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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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