The Yankees and the Pirates worked out a deal that sends the hard throwing A.J. Burnett to the Pirates in exchange for Diego Moreno and Exicardo Cayones (neither is a top prospect). The Pirates also received $18 million from the Yanks to help offset the $31 million that Burnett is due to the next two seasons. Just what type of arm did the Pirates roster for the sum of $6.5 million the next two years?
Burnett’s big ticket item in the fantasy game are the punchouts. You may not have realized it, but A.J. struck out 173 batters last season, one fewer than Max Scherzer, the same total as Michael Pineda, four more than Daniel Hudson and seven more than Wandy Rodriguez. Moreover, the past five years Burnett has struck out 920 batters which just so happens to be the 10th best mark in baseball. It’s also heartening to see that he pushed his K/9 mark back over eight last season after seeing it dip to 6.99 in 2010. He isn’t likely to strike out 200 in the coming campaign, but he could easily post another season of 170 (don’t overlook the fact that he will face pitchers instead of the DH).
All those K’s bring up another point with Burnett. Though he’s long been thought of as an injury risk, and rightly so mind you, he’s actually been pretty darn healthy the past four years never failing to hurl at least 185 innings. His total of 805.1 innings the past four years is 22nd in baseball, ahead of guys like Matt Garza (790.1), Gavin Floyd (780.1), John Danks (778.2), Chad Billingsley (776.2) and Ted Lilly (768). It seems like you can safely roster Burnett expecting him to make 30 starts covering 180 innings, and that stability might help you sleep a bit better at night.
Now Burnett has his fault, and this piece isn’t going to be written with rose colored glasses. He still walks too many batters, last year he issued 3.92 walks per nine innings slightly above his 3.79 career mark, but that’s well within the random variation level of acceptance (even if the number is elevated when compared to the big league average). Something he has not been able to get a handle on though is the long ball. The past three years he’s had a HR/9 mark of at least 1.09 including last years mark of 1.47, a career worst (you can at least partly blame a massive 17.0 percent HR/F rate that was well above his 11.3 career mark). This is an area where he could see some improvement. In 2011 Yankee Stadium was 26 percent above the average AL park in terms of allowing home runs according to Park Indices. His new home in Pittsburgh was 19 below the NL average according to Park Indices clearly pointing to the fact that he might be able to see a fair amount of decrease in his homer rate.
Burnett posted a 49.2 percent ground ball rate last year, and that was a four year best. If he can hold on to that number in 2012, while seeing a slight reduction in his HR/9 mark (the park alone should supply that), he could be in line for a significant improvement in his ERA (his xFIP last year, which is the rate normalized to a league average HR rate, showed a three year best at 3.86. How differently would you be looking at him right now if his ERA was 3.86 versus his actual mark of 5.15?).
Here are the facts as I see them.
Burnett has thrown at least 185 innings each of the past four years.
His strikeout total the last five years is the 10th best in baseball.
In 2011 his K/9 and BB/9 rates were smack on his career marks.
His left on base percentage was 70.0 percent (career 71.4).
His GB/FB ratio was 1.52 (career 1.50).
His line drive rate was 18.5 percent (career 18.4).
I don’t know about you, but that certainly doesn’t sound like a guy who should have had a 5.15 ERA. In fact, it sounds much more like the guy who owns a career mark of 4.10. Bid accordingly on draft day 0 i.e. think of the 2009 version (13-9, 4.04 ERA, 1.40 WHIP and 195 Ks) – as Burnett is likely to offer a solid return on investment because you will likely be able to add him for relative peanuts when others at the draft are starting to swig their beer and make plans to hit the bar scene (to see how little love that Burnett is getting, take a look at Fleaflicker).
Don’t forget to pick up a copy of the 2012 Fantasy Baseball Draft Guide.
By Ray Flowers