In the 2008-2009 off-season Pat Burrell was in an excellent situation. After nine seasons in Philadelphia he had finally won a World Series. He had endured plenty of criticism while playing there, including particularly fervent booing in 2003. At age 31, he had options — including a possible return to the only team he had ever known. But in mid-December the Phillies signed Raul Ibanez to a three-year contract, which effectively ended Burrell’s time in red pinstripes. That put him in front of 29 other teams, most intriguingly the 14 AL teams that could use him as a DH.
Looking for another championship he signed with the team the Phillies beat in 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays. The marriage seemed perfect. Tampa Bay didn’t get much production out of the DH spot during their pennant year, employing Cliff Floyd while he wasn’t injured and a ragtag bunch of below-average DHs when he wasn’t. Adding Burrell would give them a right-handed power bat to complement left-handed first baseman Carlos Pena. Best of all, it meant that Burrell’s defense would no longer subtract from his overall value.
Nothing went according to plan. The Rays spent most of the year in third place, trailing the Red Sox and the Yankees in the AL East. Their run differential made it seem as though they were perpetually poised to make a charge, but that never materialized. Burrell didn’t help the cause, turning in the worst season of his career. Even with his poor defense, a career -44.9 UZR in left field, he was able to produce at least 2 WAR in each of his seasons with Philadelphia, save for his ugly 2003 campaign. In 2009, with no defensive issues holding him back, he produced the worst wOBA of his career, .309, which amounted to -0.5 WAR, more than a full win worse than his previous worst season.
His bounceback attempt in 2010 didn’t go well either. In fact, it went much worse than 2009. Burrell produced a .283 wOBA, including a mere .131 ISO. After 24 games at DH, the Rays designated him for assignment, releasing him four days later. He’d end up somewhere for sure, probably a team like the White Sox that could have used a DH. Instead he signed a minor league contract with the Giants. It seemed like an odd pairing, a defensive statue like Burrell potentially playing for an NL team, but the Giants needed bats.
After just five games at Triple-A, the Giants recalled Burrell and slotted him into his familiar position, left field. The gamble paid off almost immediately. In 74 June PA, Burrell produced a .425 wOBA. He slowed down a bit in July, riding a .237 BABIP to a .273 wOBA, but the Giants offense covered for him, scoring 149 runs, by far their most in any month of 2010. In August he’s picked up the pace again, going 12-for-32 with five doubles and two homers. He has had a hand in 10 of the Giants’ 36 runs scored this month, so again his presence has helped the team avoid a prolonged slump.
Burrell’s recent hot streak, and really his season overall, calls into question the reasons why he failed so horribly in Tampa Bay. Does playing the field really affect his hitting ability? Does he simply know NL pitchers better, even though there are many pitchers he didn’t face during his time in the NL last decade? Was there something making him uncomfortable in Tampa Bay? In the AL? Like most issues of causation, there are likely myriad reasons why Burrell failed in 2009 and the first two months of 2010. He has apparently put that behind him, though, and is now playing a prominent role on a contending team. A year and a half later, Pat the Bat is realizing the perfect marriage he thought he had in 2009.
Bonus trivia: Did you know that Pat Burrell is the all-time leader in home runs for players born in Arkansas? The previous record holder: Brooks Robinson.