The news came down today that the New York Yankees had spent over $80 million on free agent starting pitcher AJ Burnett and I, like many Yankees fans, was a little disappointed. From a more objective standpoint I was in utter shock.
Surely, Brian Cashman had seen this guy get hurt time and time again. Did his 2008 season really support $16 million a year? My first impression was that someone else was calling the shots.
I will make no secret that I do not love Brian Cashman. He does not seem to be the statistical genius of a Billy Beane or Theo Epstein and sometimes I just feel like I could run the team better than him. However he is a modern, progressive GM who understands saber-metrics and gets deals done. So why in gods name would he sign Burnett for $16 million a year?
I set out to find the answer, and I did. AJ Burnett has been quite unlucky in his career, but if you look at his underlying statistics, and you combine them in pretty freaking complicated ways, you can see he is actually pretty good.
AJ Burnett has always been a strikeout pitcher and that is not going to change. In 2008, he put up 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings, good for first place in the American League and third overall in Major League Baseball. I have to note that it is down a strikeout every three games, but then I would also have to note that over the past two seasons he has put up by far the best strikeout rates of his career. The point is he strikes people out. That has never been his problem and never will be his problem.
Now let’s look at his walk rate. Since 2004, Burnett has been pretty average when it comes to his control and he has been very up and down. In his best year, 2006, Burnett walked 2.6 guys per nine innings. Not terrible, not good. This was when he was 30, right in the prime of his career, and we do not necessarily expect him to reach this level again.
However, we did not expect what would happen in 2007 either; his walk rate leaped up to 3.6 per nine. That is another walk every game, pretty significant. In 2008, he was unable to get it back down to his 2006 levels, but it did not get any worse. In fact it stayed at 3.5. This is pretty much in line with his career average of 3.7, and I think we can expect him to stay around there.
There could be a small improvement of course, since aging players tend to lose a little in strikeouts well before they lose a little in walks so the fact that he is putting up great strikeout numbers and bad walk numbers makes me think there definitely could be a few things to iron out.
When we put together those two stats we get a 2.7 K/BB rate. That is pretty good. It is not elite, but it is pretty good. We also see he had the exact same K/BB rate in 2007, however his tRA and xERA are significantly worse in 2008. His xERA in 2007 was 3.45 and his xERA in 2008 was 3.75. That is a huge difference. If it was still down at 3.45, I would be a little bit happier about the deal. So why did it go up?
First of all we have to look at his GB% (ground ball percentage), and here we do see a problem. In 2007, it was at 54.5%. In career context that was pretty good. In 2008 his GB% was 48. In career context that was pretty bad. His average is around 50%, which is very good considering his K rate.
After looking at this we start to see how good of a season 2007 was. He had a 54% GB% and a good K rate. But was 2008 really that bad? He kept the same K rate and BB rate. If he could have just kept the ball on the ground he would have been that 3.45 xERA (expected ERA) pitcher right? In all likelihood, yes.
Now this leads to a very interesting debate. Can Burnett get his GB% back? Again in all likelihood, yes. His GB% has been up and down his entire. He is throwing his fastball in the range he has been since 2004. There is a possibility that Burnett lost a bit of his GB ability by throwing less fastballs and more curveballs in 2008. But again, it just does not seem like enough.
So what does this mean? It means that Burnett did not get that much worse. That he did suffer a lot from a less effective sinking fastball and that he was most likely a little unlucky. Pitchers just do not lose six percent off their groundball percentage by throwing essentially the same pitches in the same way.
So, if we can expect him to perform somewhere in the middle of his 2007 and 2008 seasons, than we can probably expect a 3.50 or so xERA and a 2.7 K/BB rate with a GB% regressing back to his career average of 50%.
So, I just spent about 850 words telling you what to expect from AJ Burnett. But is he worth the contract? The three main factors I think went into this choice are: performance, division, and injuries.
As far as performance alone, he is probably worth somewhere around what he got. Now of course this is all very subjective. Is any baseball player worth what they get paid? But the only way to evaluate a player’s salary is to look at them in relation to the rest of the league.
Burnett is getting paid in the Carlos Zambrano range, and I think that is pretty appropriate. I am highly critical of Zambrano but when he signed the contract he was putting up an ERA in the mid three’s where Burnett’s xERA should be in 2009. Now I am not saying people should pay based on ERA and not xERA or tRA (expected runs/expected outs) or something better like that, but xERA is just a better ERA and the Cubs probably do not know what it means.
Someone who puts up an ERA/xERA in the mid three’s should be paid around $15-16 million in this market. Now there are plenty of pitchers getting paid less than this and putting up better stats, but we have to look at players in a similar performance group that signed extensions recently.
Now lets look at injuries. This could be the killer. In 2003 and 2004 Burnett had an injured elbow and missed significant time recovering from surgery. This injury flared up again in 2006, and he had shoulder problems in 2007. This is scary, and there is definitely a good chance something else flares up.
But what we do have to be thankful for is that we have not seen those elbow problems since 2006. They plagued him the first few years of his career and appear to be gone. He had a little shoulder problem but nothing seems to have come out of that. I would be worried, but I do not think Burnett has nearly reached Mark Prior or pre-2008 Rich Harden status.
There is a possibility something comes up, but the chances of a major elbow injury seem slim at this point. I would be worried about the five years, but if anyone can absorb a bad contract in the last few years it is the Yankees. At least for the next few years, he should not be injured as much as most are saying he will be.
Now we have to look at the final, and probably deciding factor. The Yankees could have gone after Derek Lowe instead. Lowe was the better pitcher. He had a better BB rate, better GB% (possibly the best in the league) and pretty a pretty good K rate. The only problem is that he has been doing this in the National League West in a great pitchers' park.
The Yankees were concerned as to whether he could make the transition to the AL East and rightfully so. I am not saying they made the right choice passing him up, but I see where they are coming from. Then you have AJ Burnett.
Burnett has pitched the last few years, two of the best of his career, in the AL East and has done it very, very well. Even better he no longer has to face the Yankees and now gets to face the Blue Jays. He has proven he can put up mid three’s xERA’s in the AL East and with the Yankees track record that is extremely important.
He also did well against a few AL East opponents. He put up 10 dominate starts against the Yankees and Red Sox combined. I am sure that he will have plenty of use out of division but the fact that he can handle the division does help his case.
Do I love this move? No. I would rather have had the Yankees go after Derek Lowe. He is just a better pitcher, I do not think the move to the AL East would hurt him that much. But I can see why the Yankees would want to go after Burnett, and I think they have many good points. Burnett is a talented pitcher with a few years left. He can pitch in the AL East and his injury problems have been slightly overblown. $16 million I am fine with. Five years? Not so much.
This article was originally published on Fantasy Bullpen. Alex Geshwind can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.