Pittsburgh Pirates: Revisiting A.J. Burnett’s 2013 Season

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While guys like Mark Melancon and Andrew McCutchen were the big names from the Pittsburgh Pirates in baseball, A.J. Burnett’s 2013 season was overlooked despite it being a great year.

The 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates team was the first Bucco team since 1992 to not only reach the post a winning record, but also make the playoffs. While Andrew McCutchen, Mark Melancon and Francisco Liriano were the big names to focus on that season, veteran right-handed starter A.J. Burnett was one of the biggest leaders of the team, both on and off the field and had the numbers to back it up. However, he was one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball that season.

After a strong 2012 bounce back season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Burnett was primed to open the season as the Bucs’ ace and he held that title for most of the season. Burnett posted the best numbers of his career since his time with the Marlins back in the early-2000s.

In 191 innings, Burnett posted a 3.30 ERA, 2.80 FIP and 1.22 WHIP. He also struck out 209 batters, which placed him at a 9.8 K/9 ratio. He led the National League in K/9, and only three names were ahead of him in 2013. They were 2nd place AL Cy Young finisher Yu Darvish, AL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, and the AL ERA leader Anibal Sanchez.

Burnett was also 9th in strikeout rate at 26.1%. That was still better than NL Cy Young winner, and probably the best pitcher of our generation, Clayton Kershaw, and the best postseason pitcher of our generation, Madison Bumgarner. He was also tied with two other great names in Chris Sale and Stephen Strasburg. One of the 209 strikeouts he got in 2013 was his 2000th career strikeout. This came on April 17th when he got switch hitting Cardinals outfielder Carlos Beltran looking at strike three on a 92 MPH fastball.

But Burnett wasn’t just good at getting strikeouts, he prevented walks most of the time as well. He finished the season with just 67 walks and a 3.2 BB/9. He sat behind Tigers’ ace Justin Verlander in BB/9 ratio, and his walk rate of 8.4% sat just ahead of the late and great Jose Fernandez.

In terms of K/BB ratio, Burnett was among the best in that regard. He posted a solid 3.12 K/BB ratio, which ranked 36th in the MLB. Solid, but his K/BB rate was much better looking. Sitting at 17.7%, Burnett had the highest K/BB percentage in the MLB.

Burnett also had a great ability of keeping the ball on the ground. Burnett led the NL in ground ball percentage at an outstanding 56.5% rate. Only Indians pitcher Justin Matherson passed him at 58% in the MLB. With that strong ground ball rate, you can expect few home runs. Of the 165 hits he surrendered, only 11 left the ballpark. That resulted in a 0.52 HR/9 rate which tied him with Fernandez for the 5th lowest mark that season. When batters did make hard contact, they usually did not hit the ball hard. Burnett’s 28.7% hard hit rate may have ranked 28th in baseball, but was still better than the league average of 30%.

Aside from your classic stats, many other more advanced stats also said Burnett was great in 2013.

Burnett’s 2.80 FIP was 8th among all starters. Phillies’ left handed ace Cliff Lee nearly tied with Burnett with a 2.82 FIP, as well as Max Scherzer (2.74). SIERA also painted Burnett in a great light. Burnett finished out the year with a 3.03 SIERA. That tied him with the aforementioned Anibal Sanchez, and just behind Kershaw (2.99). However, the most impressive ERA estimator he had was a sub-3 DRA at 2.96. Among pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched, the Batman’s DRA was the 12th best. He was still better than Rays’ lefty David Price (3.02) and Reds’ outstanding right hander Mat Latos (3.06). If you narrow it down to pitchers who had at least 180 innings pitched, he ranks 10th.

It’s arguable that A.J. Burnett was a top 10 pitcher in baseball in 2013. He was top 10 in FIP, strikeout rate, HR/9, ground ball rate, strikeout total, and SIERA, while just missing out of the top 10 in hits/9 (7.8), and DRA. But despite this, Burnett didn’t get a single Cy Young vote, or even the All-Star Game. Which is a shame, because he put together one of the best pitching seasons in Pittsburgh Pirates history and was one of the leaders of a team that snapped 20 year losing streak.

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Maybe it was because voters went old school, saw the 10-11 record and left him off their ballots. If that’s the case, that is a very big disservice to Burnett’s season. Maybe there were just many other great pitchers that season, and Burnett got left off that way. After all, the National League had many talented pitchers that season. Regardless of why Batman didn’t get a Cy Young vote, or even an All-Star Game that season, there’s no denying that his 2013 season was spectacular, and one of the most underrated seasons in recent Pittsburgh Pirates history.

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