2014 Phillies Report Card: A.J. Burnett
A.J. Burnett will not be a Phillie in 2015. We learned this yesterday, when he declined his $12.75 million player option for the coming season. Previously it seemed almost certain he would either collect his 2015 paycheck in Philadelphia or retire, but Jayson Stark reported yesterday that Burnett will instead forego his guaranteed keep so that he can seek to pitch for a “contender.” Fair. Ouch, but fair.
On paper, and by any objective analysis, he’s done the Phillies a favor, especially if, as Bill suggested yesterday, the added payroll wiggle room allows the team to more seriously contend for Yasmany Thomas or Yoan Moncada.
Burnett was a fairly sound proposition on a relatively expensive but short deal, in a market where starter innings were growing more costly by the season, and for a team whose rotation depth was (is) becoming a wound they couldn’t (cannot) mend. By the end of his Yankees stint, Burnett was struggling to keep the ball both inside the strike zone and inside the park. In Pittsburgh, he found some stability, inducing grounders at career high rates and putting away 202 and 191 innings in 2012 and 2013 respectively for the Pirates.
He wasn’t elite, of course; we’re talking about around 400 above average innings coming directly on the heels of 800 or so where he was decidedly below average. But it was enough to imagine he’d maybe discovered some late-career pixie dust, and, in any case, the current Phillies front office doesn’t seem to believe in flukes. If Burnett could have piled up the innings at roughly third-starter caliber in 2014, it would’ve filled a crucial need for a modest overpay: a good deal.
But not even the good decisions paid out for the 2014 Phillies. Granted, Burnett spent most of the season battling a troublesome hernia injury with cortisone and foolhardiness, so it’s not clear if we’re looking at a simple regression to (and a stumble below) the mean. Burnett, though, looked somewhat more like the A.J. of 2008 to 2011 than the A.J. with the pirate on his hat.
If you’ll forgive some arbitrary chunking of data on my part, and put aside some probably-insignificant wiggling of some of these indicators, Burnett either slid or was dragged by his hernia most of the way back down from his Pirates peak. Walk rate, strikeout rate, and especially ground ball rate all went in the wrong direction, although his 2014 ERA may not have been entirely fair to his inputs. Either way, it was not what the Phillies were hoping to get out of the deal.
Lesser contributors in the rotation can afford to be even worse than we usually imagine (this is a good example of quantifying that notion), and even if teams are taking A.J.’s 2014 at its face, he has a good argument for a 5th starter gig. The Phillies are looking at Cole Hamels, a Cliff Lee of questionable health, Jerome Williams, and a whole lot of question marks in the 2015 rotation. Even so, they’ll be happy not to be paying A.J. Burnett $12 million to anchor the back end.