When the rumours of a potential AJ Burnett trade to the Pittsburgh Pirates emerged, many believed this was a classic blunder of a struggling team adding an unnecessary veteran player. After all, this would give the New York Yankees of all team some salary relief, a potential prospect and rid them of a poorly performing pitcher in Burnett. And make no mistake – AJ Burnett struggled last season, going 11-11 with a 5.15 ERA. So why would the Pirates want to add a pitcher like this?
If you look a little deeper, it turns out it’s possible that Burnett shouldn’t have pitched as poorly as he did. He had an 8.18 K/9, which is in line with his career average. This is despite a declining fastball, as Burnett only averaged 92 MPH on his heater. However the strikeout rate was no fluke, as batters were swinging and missing at 10% of his pitches, again in line with his career averages. At 49%, his groundball rate was as strong as ever. And for the first time in his career, Burnett can be considered a durable pitcher. Over the past 4 years he’s averaged 201 innings a season, a remarkable figure considering that he had only gone above 200 innings twice before 2008.
When you put all of this together, it looks like AJ Burnett should have had a strong season. A guy who can still fool hitters, resulting in a ton of strikeouts, while keeping the ball on the ground should dominate. So why did Burnett struggle? Quite simply, he’s allowing a staggering number of home runs. Burnett has allowed 25, 25 and 31 home runs in the past three years, which is extremely odd for a pitcher who keeps the ball on the ground as often as Burnett does. Additionally, with him pitching in the AL East he has to face some of the tougher lineups in the AL East, like Tampa, Toronto and Boston.
Burnett would stand to benefit from a move to the Pirates. He’d be pitching in a division that has seen Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder join the American League, and might not have to face Ryan Braun for the first 50 games of the season. That’s three of the best hitters in the division, and with them gone the opposing lineups aren’t nearly as strong. While the Cards and Brewers still have solid lineups, it’s much easier to face them without Pujols or Fielder.
Another advantage that’s often ignored are the park factors. According to ESPN, Yankee Stadium was the 4th best stadium to hit a home run in, while PNC Park inPittsburgh is one of the 7 toughest parks to hit a home run in. For a pitcher like Burnett who struggles with home runs, success may be as simple as switching stadiums. What would be a home run in New York would be a long fly ball in Pittsburgh.
If the Pirates are only paying Burnett $5-6 million a year, he’d be an absolute steal. His XFIP in 2011 was 3.86, meaning that if he had a reasonable HR rate his ERA should have been a lot better than the 5.15 he had in 2011. And if the Pirates can get production even remotely close to that, they’ll be getting fantastic production from a player they typically wouldn’t have the resources to acquire.
More importantly for a rebuilding franchise, if Burnett does dominate the Pirates can flip him to a contender for a prospect. With the Yankees chipping in for most of Burnett’s salary, he could be much more appealing to a contender as they wouldn’t be on the hook for a significant amount of cash. While it’s rare to see rebuilding teams take on veteran players, this is one situation that is very beneficial to the Pirates.