Series 1 Preview: Cubs at Pittsburgh

Burnett

(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

cubs_at_pirates

The Cubs open up the season in Pittsburgh, where a team desperately trying to get over the hump awaits. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen is the star of this team and a complete threat on both sides of the ball. He’s just part of a homegrown offensive core—including second baseman Neil Walker and third baseman Pedro Alvarez—that’s under 27 and hoping to break an 20-year spate of losing seasons.

On the other hand, the pitching staff has been pieced together through trades and free agency. Right-handers A.J. Burnett and James McDonald, and lefties Wandy Rodriguez and Jeff Locke were all collected in deals over the last few seasons. They’re joined by newly signed southpaw Jonathan Sanchez. Meanwhile, veteran Mark Melancon was added to bring games home to closer Jason Grilli, after a season in which an excellent Pirates bullpen faltered badly down the stretch.

[PITCHER TO WATCH] A.J. Burnett

2012 STATS: 202 IP, 3.51 ERA, 20 K%, 7.2 UBB%, 57 GB%

At age 35, A.J. Burnett revived his career with the Pirates after two consecutive down seasons in New York. Though his stuff didn’t really change much, he had better control and got more out of it than in several years. He’ll lead Pittsburgh out of the gate on Opening Day.

PLAN OF ATTACK: Aggressively go after batters

Burnett’s pitch sequencing is relatively typical, but it’s where he locates his pitches that can make life difficult for batters. He leverages his heat in the top third of the zone far more than the average major leaguer. In 2012, he also traded about half of his four-seamers for his sinking two-seamer. As a result, he kept the ball on the ground at his highest rate in seven seasons. The two-seamer is a weapon he’ll increasingly use to avoid barrels when behind in the count. Righties also have to guard against him sneaking it back over the low/away corner of the zone. Against lefties, Burnett will pull out a straight change-up, though it doesn’t have much velocity or movement separation from his two fastballs.

PUTAWAY PITCH: Curve

Once Burnett gets ahead of a batter, he turns to a hard, low-80s curve that he uses nearly 60 percent of the time. It’s a nasty pitch that has sharp, two-plane movement. What makes the pitch exceptional is his ability to drop it at the bottom of the zone, coaxing hitters into chasing borderline pitches. Hitters may know it’s coming, but it’s another matter to figure out if the pitch is going to cross the zone or break out of reach. Batters who did swing at the curve in 2012 ended up whiffing on it nearly half the time.

—Sean Ahmed

PITCHf/x data from Baseball Prospectus and BrooksBaseball.net.

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