The Reinvention of A.J. Burnett

Following the 2011 season, A.J. Burnett wasn’t looking so hot. Three years into a five-year deal signed prior to the Yankees’ 2009 World Series-winning campaign, Burnett had provided the Yankees with 584 innings of 4.79 ERA (92 ERA+) and a K/BB ratio under 2.0. With two years and $33 million remaining on the deal, Burnett was shipped out to Pittsburgh for minor leaguers Exicardo Cayones and Diego Moreno and 60 cents on the dollar (New York paid $20 million of the remainder).

It was there, in Pittsburgh, that Burnett turned things around. In 393.1 innings, Burnett provided the Bucs with a 3.41 ERA (107 ERA+) and a K/BB ratio of 3.02. What’s more, his home run rate was drastically reduced, going from 81 allowed in those 584 Yankee innings (1.2 per 9) to 29 in 393.1 (or 0.7 per 9).

As it turns out, the National League had a devil of a time trying to connect with Burnett’s curveball, a decidedly filthy pitch that devastated the vast majority of hitters. Burnett threw his curve 2,101 times as a member of the Pirates staff, and plate appearances ending with a Charlie produced just a .152/.185/.195 line for opposing hitters. That’s a .380 OPS; even Michael Martinez has a career .495 OPS. There’s no pronounced platoon split with it, either, as Burnett threw 1,065 curves to LHB for a .378 OPS and 1,036 curves to RHB for a .381 OPS. Among pitchers with at least 30 starts over the past two seasons, only Clayton Kershaw, Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg and Yu Darvish have had their curveballs limit hitters to a lower OPS. Cole Hamels, for the record, is right behind Burnett on that list with a .393 opponent OPS.

Burnett’s fastball velocity has also held mostly steady as he’s aged, going from 92.7 to 92.2 to 92.4 average MPH over the last three seasons, per Fangraphs. Not that a 92 MPH fastball is a great weapon in and of itself, but for Burnett’s curve to maintain its effectiveness, having a steady fastball to complement was and still is essential. Perhaps there’s some credit due to facing weaker NL lineups, but one could also find clear improvement in Burnett’s fastball from 2012-13 over 2009-11:

In numbers:

  • 2009-11: .300/.389/.498
  • 2012-13: .284/.365/.432

Not that that’s some groundbreaking improvement or Verlanderian production in the past two seasons, but it’s certainly better than allowing the cumulative career slash of, essentially, Buster Posey (.308/.377/.486).

The larger point is that Burnett found his second wind in Pittsburgh, utilizing his curve with great efficacy and finding NL lineups a bit easier to navigate. As for shifting from the NL Central to the East, the Phillies’ division counterparts combined to score 2,476 runs in 2013, with Atlanta (who lost Brian McCann) and Washington leading the way. The Pirates’ Central opponents combined for 2,723, a group that included St. Louis and Cincinnati, who finished first and third in the Senior Circuit in runs, respectively.

It stands to logic and reason that Burnett, should he find a way to stave off a sudden, rapid decline that befalls so many pitchers in their latter 30s, should otherwise remain an effective asset for the Phillies in 2014, and worth the $16 million tab for one guaranteed season.

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  1. ediwn

    February 12, 2014 08:10 PM

    Well, it did not take long for Keith ‘the water boy’ Law to trash the signing but for someone who was drummed out of Toronto which is like washing out in Houston. The signing is a good one and should help the Phils over the course of the season.

  2. @Shawny_mac12

    February 13, 2014 03:40 AM

    So what I’m getting from most Phillies fans is this is a good signing for us. Pirates fans are salty because they wouldn’t offer him enough money, so they’re bashing it. Other baseball writers are bashing it because we spent too much money but if the Phils front office feels like they have the money to spend, spend it. Seems like a deal that’ll help us out over the course of the season and may add a few wins. This leads me to believe, and lord help me if I get too ‘High Hopes’, if all goes well and the aging core stays healthy and plays somewhat decently, with a full season of the Ben Revere we saw after he got adjusted and a few more months from Dom Brown like we saw in May… we could maybe, just maybe squeeze in as a wildcard team. And the Phils could be built well for a series with all the playoff experience and front of the rotation of Lee, Hamels and Burnett. Too optimistic too early? Perhaps, but would we really be Phillie fans if we didn’t get our hopes up a little too much early on?

    • Boston Phan

      February 13, 2014 08:26 AM

      Two projection systems, PECOTA and Steamer, project the Phils’ 2014 win total somewhere in the mid-70s. Burnett might get the Phils into the upper 70s. It seems to me the only way the Phils are playoff contenders is through lots of luck (health, old players bounce back to previous career bests, etc.)

      My main concern is that Burnett might make the Phils good enough in the first half that the team decides not to be sellers at the deadline and instead tries to make a playoff push.

      • @shawny_mac12

        February 13, 2014 11:07 AM

        I know what you’re saying. I just get super excited for the season around this time (pitchers and catchers!) and that clouds my judgment up until about the end of May. The last thing I’d want is for them to think can contend and not try to make some moves to improve the team for the future. That being said, even if the old players improve back to 3 WAR guys, with Utley having at least the season he had last year and the younger guys (Revere and Brown) play well, there is a shot in hell. No WS though, I’d take a division title but I highly doubt that as well. Pitching is a question mark still but at least they made the font a little smaller on it.

  3. Boo-urns

    February 14, 2014 04:12 PM

    I look at it this way: while being far from a certainly, we are much more likely to have a shot at the postseason with Burnett than without, by no small margin. Is that worth $16M? Absolutely. Besides, who else were we going to spend it on at this point?

  4. Robby Bonfire

    February 16, 2014 04:20 PM

    Shouldn’t a team in a rebuilding mode, be, err – rebuilding?

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