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:
- 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.