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.

A.J. Burnett TBF K% BB% GB% HR/FB ERA ERA-
2008-2011 3519 21.1% 9.8% 46.4% 12.1% 4.59 106
2012-2013 1652 23.6% 7.8% 56.7% 11.0% 3.41 92
2014 935 20.3% 10.3% 50.9% 11.3% 4.59 126

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.

Grade: D

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8 comments

  1. bubba0101

    November 05, 2014 01:33 PM

    Gotta use the extra cash to go for Tomas and a younger second tier starter for the rebuild. Both would go a long way in our rebuild.

  2. Chris S.

    November 05, 2014 01:41 PM

    The first thing we should do with this freed up money is to go after Tomas. Secondly, I think signing a guy like Johan Santana to a minor league deal would be a good move. He will probably pitch like AJ did last year if he is healthy, but there is a non-zero chance that he could be useful and be a nice trading chip at the deadline while costing the Phillies next to nothing.

  3. Ryan

    November 05, 2014 05:48 PM

    Any chance we see Nola on the big club next year? He’s flown through the system so far and from the draft reports I read he was probably the closest to major-league-ready in the draft. If he keeps progressing quickly and we still need starters at the major league level I don’t see a reason to keep him in the minors. Playing for a team who’s president doesn’t expect them to contend until 2017 seems like the perfect low-pressure situation in which to make a major league debut.

    • MattWinks

      November 05, 2014 06:23 PM

      The Phillies have indicated they expect him to be ready for the majors by some point in the middle of 2015. He has the stuff to get outs in the majors right now, but they will hold him down for the combination of service time, innings suppression, and having him work on things.

    • Bob

      November 05, 2014 06:40 PM

      The reason to keep him in the minors is to delay the start of his service time. If the Phillies don’t think they can compete until 2017, it doesn’t make sense to me why they’d start his clock in 2015 – a lost season.

      • Ryan

        November 06, 2014 12:19 PM

        Personally, I hate this argument. A lost season seems like the perfect time for a young pitcher to make his debut and take the lumps that will surely follow. So you lose a year of having the guy under cheap control, I’d trade that for having a pitcher with an extra year of experience facing actual big-league batters. All we ever hear about is how much money the Phillies are going to have to play with beyond 2016-2017 anyway.

      • Bob

        November 06, 2014 08:01 PM

        Gillick said that the Phillies probably won’t compete until 2017, and I think that’s optimistic. The Phils can bring him up in mid-2016 season and get the same benefits of pitching in low pressure situations that you want. It will also allow him to endure the rigors of a full season in the minors. Remember, he was pitching in college just last year. He’s pitched less than 60 innings in the minors and could benefit for at least one full year in the minors.

  4. glovesdroppa

    November 05, 2014 11:53 PM

    Burnett was a warrior for gutting through a tough injury but he didn’t really offer much. Could see him bouncing back next year without the hernia, but I don’t think he has the desire to go through another full season like this one. Hopefully they use his money wisely…

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