What are the Pittsburgh Pirates getting in A.J. Burnett?
By Jake Misener
After bringing back fan favorite A.J. Burnett on a one-year, $8.5 million contract earlier this offseason, the Pittsburgh Pirates added a valuable innings-eater arm to a rotation that had several question marks at that point in time. Since then, the club re-signed southpaw Francisco Liriano, bringing a dominant ace to the front of the staff, as well as a complimentary option to Burnett himself.
Burnett, who turns 38 in just over a week, took a significant pay cut to come back to the Steel City – which hardly comes as a surprise given the state of his 2014 club, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the success he enjoyed during his first go-round in Pittsburgh. The veteran right-hander played an integral role in the success of the Pirates during the historic 2013 season, making 30 starts, while pitching to a 3.30 earned run average, 2.80 FIP and 9.8 SO/9 mark in just under 200 innings of work.
Following that season, which ended with the Pirates’ first postseason appearance in decades, Burnett elected free agency, ultimately joining Philadelphia. When one first glances at his numbers from last season (NL-leading 18 losses, 4.59 ERA) – it’s hard to fathom why Neal Huntington would even want to add Burnett into the fold for 2015. However, when one digs a little deeper, it’s not such a challenging answer to come up with.
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First, and perhaps foremost, it is crucial to understand that A.J. Burnett is no longer an ace. He’s a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter who will likely eat between 175 and 200 innings and win double-digit games for your club. He is a veteran presence that is invaluable in a clubhouse – especially one that contains a high number of younger players – namely arms. If you can understand and accept those facts, then this $8.5 million deal makes a great deal of sense.
Now, back to his 2014 numbers. The staggering number of losses, which was a career-high for Burnett, can largely be explained by an ineffective Phillies offense coupled with a less-than-stellar performance from the righty himself. Since 2012, the former eighth-round pick has seen his walks-per-nine ratio rise from 2.8 to 3.2 to 4.0 last season – his highest mark since the 2009 campaign with the New York Yankees. His 1.98 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the worst since 2003 for Burnett – evidence that locating pitches and finishing hitters will be key in 2015.
According to Steamer Projections for next season, Burnett is slated to win 10 games, while also losing 10. However, his earned run average is set to take a nosedive from the aforementioned 4.59 clip from 2014 to 4.04. In a similar fashion, his FIP is estimated to fall by roughly half a run, as well, from 4.14 to 3.63.
One of the staples to Burnett’s success – especially in 2013 with the Pirates – is the ability to keep the ball on the ground. That season, he posted a 56.5 percent ground ball rate – the best mark of his career. Even in 2012, he posted a very respectable 56.9 clip, but last season, that number fell to just over 50 percent (50.9 percent). For him to be effective – especially in the later stages of his career – he must be able to keep his pitches low in the zone or else he will risk being rocked by opposing lineups.
For a bargain deal, one cannot blame Pittsburgh for hoping to get one last bit of life out of the right arm of A.J. Burnett. If things pan out, although he won’t regularly dominate hitters, he’ll be good for 175 innings and a decent earned run average. And for Pittsburgh, that’s about all you can hope for.