on to something. Burnett performance is a red herring. The sample of starts is small, there is no discernible trend and as Tim’s concludes there is a cost to the quick hook. I think a bigger issue is continued offensive struggles. Alvarez, Walker, and Martin have been bad in the last month. And I am still waiting for this mechanical adjustment to show up in Morneau’s swing.

    • AJ’s problem is Clint’s slow hook, which is almost comical at this point. He barely got through the 6th without giving up a run and for some mind boggling reason he let him hit for himself in the B6. Why? The absolute best case is you get one more inning out of him and it seemed obvious that the BIG inning was on the verge of happening (and luckily didn’t happen in the 6th)

      Hurdle seems determined to try to artificially boost AJ’s confidence by refusing to acknowledge this growing trend instead of managing against it. Just like when he runs both Walker and Pedro out vs LHP instead of sitting one of them for JHay.

      Granted, for all of my bitching about Clint’s in game managing, the real problem with this team is the horrendous hitting it’s currently getting from Pedro, Walker, Jones, and Martin vs RHP. Praying for ATL or LAD in playoffs because of their LHP (albeit very good) instead of STL and CIN which are all RHP and therefore not a good matchup for us

  • As you stated there is not a pattern to where his bad inning is located, unless you look at his last 3 or 4 starts. Then you see him pitching very well for 5 or 6 innings, then the opponent having a good inning against him. That seems to indicate to me that either A. He is losing a little bit after 75-80 pitches, or B. Batters have figured out the movement and location of his pitches, or C. A little bit of both, or D. Maybe AJ has a problem pitching out of the stretch. As others have stated, giving up 2 runs in 6 2/3 innings is not a bad outing. But the Pirates have been shut out in 5 of their last 21 games. That is rather alarming, proving that the late additions have not made a huge dent in their tendency to have too many low-scoring games. The obvious answer is to monitor him, and especially when he gets to the 6th or 7th and the first 2 batters reach base, it is time to look to the bullpen maybe just a little bit sooner.

  • It’s been a strange year for Burnett.
    Regarding run support, granted SSS, Burnett is 0-8 with 1 no decision when the Bucs score 0 to 2 runs. In contrast Liriano is 3-3. Both pitchers do better when the Bucs score 3 or more runs. The alarming stat is 6 no decisions for Burnett when the Bucs score 3 or more runs. In contrast Liriano only has one no decision. Technically only 1 or 2 of those no decisions were Burnett’s fault, but games were he starts have been rather odd for some reason.
    Another weird trend this year is Burnett gives up a lot of hits in odd innings and walks more batters in even innings. Liriano doesn’t have this odd trend (hits are fairly even by inning and he walks and strikes out more batters early in the game).

    • Burnett also has 10 starts where he hasn’t finished the inning, as compared to Liriano whom only has 6 such outings. 10 of 28 seems like a few too many, but maybe not.

  • Hurdle does not have a policy for pulling A.J. unless he is behind from what I can see, I would have pulled him after six because he had been struggling getting to the sixth and in the sixth. Of course I would not have asked A.J. if he wanted to keep pitching, I would have told him thanks for the great effort we are going to the pen now.

    • leadoff, I couldn’t agree more. I understand respecting the pitcher and his past success, but a manager can’t allow the player to decide when he comes out and Clint just let’s AJ decide. This isn’t the first time. AJ was done last night by the end of the 5th and was slipping in the 6th. He starts to throw his slider down and wide more and more. AJ is still a solid pitcher but he needs managed and not allowed to manage the manager. Clint also needs to get off the pitching Grilli thing unless we’re way ahead or behind. It cost us 1 game already.

      • Grilli is trying to make it back, and I think Hurdle is happy with Watson and Melancon, but would like to have another solid veteran arm for the 7th, 8th, & 9th. However, Grilli’s velocity has not returned and he has trouble throwing his breaking pitch for strikes – sound a whole lot like Hanrahan last year? Instead of going to the minors for rehab, he is rehabbing with the Pirates. Getting lit up by Rizzo on a hanging breaking pitch was not on the rehab agenda.

  • Remember early in the season when Jeanmar, Locke and Liriano were having great 5 inning outings, followed by two sold inning by Mazzaro/Wilson then then 8th and 9th inning crew. Seems like we went away from that….probably due to lack of arms.

    • Pitchers are wearing down this time of year, pitching 2 innings of relief is not a good thing now, actually never was a good thing, most of the pen pitchers velocities are down, possibly from pitching too many innings in a row. Pirates have to get starters that can go 7 innings. Cole is a good start, Taillon is another strong pitcher, Kingham is another one.
      I have said all along that this team is a work in progress and I still believe it, when the young horses are all up here and the couple of weak position areas are fixed and the bench is solid we will be there.

  • Unfortunately a quick hook will never happen with Burnett…

  • Tim: Have you looked at runs scored by the Pirates in those games? I remember Burnett having some implosions, but mostly when he is trying to do more because the offense has been non-existent in those games, like last night. I think he has had 3 games where he has had support from the very beginning, and in those games he has cruised in 2 of the 3. Cashner was good, but the Bucs hit the ball and did not get any breaks whatsoever – at em balls. And then the lefties and righties trying to pull outside pitches is enough to make any hitting coach crazy. I remember the announcer at one point saying “I wonder how Cashner would pitch from the stretch?” Maybe that is all he needs is a little love in the form of runs scored. Wondering what is wrong with a pitcher after losing 2-0 when your team only gets one hit? A good article, but just a tad untimely.

    • MJ, I agree that calling last night’s 2 run 7th a bad inning is a stretch, especially when it’s the only mark against AJ all night. If any Bucco hits a 3 run HR before the 7th, we’re all talking about what a great outing AJ had, solidifying his #2 status for the playoffs.

      However I disagree with your assessment that the Bucs hgaven’t scored any runs for him and thus he’s trying too hard to pitch a shutout. His worst outings over the last 2 months: Aug. 10 @ COL – Bucs score 2 in the top of 6th to give him a 3-1 lead that he blows by giving up 5 (4 earned) in the bottom of 6th; Aug 15 @ STL – Bucs score 4 in the top of the 5th for a 4-0 lead that he lows by giving up 5 in the bottom 5th; Aug. 25 @ SF – Bucs score no runs on 3 hits, but this is actually one of AJ’s better outings as he goes into the 8th inning and if Watson doesn’t let an inherited runner score, it’s a quality start for AJ; Sept. 6 @ STL – he’s blown up for 2 in the 1st and 3 in the 3rd (just a terrible outing); Sept. 11 @ TEX – Bucs are up 4-0 after 5, AJ gives up 2 in the 6th, Bucs add 2 in the 7th and he gives up 3 more in the bottom of 7th (with help from Gomez).

      It seems to me he struggles to pitch with a lead, possibly because he’s so used to not getting any run support. He seems much better when the Bucs don’t score for him. Also, anyone else notice all of those @ signs up there? How about they focus on pitching AJ at home?

    • If AJ wants more run support maybe he shouldn’t demand Barmas be in the lineup when he pitches. That’s 2 dead spots in the order.