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A.J. Burnett Racks up Ks with New Two-Strike Approach

Now that he's committed to pitching in 2014, A.J. Burnett could well alter the playoff landscape -- and prove to be the best free agent value of the offseason. The 37-year-old is still at the peak of his abilities, punching out a major league and career-best 9.8 hitters per nine frames last season, he's looking for a short-term deal, and he won't cost teams a draft pick because the Pirates didn't make him a $14.1 million qualifying offer. Burnett could pitch every bit as well as, say, Masahiro Tanaka in 2014, and clubs won't have to commit the years and dollars that typically lead to free agent pitching deals exploding like cheap ACME bombs. He's basically the NL version of Hiroki Kuroda.

Just how did Burnett manage to post the best strikeout rate ever for a starting pitcher during his age-36 season this side of Randy Johnson (12.6 K/9) and Curt Schilling (10.4 K/9)? He drastically changed his two-strike approach against right-handed hitters, tossing more pitches off the plate and relying on hitters to hack their way back to the dugout.

In 2012, Burnett struck out 21.9 percent of the right-handed hitters that he faced. That was solid, but not all that far above the 20.1 percent major league average in righty-versus-righty confrontations.  Part of the reason for A.J.'s good-not-great K rate was that he threw nearly half (48.5 percent) of his two-strike pitches to righties within the strike zone. Most righty pitchers are less aggressive than Burnett was with two-strikes, looking for chases against same-handed hitters (the average zone rate in two-strike counts is about 42 percent).

Burnett's two-strike pitch location vs. righty hitters, 2012

In 2013, however, Burnett decided to bury more pitches in the dirt when righties had their backs against the wall. Hoping that same-handed hitters would retire themselves, Burnett tossed just 39.9 percent of his two-strike offerings within the strike zone. A lot of those off-the-plate pitches were curveballs, as he relied more on his hook with two strikes this past year (55.3 percent) than in 2012 (48.5 percent).  

Burnett's two-strike pitch location vs. righty hitters, 2013

Burnett's less aggressive two-strike approach paid off: righties chased considerably more pitches outside of the strike zone (41.6 percent, up from 30.5 percent in 2012) and whiffed more often (32.2 percent in 2013, 24.3 percent in '12). By baiting righties, Burnett increased strikeout rate against them to 29.6 percent. Among righty starters, only Yu Darvish (38.5 percent), Justin Masterson (32 percent), and Max Scherzer (31.6 percent) fooled right-handed hitters more frequently.

Possessing a mix of strikeout stuff and ground ball tendencies rarely seen -- the only other starters inducing at least a whiff per inning with a ground ball rate north of 50 were Masterson, Stephen Strasburg and Felix Hernandez -- Burnett could make all the difference for a number of playoff bubble teams. Whether he takes the bump in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Philly or elsewhere in 2014, Burnett will have righties breaking out in a cold sweat once they're down to their final strike.


Justin Masterson, Strikeout Fiend?

Justin Masterson and the Cleveland Indians don't agree on a whole lot these days.

According to Paul Hoynes of, the two sides remain several dollars apart in terms of perceived value for the 28-year-old righty, who's currently in his second year of arbitration eligibility. Masterson had vouched for a $11.8 million salary for the 2014 season, but the organization countered his offer for $8.05 million -- which is the "biggest difference among any unsigned player who filed for arbitration this winter," as reported by Hoynes. Consequently, the two parties have tucked away the paperwork for what would have been a multi-year contract extension, and instead will meet Feb. 20 in St. Petersburg, Fla. for their arbitration hearing.

Value discrepancies notwithstanding, there is one thing both sides can agree on: Masterson was really good last season. In his eighth season in the majors (and fifth since joining Cleveland in 2009), the former second-round pick posted career-bests in several categories, including (but not limited to): WHIP (1.20), complete games (3), shutouts (3) and strikeout rate (24.3%). The lattermost stat stands out the most when you look back at Masterson's past seasons, especially considering his very average 7.1 K/9 rating from 2008 to 2012. Suddenly, he struck out 9.1 batters per nine in one year's difference? How is this possible?

Improvements with Slider

Results vs. Masterson's slider
AVG SLUG Miss% InPl% Chas% ClStk% K%
1. 2012 .197 .317 38.8% 30.2% 28.0% 31.2% 39.2%
2. 2013 .108 .176 41.1% 27.0% 30.4% 37.5% 51.6%

Masterson's slider made improvements across the board over the past two seasons, both in terms of opponent averages against it and in 'swing-and-miss-ability'. One thing that stands out is batters' slugging percentage against the offering, which was a meger .176 last season -- the lowest among pitchers who threw at least 700 sliders last season. We also notice that opponents expanded the zone a bit more frequently against it (30.4% chase%), missed at a 41.1% clip (fifth-highest among qualified starters in 2013) and put just 27% of such sliders in play (also fifth-lowest among qualified arms).

The one aspect of the pitch that improved most last season, however, was its ability to generate called-strikes, increasing to 37.5% -- second to only Yu Darvish (38%) among righties who threw 800 sliders. How this factors in to Masterson's strikeout increase is simple: With better command of the pitch, more called strikes follow, which equates to more strikeouts.

Pitch Frequency Comparison

Masterson's strikeout rate against righties escalated from 23.3% in 2012 to 32% in 2013 (compared to increasing from 13.5% in 2012 to 19.4% in 2013 against lefties), and his improved slider had a big say in that boost. Notice the compressed pitch frequency of the offering between the two seasons; he seemed to have much better command of the offering, throwing in the strike zone 44.9% of the time last season compared to 39.3% in 2012.

Evidently, this increase swayed umps into giving him more calls, as his called strike rate escalated to a healthy 39.3% in contrast to his 24.6% mark two seasons ago. We shouldn't be too surprised by this increase, as there is a strong correlation between zone% and called strike% -- the more pitches you throw in the zone, the more called strikes you get with the offering. For example: The major-league average starter threw 46.5% of his sliders in the zone last season and accrued a 30% called-strike rate. But when you decrease that zone% to 39%, your called-strike rate falls to 23%. Throw 53% of your sliders in the zone, and your called-strike rate jumps to 35%. And when your called-strike rate goes, up so too does your strikeout rate.

It seems Masterson's better-commanded slider (especially against right-handed batters) was the key to his strikeout increase last season. Whether or not he can sustain this moving forward may well determine the length and amount of his next contract.


Mark Reynolds Getting Beat on Inside Stuff

Since he clubbed his way to the majors in 2007, Mark Reynolds has been a one-tool player. He's got an iron glove, costing his team more runs (76) compared to an average defender than every infielder not named Michael Young, Yuniesky Betancourt or Derek Jeter. And his D looks pretty good compared to his contact skills: Reynolds has struck out 1,276 times, second-most among hitters since '07 (Adam Dunn is first). But Reynolds' one tool -- pure, unadulterated pull power -- is special enough for teams to hold their noses and focus on his epic blasts.

Or, at least it used to be. Reynolds' home run total has dipped from 37 in 2011 to 23 in 2012 and 21 this past season, with his slugging percentage tumbling by nearly 100 points (.483 in '11, .429 in '12, and .393 in '13). Considering how often he punches out, Reynolds needs to maul the ball when he does connect. With elite power, he's a pretty good hitter (his park-and-league adjusted on-base-plus-slugging percentage was 16 percent above average in 2011). With average pop, he's a liability (his OPS was four percent below average in 2013).

The 30-year-old recently signed a minor league deal with the Brewers, though he's expected to make the opening day roster either as the club's primary first baseman or the short half of a platoon with Juan Francisco. Granted, even a diminished Reynolds would be better than the balsa wood-toting brigade that Milwaukee featured at the position last season (a combined .370 slugging percentage). But if he plans on giving Bernie Brewer a workout on Miller Park's homer slide, he'll have to reverse a three-year decline against inner-half pitches.

Reynolds' slugging percentage vs. inner-half pitches, 2011


Reynolds' slugging percentage vs. inner-half pitches, 2012


Reynolds' slugging percentage vs. inner-half pitches, 2013


Reynolds was a beast versus pitches thrown to the inner half of the plate in 2011, posting the eighth-best slugging percentage (.659) among qualified batters. But that figure declined to .575 in 2012, and just .398 this past season. Here's another way of looking at it: Reynolds crushed inside pitches like Jose Bautista and David Ortiz back in '11. In 2013, though? He barely outslugged waterbug shortstops Elvis Andrus and Erick Aybar.

Reynolds simply doesn't have the sort of well-rounded skill set that allows him to hit for good-not-great power. He's either jacking 30-plus homers, or he's riding the bus in Triple-A. Short of a return to elite slugger status, he could be looking at a succession of minor league deals in the years to come.

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