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Burnett’s Impact On The Rotation


Today the Pirates completed their trade with the Yankees for A.J. Burnett.  Under the terms of the deal, the Yankees will be paying $20M of the $33M remaining on Burnett’s contract over the next 2 years.  In return, the Pirates sent Exicardo Cayones and Diego Moreno to the Yankees. 

But what are the Pirates getting in A.J. Burnett?  The view from 30,000 feet shows 2 consecutive seasons of ERA’s above 5 while pitching for the all-mighty Yankees.  Upon closer inspection, though, you can see that Burnett’s HR/FB ratios have been well above normal expected rates in 2010 and 2011, as they were 11.6% and 17.0%, respectively.  Normalizing him to a rate of 10.6% on the xFIP scale would show that Burnett’s rates would be more like a 4.49 and 3.86 xFIP in 2010 and 2011.

Parsing the grains of sand even further, it seems as if the large part of the problem is that Burnett has become more homer-prone against righties than lefties in recent years.  For his career, Burnett has a HR/9 of 0.80 against LH batters and a HR/9 of 1.08 against RH batters.  However, in 2009 the split became more pronounced upon his arrival to the Yankees.  In 2009, the HR/9 was 0.86 against LH batters and 1.38 against RH batters.  For the 2010 campaign,  it was 0.98 for LH and 1.47 for RH batters per 9 innings.  This trend crescendoed in 2011 with a 1.16 HR/9 against LH batters and an Arroyoian 1.81 HR/9 versus RH batters.

The first instinct is to question his stuff.   During his 3 year Yankee tenure his fastball went from an average of 94.2 mph in 2009 to 92.7 mph in 2011.  Although that’s a drop of 1.5 mph, his velocity is still quite good.  However, Burnett’s changeup has remained a very firm 87.8 to 88.2 mph in the past 3 years.  Without a corresponding drop in velocity, to say nothing of the fact that it does not have the typical 8-10 mph separation you would ideally want between the pitches, batters have been able to sit on his fastball.  Perhaps this is why Burnett threw fastballs at a career low 56.0% rate in 2011 (career average is 65.7%).

In his past 3 years with the Yankees, Burnett was worth 3.5/1.4/1.5 WAR.  Providing that Burnett adjusts well to being on the Pirates instead of the Yankees, it is reasonable to assume that Burnett can be a 2 WAR pitcher in the diluted NL Central.  Curiously, even though Burnett averaged 190 innings during his Yankee tenure, Bill James forecasted 173 innings pitched for 2012.  Perhaps he was assuming he would be benched/skipped at some point in 2012 by the Yankees.  It would be interesting to see if James’ projection will change as a result of the trade.

No Pirate starter pitched more than 171 innings last year, due to injuries (Maholm, Correia) or needing to be rested due to career high workloads (Morton, Karstens).  If Burnett can provide 190 innings with his career rates of strikeouts (8.18 K/9) and Bedard can stay healthy and provide 130 IP of his career average of 8.7 K/9, it could really take a lot of stress off of the Pirates’ defense and provide the Pirates with a 1-2 punch of strikeout pitchers not seen around these here parts in quite some time.

Pirates fans have been very interested in comparing what has left this offseason to what the Pirates have brought in to replace the departed.  There has been much lamenting in the different Pirate fan zones about the loss of Paul Maholm, even though many of those same people were blasting Maholm frequently during his starts this season.  If you want to do a strict player-to-player comparison of the rotation from 2011 to 2012, it could look something like this, assuming that McDonald/Karstens build on their inning totals from 2011:

2011 — Morton (171 innings), McDonald (171 innings), Maholm (162 innings), Karstens (162 innings), Correia (154 innings)

2012 — Burnett (190 innings), McDonald (185 innings), Karstens (180 innings), Morton (170 innings), Bedard (130 innings)

That’s a 35 inning increase from 2011 of the 5 top projected pitchers.  This also allows the Pirates to use Correia as the long man in the bullpen and keep Lincoln in reserve if Bedard goes down due to injury.  More interestingly, though, is the difference in K/9 rates from 2011 to 2012:

2011 — McDonald (7.47 K/9), Morton (5.77 K/9), Maholm (5.38 K/9), Karstens (5.32 K/9), Correia (4.50 K/9)

2012 — Bedard (8.76 K/9), Burnett (8.18 K/9), McDonald (7.47 K/9), Morton (5.77 K/9), Karstens (5.38 K/9)

The rates for McDonald/Morton/Karstens are assuming no increase/decrease, of course, in their K rates, but you can see how Burnett and Bedard have changed the dynamic of the rotation this season.  It gives the rotation some teeth and some reason for opposing batters to not get comfortable in the batter’s box and put balls in play.

Is A.J. Burnett worth $16.5M per year?  No, not at this point in his career.  But he sure is worth the $5M and $8M the Pirates will be paying him each of the next 2 years, thanks to the largesse of the Yankees.

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