AJ Burnett is not Matt Morris (and other thoughts on the potential trade)

I was going to wait until the Pirates and Yankees officially have a deal more about AJ Burnett, but since I’m in lab this afternoon without much to do I figured I’d put together a post that tries to get as much Burnett information into one place as I can. I have this bad habit of assuming that everyone is on the same page as me, even when I write things in November and don’t really fully explain them for months after that. 

Whether or not the Pirates can complete a trade for AJ Burnett, they definitely need to add another pitcher to the rotation before the season starts. It’s true that the rotation as-constituted is pretty much the same as it was last year with Maholm swapped out for Bedard, but that doesn’t mean it’s good enough and there are several reasons why. First off, the Pirates had five starters last year throw more than 150 innings. That is insane; the Phillies had three, the Giants had four, the Braves had three, and I could keep going down the list with the rest of the NL’s best rotations. There’s no reason to believe Pirates will be nearly as healthy in 2012 as they were in 2011; Erik Bedard is in the rotation now and Charlie Morton already has a hip problem that could cost him time in April and that’s not even considering James McDonald’s big inning leap from 2010-2011. Without another starter, the Pirates are going to spend considerable time leaning on guys outside of their top six. That means Rudy Owens or Jeff Locke — two guys who as of today are certainly not ready for a regular role in a big league rotation — or some cast-off like Jo-Jo Reyes or Shairon Martis.

Beyond that, the Pirates’ first six starters aren’t really very good. The team allowed 712 runs last year, which was well below average and 11th in the National League. There’s no real barometer for Charlie Morton once he comes back from his injury because of the changes he made last year and he could just as easily take a big step backwards as he could continue forward. Jeff Karstens almost certainly used a bunch smoke and mirrors last year and his ERA will swell at least a little bit once he starts allowing something other than solo home runs. James McDonald is inconsistent and impossible to get a read on. Kevin Correia is awful. Brad Lincoln’s ceiling isn’t much higher than a fourth starter and there’s no real reason at this point to think he’ll even be that good. No one can say anything for certain (last year’s rotation ended up much better than we all expected, even if it wasn’t good), but I have absolutely no qualms about saying that I think the Pirates’ rotation will be a disaster in 2012 if they don’t find another starter. 

So, is AJ Burnett that particular starter? He certainly hasn’t been that great in New York over the last two years and he’s 35 now, so there’s plenty of reason for concern. That said, he’s thrown 377 innings over the last two seasons and even though he’s been bad in those two years he’s managed a lot of strikeouts and a K/BB rate of 1.98 and his xFIPs in those two years have been significantly better than his ERA (ERAs: 5.26, 5.15; xFIPs: 4.49, 3.86). What the low xFIP means is that Burnett’s home run rate exceeds what you might expect it to be based on his flyball rate. Given the way that balls have flown out of Yankee Stadium III since it opened in 2009, this is a pretty expected result. In simpler terms what that means is this: if you throw out his high ERA and all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth from Yankees’ fans and the New York media over Burnett’s performance in pinstripes and just look at the relevant numbers, there’s plenty of reason to think that a trade out of Yankee Stadium and out of the AL East would do wonders for Burnett’s career.

I don’t mean he’ll be better because of some stupid Yankee-centric BS reasoning about the spotlight being off of him in Pittsburgh, I mean that his numbers suggest that he can still miss bats at a reasonable rate and that if he moves out of Yankee Stadium his home run rate will probably drop a bit and if that happens, he could still be a productive pitcher for the Pirates for 180 or so innings. Purely on numbers, this trade would look like a win for the Pirates if they can negotiate their end of Burnett’s salary down to about $5 million per year and not have to give up any sort of significant prospect. Anyone that compares AJ Burnett at this point in his career to Matt Morris in 2007 should have their keyboard taken away. Burnett has strong peripherals that are being masked by a terrible pitching environment whereas Morris in 2007 had awful peripherals matched by a great pitching environment. Burnett may not work out, but it’s not because of something that’s immediately apparent from his recent performance if you take any time at all to analyze what he did as a Yankee. 

All of these things being said, there are reasons to be nervous about Burnett from the Pirates’ perspective, even though these reasons are much less concrete. As mentioned above, Burnett is 35. In 2008, the first season in which PitchFX cameras were installed in every ballpark in baseball, Burnett’s fastball clocked in at an average of 94.3 mph. Last year it was down to 92.7. That’s still a decent average velocity, but it’s obvious from his fastball rate and his tailing strikeout numbers (his 7.0 K/9 in 2010 was the lowest number he’s had since returning from Tommy John surgery in 2004, though he rebounced to 8.2 K/9 last year) that he’s on the downside of his career. Just like young players don’t always improve in linear fashion, old players don’t always lose their skills in linear fashion. Burnett could certainly be about to fall off of a cliff in terms of ability. He doesn’t seem to be there quite yet, but it’s not something that’s easy to say for sure.

It’s also worth mentioning that while PNC Park is generally more pitcher-friendly than Yankee Stadium, it’s better to left-handed pitchers than it is to righties. The right field foul pole at PNC is relative close (320 feet) and the 21-foot high Clemente wall only makes up for so much of that. Left-handed hitters have a significantly easier time putting the ball out of the park than righties do at PNC, so it’s possible that the stadium change won’t alleviate all of Burnett’s home run woes. It should at the very least help a little bit, but let’s not pretend that he’s moving out to San Francisco or San Diego. 

There’s also the Pittsburgh Pirate factor. Burnett has made his desire to stay in New York and compete for their last rotation spot well-known. Being traded to the Pirates is something much different. Does anyone really think that Nick Evans is as excited about his invite to Pirates’ camp as Bill Hall was for his invite to Yankees’ camp? Remember when the Pirates traded Chad Hermansen to Chicago for Darren Lewis and Lewis just flat-out retired rather than join the team? Or the way Jody Gerut milked his knee injury to get released rather than play for the Pirates? I know I don’t need to remind anyone about Raul Mondesi or Aki Iwamura or Derek Bell and their illustrious Pirate careers. Burnett’s got $87 million in the bank with $33 million more coming over the next two years no matter what. No one can make him want to be a Pirate if he doesn’t want to be. 

It’s incredibly unfair to Burnett to suggest that he’s just going to fold up and quit if he gets traded to the Pirates, though. The Pirates are actually offering him an opportunity to pitch every fifth day, and that’s not an opportunity that he’s going to get anywhere else. Once the Yankees assume the burden of most of his ridiculous contract, there’s no reason the Pirates can’t flip him at the deadline to a contender if they’re out of contention he pitches well enough in the first part of the season. Ray Searage has helped more than a few pitchers with control problems and he’s also helped several guys with home run problems keep the ball on the ground. If Burnett thinks he can still pitch (and there’s no reason to think he doesn’t), getting a chance to pitch every day is exactly what he needs at this point in his career. The Pirates give him that. 

For the Pirates, Burnett’s not a sure thing and even at $5 million a year he carries some real risk. That’s mostly due to his age and his home run tendencies, but I won’t blame you for adding in a Pittsburgh Pirate multiplier. Still, the Pirates need a pitcher and it’s hard to see where they’ll find one at this point with more talent than Burnett. There are plenty of very good reasons to think that he’ll be more successful in Pittsburgh than he was in New York and if the Pirates can bargain the Yankees down far enough, this is a risk that they have to take. 

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.