An A.J. Burnett Poll

A week ago, Clint Hurdle chose A.J. Burnett over Gerrit Cole to start Game 1 of the NLDS. This was a perfectly reasonable choice, as Burnett has been excellent for the Pirates this year, and is a 37 year old veteran, while Cole is a 23 year old rookie who had just over 100 innings in his big league career. Cole has been very good since the Pirates called him up, but by pretty much any measure, Burnett had been as good or better, and he’s got a longer track record of pitching at this level.

Burnett, of course, imploded. He allowed as many hits (6) as he got outs, and he walked four batters as well, including the opposing pitcher. Seven runs scored and the Cardinals rolled to an easy victory. The next day, Cole shut down the very same line-up, allowing just two hits and one run over six innings, allowing the Pirates to tie the series. And now, with both Burnett and Cole on full rest for Game 5, Hurdle is going with the kid.

It’s an understandable decision. It is very hard to ignore recent performance, especially when those performances are as divergent as these two were against the same opponent. And, in Burnett’s case, there’s a history of poor performances in the playoffs. For his career, he’s now thrown 41 innings in the playoffs and has a 6.37 ERA/5.33 FIP/5.32 xFIP. He has issued almost as many walks as strikeouts, and that doesn’t even include the seven guys he’s beaned in those eight starts. Burnett, in October, has had no command and hasn’t been able to get anyone out.

But, at the same time, it’s 41 innings, and 27 of those came back in 2009, when Burnett posted a 96 xFIP- during the regular season. This year, he posted a 77 xFIP-. Burnett appears to be a better pitcher now than he was then. And it’s not like his poor start against the Cardinals was part of a second half fade. In the final three months of the season, he allowed wOBAs of .297, .291, and .286. His 2.61 xFIP in September was the best he posted in any month of the season. His 2.70 xFIP in the second half of the year was the third best in baseball, behind only Cliff Lee and Clayton Kershaw.

Burnett, basically, was excellent all year, but more excellent towards the end of the season. Then, he had one terrible start, and now he’s going to sit on the bench and watch Gerrit Cole pitch with the Pirates season on the line. Cole isn’t a bad choice, certainly — he ranks 6th in the majors in second half xFIP, you may notice — and perhaps this is more about going with the dominating stuff of a young power arm than being scared of giving A.J. Burnett the ball again.

But I don’t see a lot of confidence in Burnett from Pirates fans right now. It seems like his poor start in Game 1, and his history of poor playoff performances, have sapped any confidence in his ability to pitch well going forward. Everyone seems to be on board with Gerrit Cole starting this game, even though the numbers suggest that Burnett is probably the better pitcher.

So, I’m putting this to a poll. How much do you believe that A.J. Burnett’s poor playoff history matters? How much of an influence would you let 41 terrible innings in October dictate your choice of starters today, if you were Clint Hurdle?

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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