The New York Yankees made their second splashy, long-term commitment to a top-of-the-rotation starter yesterday, inking righty A.J. Burnett to a five-year, $82.5 million deal (which, by the way, Dave Cameron absolutely nailed in Burnett’s Free Agent Value piece).
It’s virtually impossible to predict with any degree of certainty how those mega-deals will play out in the long run, given the injury and attrition risks associated with pitchers. However, the Yankees are at the top of the revenue curve , and each additional win added to the club’s roster brings them significantly closer to a playoff appearance. With CC and A.J. now headed to the Bronx, the AL East boasts three absolutely terrifying rotations in Tampa, Boston and New York. Somewhere, a Blue Jays fan is weeping.
Using a mid-90’s fastball and a devastating curveball, Burnett has the repertoire to dominate. Few pitchers possess as much movement on their curve as A.J., whose power breaker has over six inches of horizontal and vertical break. In other words, it has more side-to-side motion than most sliders, while simultaneously “dropping” in the zone more than most 12-to-6 curves. Burnett’s 76.2 Contact% ranked 6th among all starters and is a testament to the quality of his stuff.
If only the conversation could end there. 32 in January, Burnett might as well come with an “if healthy” sign plastered to his forehead, as that qualifier has been and will continue to be attached to him. His injury history is too lengthy to list here, but elbow soreness (2006) and shoulder pain (2007) are the latest ailments to sideline the 6-5, 230 pounder.
Burnett has a long track record of missing bats, getting grounders and showing average control, and all three of those trends continued in 2008. While Burnett’s ERA rose from 3.75 in 2007 to 4.07 in 2008, that was more the product of an unusually high .328 BABIP (especially strange, given Toronto’s slick fielding). His Fielding Independent ERA (FIP) actually dropped from 4.33 in 2007 to 3.45 this past year, but very little changed in his controllable skills. Rather, his sky-high 17.7 HR/FB rate from ’07 regressed to a more average 9.6% this past season.
Burnett’s peripherals remain very strong, as he punched out 9.39 batters per nine innings and walked 3.5, generating grounders at a 48.5% clip. Using Expected Fielding Independent ERA (XFIP) from The Hardball Times (which evaluates pitchers based on strikeouts walks and a “normalized” HR rate), we find that Burnett’s last two campaigns were essentially of the same quality, with XFIP’s of 3.70 and 3.65.
Despite the rather smooth glovework done by the Blue Jays overall (+19 as a team in UZR, 3rd in Defensive Efficiency), Burnett had pretty poor luck on balls put in play. As previously mentioned when discussing Andy Pettitte, the Yankee gloves were less than ideal in ’08, with -39.4 UZR and a 25th-place finish in Defensive Efficiency. However, two of the team’s biggest culprits, Bobby Abreu (-25.2 UZR) and Jason Giambi (-1.8 UZR), appear unlikely to return, which should help matters. In addition, the rumored Melky Cabrera-for-Mike Cameron swap would improve things, as the soon-to-be 36 year-old Cameron can still run ’em down (9.7 UZR).
A groundball pitcher like Burnett will surely want to see better work from Robinson Cano, who was a plus defender in ’07 (8.1 UZR) but had a rough go of it in 2008 (-7.3 UZR). Derek Jeter had one of his better fielding years in 2008, but he still only managed to post a -0.4 UZR. The previous year he was at -18.4, and he’s been in the red every year we have UZR data going back to 2002.
While Burnett is an extremely talented hurler, his durability remains the great unknown. Burnett tossed a career-high 221.1 IP in 2008, and he didn’t experience health problems during the course of the season. However, the other two seasons in which Burnett crossed the 200-inning threshold both came with consequences. In 2002 as a Marlin, he tossed 204.1 innings. The following year, he made just four starts before succumbing to Tommy John surgery. Burnett again topped 200 innings in 2005 (209 IP). He made just 21 and 25 starts in 2006 and 2007, respectively, dealing with the aforementioned elbow and shoulder maladies.
Will Burnett remain healthy and productive in the Bronx? It’s worth gambling to find out. Just don’t place too high of a wager on his dominant but oft-damaged right arm.
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