Coming in to the 2012 season, it seemed like Alex Burnett had no shot of making the roster. A 6.97 ERA and over two baserunners per inning was not indicative of a pitcher worthy of a place in any team’s bullpen, but due to the injuries to Joel Zumaya, Scott Baker, Kyle Waldrop, and Jason Marquis’ daughter, Burnett found himself in the exact same place as he had been the past two years: on the Twins’ Opening Day roster.
Now, you can’t take away very much from spring training statistics, but Burnett hadn’t done much in the past two seasons that showed anything different. A career 5.40 ERA in nearly 100 innings coming into this year, with nearly 1 1/2 baserunners per inning was suggesting that Burnett was simply overmatched against major league hitters. Considering his track record in the minors upon becoming a reliever, this was very disappointing to see.
However, Burnett appears to have finally figured it out, as he has yet to give up a run this season in 8 1/3 innings. Additionally, he has walked only one batter thus far, and his WHIP is down to a sparkling 1.08. Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven were quick to point out that Burnett has been featuring a curveball more often this year, though they erroneously stated that it was a new pitch for him.
In actuality, it’s something he’s always had in the majors, but his usage of it has changed. In the past two years, Burnett threw his curveball only about 7% of the time. This season, he’s more than doubled it, as it’s up to 15.5%. Granted, FanGraphs’ Pitch Values says that it’s been a terrible pitch (already worth -5.77 runs) but as viewers on TV can attest, this pitch has a lot of movement. Also, it’s very possible that this pitch has allowed Burnett to set up his fastball and slider, pitches that have rated as average for him in his career.
One of the biggest changes for Burnett has been his control. In his first two seasons, he walked about 4 batters per 9 innings, but in his 6 appearances this year, he’s walked only one batter. I’m not going to credit Burnett’s curveball as helping him improve his control, but like I said before, perhaps throwing it more often has helped set up his other pitches.
It’s still too early to say that Burnett will be a factor in the ‘pen for the rest of the season, but at least right now, he’s given us a glimpse of the pitcher he was supposed to be when he made his debut back in 2010.