Dear ESPN, A.J. Burnett Was As Much "Lucky" as "Good" Last Night

Note: Upon further reflection, the earlier version of this piece was probably a bit too harsh. But, hey, I admit it. I've edited the post to reflect that. Everyone gets a bit too fired up from time to time. I'm no different.

The Yankees pulled even with the Tigers in the ALDS last night with a 9-1 victory on the road.

Toeing the rubber for the Yankees in this critical game was the Bronx-version of John Lackey--a highly paid free agent pitcher that has, at a minimum, not lived up to their contract, and has often exited games much earlier than the Yankees and their fans would like.

Burnett lasted 5 and 2/3 innings last night and left the game with only a single run allowed against the Tigers. 

This morning, ESPN.com featured a story about the game with the following tease: "Turns out New York had nothing to fear. A.J. Burnett? Good. The Yankees? Even better."

Maybe I'm just overly sensitive (which I admit I might be), but I think Burnett's performance was just as much about luck as it was about him being "good". Despite allowing only one run during his 5+ innings of work, Burnett was fortunate to escape without further damage, especially given how he pitched.

First, Burnett gave up four hits and walked four three batters in 5 2/3 innings. That means he finished the game with a WHIP (walks plus hits per inning) of 1.50. His seasonal WHIP? 1.43. So he actually allowed more base runners per inning than during his regular season, which most would characterize as far from "good".

Burnett gave up four hits and walked three batters in 5 2/3 innings. That means he finished with a WHIP of roughly 1.24 for the game. To his credit, that's better than his season average of 1.43. He also had a swinging strike percentage of 12% last night, which was better than his seasonal average of 10%. So, to his credit, he was missing bats at a good clip. However, he had one of the highest swinging strike percentages in the AL this year and still performed poorly overall. If you are going to say Burnett was good last night, but bad during the season, I think that's hard to square.

Burnett's K/BB ratio was 1.00, and out of his 81 pitches, 49 went for strikes (a strike-to-ball ratio of only 1.5). So not only did Burnett provide three free passes through 5+ innings, he didn't exactly make up for it through strikeouts. If he had been pitching that well, I would have expected a better K/BB ratio and more than three K's through 5+ innings. In fact, on the season he had a K/BB of over 2.00.

Finally, Burnett benefited from a ridiculously low BABIP against last night. The Tigers only batted .190 on balls in play during Burnett's time on the mound. During the regular season, Burnett had a BABIP against on ground balls of .238. Last night? The Tigers went 0-10 on ground balls.

They fared better on line drives, going 3-5 (.600) but that was also a bit lower than Burnett's seasonal average (.701). More importantly, one of the liners that was converted for an out was a two-out, bases-loaded laser to center that Curtis Granderson made an amazing play on. Had that ball fell in for a hit, Burnett's line would look a whole lot different, and that's where luck can have such a huge impact.

BABIP for a single game is certainly not definitive, and it's tricky to interpret, but I think it provides a baseline off of which to say Burnett benefited from a good helping of luck.

Add all this together and it's really hard to say that Burnett, on balance, was "good" last night without also mentioning how lucky he was. The only way you do this is by focusing on the runs against. This isn't a dig at Burnett so much as the editors of ESPN.com. That start was just as much about luck as it was about Burnett. And most of what I read at ESPN this morning seemed more than happy to gloss over that fact. 

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Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, and Brooks Baseball

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