Initially, I supported the idea of trading Burnett to the Pirates because of the reports that Garrett Jones would be coming back from the Pirates. That is a deal that made sense because Garret Jones would play an important role as a platoon DH/OF against right-handed pitchers (his numbers against righties last season: .346 OBP, .462 SLG, sOPS+ 117).
However, it turned out that the Pirates were not going to trade Garrett Jones for A.J. Burnett.
In fact, it looks like the Yankees will not be getting any player that can make an impact for this team in the present or in the future. Most likely, the player the Yankees will receive is going to serve as minor league depth for the rest of his time with the organization.
If the A.J. Burnett deal is merely a salary dump for the Bronx Bombers, then it is not the right move to make.
To all those who disagree, I want you to forget what A.J. Burnett’s yearly salary will be for the next two seasons (16.5 million); I want you to remember that the luxury tax threshold of $189 million comes into effect in 2014 which is after Burnett’s deal expires; I want you to realize that A.J. Burnett is clearly a player who is above replacement level.
Last season saw A.J. Burnett post a 1.5 WAR. That means that if you replaced A.J. Burnett with a replacement-level player (think of a AAAA-type player, someone who is too good for the minors but not good enough for the big leagues) you would see a drop in the Yankees total of 1.5.
Yes, I realize you cannot have half a win. If you must harp on that fact, then treat it as a 1.5 win drop from a calculated expected wins total.
Now, how does a pitcher with a 5.15 ERA turn out to be a 1.5 WAR player?
The answer lies in better statistics. First, ERA is an antiquated stat that very often misrepresents the quality of a pitcher. The defense behind the pitcher, the ballpark he pitches in, and for lack of a better term, luck, all can turn ERA into a stat that does a poor job of measuring pitcher performance.
Now let us look at some stats that better represent pitcher performance. Burnett’s K/9 (strikeouts/nine innings—which fell by quite a bit in 2010) was 8.18 in 2011. That is near the level that Burnett had in 2009 (8.48).
His K/BB in 2011 was the best he has posted in his time as a Yankee (2.08). His WHIP was 1.43 in 2011. That does not correlate to an ERA of 5.15.
A pitcher with a 1.43 WHIP should expect to have an ERA from 4.20-4.60 which in the AL East isn’t as bad as it looks. In fact, that would make Burnett a solid back of the rotation starter.
So what could explain A.J. Burnett’s poor ERA in 2011?
Let’s look at HR/FB rate. This stat shows what percentage of the fly balls a pitcher concedes wind up in the seats. The league average is 10.6 percent and most pitchers’ career averages hang around 8.5-11.5 percent.
Obviously it can differ for different pitchers and is affected by competition and ballpark factors. Season-to-season this stat can be highly volatile. That is what we saw with A.J. Burnett in 2011.
Before 2011, A.J. Burnett had a career HR/FB rate under 11 percent. During his time as a Yankee, his HR/FB rate was slightly above 11 percent. A.J. Burnett posted a 17 percent HR/FB rate in 2011. That’s an absurdly high rate and a ridiculously large jump from his career numbers.
A number like this screams bad luck and should regress to the mean in the 2012 season.
The effect of Burnett’s “bad luck” with home runs can be seen in the FIP (fielding independent pitching) and xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching).
FIP is a stat that attempts to strip away as many of the outside factors affecting ERA and come up with a number (on an ERA scale) that represents the quality of the pitcher’s performance (hence fielding independent). If you want to learn more about FIP and how it is calculated, check here.
A.J. Burnett’s FIP in 2011 was 4.77. Now, FIP does not take into account “bad luck” when it comes to HR/FB rate. That is where xFIP comes in. This stat is calculated exactly like FIP except it normalizes the HR/FB to the league average of 10.6 percent.
A.J. Burnett posted an xFIP of 3.86. The disparity between FIP and xFIP gives strong evidence to the idea that “bad luck” with fly balls becoming home runs led to Burnett posting a 5.15 ERA.
Now that I have plead the case that A.J. Burnett is not as bad as his ERA makes him out to be, I will say that A.J. Burnett should not start the season in the starting rotation.
The way I see the Yankees’ rotation is that CC is the No. 1 and the other four spots are filled by Pineda, Kuroda, Nova and Hughes. I believe Burnett should start the season in the bullpen as a long reliever.
Why we do not see more of this in the Majors is beyond me. Instead of burning roster spots by having eight or nine man bullpens, a team could have a long reliever.
This would allow a team to use less roster spots on the bullpen and have more hitters on the roster. This would increase a team’s ability to pinch hit, to make defensive substitutions and to take advantage of platoon splits during a game or game-to-game.
With his fastball and curveball, Burnett could be an effective long reliever. He would pitch about two innings an outing. He would rarely, if ever, see a hitter twice. He can focus on maximizing the effectiveness of his two pitches.
There are concerns that Burnett’s fastball has lost velocity, but if you put him in the bullpen, he can just let it rip. By just emptying all his bullets in two innings of work as opposed to pacing himself through a start, Burnett would probably see increased velocity on his fastball.
We also cannot predict injuries and Phil Hughes’ performance. If there is a long-term injury in the starting rotation or Phil Hughes shows that he cannot start in the Major Leagues, then you have Burnett there to fill in.
Of course, at this point in the year, it looks like the Yankees have too many starting pitchers. Yet, all it takes is an injury or two and you are searching for someone to hold down the fort in the fourth and fifth slots of the rotation.
Remember, we are talking about the Yankees, not a payroll limited team. The Yankees should not be in the business of duping salary for nothing. Especially when the contract ends after the 2013 season and the luxury tax level does not rise until 2014.
It just does not make baseball sense.