There’s a stigma about AJ Burnett. With the news of his potential trade to the Pittsburgh Pirates, the general opinion of Burnett is incredibly low. That’s not completely unwarranted, as the 35-year-old has posted an ERA over 5.00 the past two seasons. As a result of his recent struggles, Burnett wasn’t even drafted in our Reader Mock Draft. Still, Burnett has been an effective pitcher in the past, and even though he’s been a huge disappointment the past two seasons, there’s still some reason to believe he’ll surprise some people next season.
Let’s start by looking at what went wrong for Burnett this past season. Burnett’s ERA was just awful for a fantasy starter. His FIP and xFIP, however, indicates that he could be in for some improvement. His 4.77 FIP isn’t great, of course, but his 3.86 xFIP offers hope for some type of rebound.
The reason for the large gap between Burnett’s ERA and xFIP likely is a result of Burnett’s horrible 17.0% home run rate. That home run rate was the worst among all qualified starters this past season, even worse than Bronson Arroyo, who gave up 46 home runs. The silver lining is that with a home run rate that high, things are likely to regress towards the mean this upcoming season. This also isn’t the first time Burnett has experienced a huge spike in home runs. In 2007, Burnett’s home run rate jumped to 17.7%. The next season, it dropped to 9.6% — slightly below his career average.
If both of those things happen, Burnett has the strikeout rate to be a useful fantasy starter. Despite his declining velocity, Burnett was still able to rack up strikeouts at a 20.7% clip. The walk rate is still a bit high, which is likely one of the main reasons for his Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde performances throughout his career, but his 9.9 BB% was right in line with his career average. He’s had success with iffy command before, so there’s at least a chance he does it again.
Burnett has also quietly become a workhorse of the past couple of seasons. After being labelled as injury-prone earlier in his career, Burnett has started at least 32 games the past four seasons. He’s thrown close to 200 innings in each of those seasons as well.
The 2012 projections seem to agree. All three of the projection systems featured on FanGraphs — Bill James, RotoChamp and the Fan numbers — all see some improvement in Burnett’s ERA and FIP next season. The fans, who are the most pessimistic, see a 4.65 ERA for Burnett with a 4.56 FIP. Even with those numbers, his strikeout rate makes him at least a valuable spot starter in most leagues. We should also expect the Fan projections to be slightly tougher on Burnett, as the stigma surrounding him definitely plays into their perception. That’s not the case with other projection systems, which like Burnett a little more.
That’s not to say you should run out and make Burnett your #1 sleeper next season. There’s still plenty of risk involved in drafting him. And at his age, there’s no guarantee he’ll get better either. If he is dealt to the Pirates, it’s going to be much harder for him to rack up wins too. The nice thing about going to the Pirates is that Burnett will definitely have a starting spot locked up. While he’s currently pencilled into the fifth starter spot on the Yankees, who knows how things will shake out with Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes also in the picture. With the Pirates, you won’t have to worry about Burnett losing his spot after a few bad starts. There’s also the issue of Burnett going to the NL, where it’s a bit easier to pitch. He won’t win as many games, but Pittsburgh isn’t a terrible place for him to go, actually.
Still, pitchers with high strikeout rates have value. While Burnett certainly isn’t a safe bet to rebound, he’s at least been successful in the past. That’s definitely enough for me to at least consider him at the end of most drafts. If he gets off to a bad start, you can easily cut him and pick up someone useful without any guilt. But if he experiences a rebound, he could be a nice steal in the late rounds of your draft. The stigma surrounding him has already caused Burnett to go un-drafted in certain leagues. While I wouldn’t blame you if you aren’t willing to take the chance, I’m willing to bet on his history. If it works out, great. If it doesn’t, it’s not a big loss anyway.