Footloose: The Resurgence of Sean Burnett's Career

If there’s one word that succinctly describes Sean Burnett’s career, it’s enigmatic. It’s been a long and windy road from his days as a first round draft pick pegged as one of the future mainstays of the Pirates starting rotation to his current residence in the Nationals bullpen. From his piercing blue eyes hiding under the rakish tilt of his cap, to his oft maligned relief appearances, it’s easy to say Burnett has broken a few hearts during his DC tenure. In 2012, Burnett has seen a renaissance of sorts; a return to bursts of dominance that he has flashed in previous seasons, with an added component missing from those seasons -- consistency.

Courtesy of Fangraphs:              

Year W L SV IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% ERA FIP xFIP WAR
2012 0 0 2 13.1 10.8 3.38 0 0.281 92.9% 46.7% 0.68 1.72 2.77 0.5

As the stats show, he has been electric out of the ‘pen, and since I have trouble finding superlatives to properly express my feelings on the numbers, I will have the guys from Psych give me a hand:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nf3FHCB9hiY&w=420&h=315]

Gone are the days of 1-2-3 innings without a ball hit out of the infield followed up with a 5 run, lead blowing outing. This has been a much needed boost to the already tough Nats bullpen, anchored by closer Drew Storen, and setup man extraordinaire and All Star Tyler Clippard. Given a recent rash of injuries decimating the bully, along with the trials and tribulations of Henry Rodriguez, Burnett’s output in ever increasing high leverage situations (current average Leverage Index up to 1.58, from 1.39 in 2011) has been a godsend. As a result of his efforts, a promotion to shared closer duties with Clippard has been bestowed upon the crooked hatted wonder . Much of this renewed success arises from a minor change in his delivery that was suggested by pitching coach Steve McCatty towards the end of the 2011 season. This move to the 1st base side of the pitching rubber from the 3rd base side to start his delivery has reaped enormous rewards, and has not only given lefty hitters fits, but righties as well. A visual comparison of this change, looking at 2011 Sean Burnett, with the post McCatty chat release point for 2011 being the dots farthest on the right (courtesy of Texas Leaguers ):


...and 2012 Sean Burnett:


 

...and some numbers, showing the monthly progression of Burnett’s 2011 season, courtesy of Baseball-Reference :
 

August-September values are highlighted in red to show post-mechanics adjustment stats:

                            

Month BAvg. BABIP ERA SO/9 SO/BB WHIP tOPS+*
April/March 0.333 0.378 5.73 4.9 6 1.36 115
May 0.172 0.160 5.4 4.3 1 1.08 55
June 0.273 0.321 4.5 5.6 1.25 1.63 110
July 0.261 0.206 4.63 5.4 1.4 1.46 158
August 0.242 0.320 1.00 8 1.6 1.44 78
Sept/Oct 0.200 0.222 1.04 3.1 1.5 0.92 48

 

*tOPS+ is OPS split relative to a players overall OPS. Below 100 indicates he did better than his usual OPS splits.

Promising results, post mechanics tweak.

    As you can gather from the graphs, his new release point is hell on lefties; he is essentially starting his pitches behind their backs, and coupled with his very pronounced ‘crossfire’ delivery -- an exaggerated step towards the first base side with his plant leg, versus straight towards home plate -- lefties have had zero success hitting Burnett. Righties too appear to not see the ball well with his new delivery, which is pleasantly confounding; typically, righties like to see sidearm lefties, as the arm angle and trajectory of the pitches are on a plane that gives them more time to track and identify the pitch.

Here we compare his 2011 and 2012 season lefty/righty splits:
                            

Season Split K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 K% BB% AVG WHIP BABIP LOB% FIP xFIP
2011 vs L 5.27 2.3 2.29 0.99 15.1% 6.6% 0.20 - - - 0.205 79.8% 4.27 3.72
2011 vs R 5.22 4.3 1.21 0.92 12.5% 10.3% 0.29 - - - 0.317 76.4% 4.73 4.8
2012 vs L 13.5 0 9 0 39.1% 0.0% 0.22 - - - 0.357 80.0% -0.01 0.69
2012 vs R 9.39 5.87 1.6 0 25.8% 16.1% 0.15 - - - 0.222 100.0% 2.86 4.14

    Further confirmation that his shift to the other side of the rubber was the panacea he needed to provide a spark, not only to his career, but the success of the bullpen.

    Looking deeper into the change in outcomes, I had a look at his pitch selection, again with left/right splits; it is obvious that along with his mechanics, slight changes in pitch selection have reaped huge rewards. As an aside, it is interesting to see that he has all but ditched his fastball for a sinker, and is actually throwing it a little slower this year compared to 2011. Not only is he consistent in dominating opposing batters, he’s doing it in a more economical fashion, velocity-wise. From Brooks Baseball:

                            

2011, Lefties Pitch Frequency MPH Foul/Swing Whiff/Swing
Fourseam (FA) 9.00% 92.01 65.00%
Sinker (SI) 54.00% 92.1 38.10% 11.43%
Slider (SL) 23.00% 78.92 28.57% 28.57%
Curveball (CU) 10.00% 78.44 33.33% 41.67%
Changeup (CH) 4.00% 85.26 50.00% 12.50%
2011, Righties Fourseam (FA) 8.00% 92.25 68.75%
Sinker (SI) 60.00% 92.18 40.41% 15.07%
Slider (SL) 6.00% 79.22 41.18% 29.41%
Curveball (CU) 2.00% 78.26 20.00% 40.00%
Changeup (CH) 24.00% 85.13 30.51% 30.51%
2012, Lefties Fourseam (FA) 8.00% 89.14 25.00%
Sinker (SI) 59.00% 89.56 51.85% 22.22%
Slider (SL) 27.00% 78.78 18.18% 63.64%
Curveball (CU) 5.00% 77.62 100.00%
Changeup (CH) 1.00% 84.07
2012, Righties Fourseam (FA) 9.00% 89.05 33.33% 50.00%
Sinker (SI) 67.00% 89.96 44.44% 16.67%
Slider (SL) 5.00% 77.91 100.00%
Curveball (CU) 1.00% 77.11
Changeup (CH) 18.00% 81.88 40.00% 40.00%

    Quite a transformation from 2011, when he was more of a traditional sinker/slider pitcher, pitching to contact, and letting the defense do their magic. 2012 further confirms his nastiness -- his whiff rate shows us that batters, especially lefties, flat out aren’t making contact. Much of this change comes from Burnett throwing his slider more to lefties than he did in 2011, and they are missing the pitch almost 70% of the time, no doubt due to the change in arm angle.
    It’s been a long time coming for Burnett to realize his vast potential, and to see him finally put all of the pieces of the puzzle at a time where the team needs him the most has been inspiring. While the season still is young, Burnett has been nothing short of amazing in the first quarter of 2012, and an integral part of the success of the Nationals, as they continue to ride atop the NL East standings.

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