A.J. BURNETT, RIGHT HANDED PITCHER
|Born: January 3, 1977
Drafted: 8th Round, 217th Overall, 1995 (Mets)
How Acquired: Free Agent
High School: Central Arkansas Christian (Little Rock)
Agent: Darek Braunecker
WTM’S PIRATE PLAYER PROFILES
|Burnett will be joining the Pirates for a second time in 2015, following a successful two-year stint in 2012-13. He spent 2014 with the Phillies, but declined a 2015 option. With the Phillies clearly needing to rebuild, Burnett wanted to pitch for a contending team and wanted to return to Pittsburgh enough that he reportedly didn’t negotiate with any other team before agreeing to an $8.5M deal early in the off-season.
For most of his career, Burnett has been one of the better starting pitchers in MLB, if not quite at the ace level. During his time in Florida and his first two years in Toronto, he was somewhat fragile, reaching the 30-start level only once and starting 25 games or fewer four times, including one season largely missed due to Tommy John surgery. Since 2008, however, he’s started 30-34 games every year and averaged just over 200 innings per season. In fact, he led the majors in starts in 2014. He signed a lucrative five-year contract with the Yankees prior to the 2009 season, but struggled in 2010-11. After the 2011 season the Yankees acquired Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda, leaving no room in their rotation for Burnett. After protracted negotiations, they sent him to the Pirates on the eve of spring training for Diego Moreno and Exicardo Cayones, with New York picking up all but $13M of the $33M remaining on the last two years of Burnett’s contract.
Burnett has always had excellent stuff, but has had trouble maintaining his mechanics, resulting in erratic command. He generally has had high, although not awful, walk totals, as well as high numbers of hit batsmen and wild pitches. For much of his career, his fastball sat in the mid-90s, but in 2011 it dropped to 92.7 on average. It dropped a little further, to just under 92, in 2014, but a hernia may have played a role in that. The velocity chart at Fangraphs shows that Burnett’s speed has dropped only at the upper end of his range; the lower end over the last three years has remained about the same as in his peak years, basically about 90. Burnett’s signature pitch is a curve that’s a genuine swing-and-miss offering. He also throws an occasional change. He’s a groundball pitcher; in fact, he had the two highest groundball rates of his career with the Pirates and maintained an above-average rate with the Phillies. Over the course of his career he’s had generally had minimal platoon splits, with just a 21-point career difference in OPS.
Burnett debuted in rookie ball and had control problems.
Burnett allowed very few hits, only 31 in 58 innings, but struggled even more with his control.
Possibly due to his control struggles, the Mets kept Burnett in short season ball for a third year. He continued to walk a lot of batters, but had very high K rates and again allowed very few hits.
After being traded to the Marlins in the Al Leiter deal, Burnett had a breakout year in full season ball, including much improved control and an astronomical K rate. He also allowed only three HRs in 119 innings.
The Marlins jumped Burnett two levels and he struggled in AA, although he maintained a high K rate. Florida brought him up in August anyway and he produced a good ERA in seven starts, but struggled with his control.
Burnett missed roughly half the season due to injury and continued to struggle with his control through 13 major league starts.
In his first strong major league season, Burnett made 27 starts and allowed only a .231 opponents’ average. His walk rate was still high but improved. He had some trouble with gopher balls, allowing 20. In May he threw a no-hitter in which he walked nine.
Burnett had his best Marlins season, greatly improving his K rate, cutting his walk rate a little more, cutting his HR rate in half and allowing only a .209 average. He led the majors with five shutouts.
Burnett injured his elbow early in the season and had Tommy John surgery.
Working his way back to the majors in time to make 19 starts, Burnett pitched surprisingly well, with by far the lowest walk rate of his career to that point. He still maintained a high K rate and allowed only nine HRs.
Burnett made 32 starts and had a season very similar to 2002. He missed his last start when the Marlins suspended him for making comments critical of the team. During the off-season he became a free agent signed a five-year contract with Toronto that allowed him to opt out of the last two years.
Burnett missed over two months due to arm soreness, but pitched reasonably well over 21 starts. He had a career-low walk rate, but for one of only two times in his career allowed (slightly) more hits than he had innings pitched.
In a similar season to 2006, Burnett lost time to two DL stints and made 25 starts. He tied his second-best career WHIP and had a career high K rate, but also allowed a career high 1.2 HRs per nine innings.
Staying healthy all year, Burnett set career highs in starts (34) and innings, and led the AL in strikeouts. He allowed more baserunners than the previous year, but cut his HR rate to 0.8. After the season, he opted out of the last two years of his contract and signed a five-year deal with the Yankees.
Burnett played a key role in the Yankees’ World Series win, serving as the #2 starter behind C.C. Sabathia and pitching one outstanding game in two Series starts. His walk rate drifted back up to its highest point since his first full year and his HR rate increased to 1.1.
Burnett pitched well early in the season, with an ERA of 3.28 through the end of May, but he struggled after that, finishing with a career-worst ERA and opponents’ average (.285). He also had gopher ball problems, allowing 25.
Through the first four months, Burnett had a solid season, finishing July with a 4.23 ERA. He came unglued in August, though, with an 11.91 ERA. He recovered in September, posting a 4.30 ERA, and he allowed just one run over 5.2 IP in winning his one post-season outing. Longballs were the major problem, as he allowed 31, easily a career high. Most of his other numbers improved from 2010, including his K rate, which was good enough for tenth in the AL among starters. His xFIP (which adjusts to an average HR rate) of 3.86 shows he may have been very unlucky. In fact, his xFIP in 2010 (4.49) was also much better than his ERA. His fastball velocity, which had declined in 2009-10 from his previous level around 95 to a little over 94, declined further to 92.7.
Excluding Derrek Lee, who was acquired for just two months, Burnett is the most prominent major league player acquired by the Pirates in a generation who was not obviously washed up. This last caveat, of course, eliminates Dave Littlefield’s baffling trade for Matt Morris. Burnett’s excellent K rate in 2011, as well as his still-good albeit declining velocity, indicated that he wasn’t nearly the risk that Morris was. That fact that he was moving from MLB’s toughest division by far to arguably its weakest, not to mention moving out of the DH league, also were factors in his favor. Of course, the Pirates being the Pirates, after remaining healthy for four years, Burnett got hurt in spring training before the first intrasquad game when he fouled a ball off his cheek, causing an orbital fracture. He was originally expected to miss as much as the first two months of the season, but by the time the season started he was recovering ahead of schedule. Following three rehab starts (which showed how little a rehab assignment means with a veteran player), he made his first Pirates start on April 21.
Burnett ended up as the Pirates’ ace and had one of his best seasons. He even topped 200 innings despite the missed time, as the Pirates skipped other starters at times when they had off days. Burnett even pitched better than his final numbers indicate, as Hurdle inexplicably left him in to give up a record 12 earned runs in two and two-thirds innings in his third start. If Hurdle had simply taken him out after the first two innings and seven runs, his ERA would have been 3.30. Burnett had the second lowest walk rate of his career and fell just short of his career K rate. He had only one weak month, posting a 5.18 ERA in August, but he bounced back with a 2.98 ERA in September and October, although a lack of offense left him with a 1-5 record for that time period. Burnett’s BABIP was almost identical to his career rate, and his FIP and xFIP were 3.52 and 3.40, respectively, so there’s no reason to think he can’t repeat his performance. Burnett’s fastball velocity decreased about half a mph, but it was still over 92 and the pitch was far more effective than the previous year. He evidently kept it down better, as he had easily his highest groundball rate since 2005. One negative was that he was frighteningly easy to steal against, giving up 38 steals in 40 tries. A lot of that, though, was Rod Barajas, who served as Burnett’s personal catcher and who was historically terrible at stopping base stealers.
Burnett was the opening day starter and had an even better year than in 2012. It didn’t show in his W/L record because of poor run support, just 3.7 runs per start. He missed a month with a calf strain, from early June to early July, but still threw 191 innings. His strikeout rate led the NL, although at times he ran up high pitch counts. He almost exactly matched his groundball rate from 2012, going from 56.9% to 56.5%, the two highest rates of his career. His fastball velocity ticked up very slightly from the previous year. Like a number of Pirates’ pitchers, he was much better at home, going 5-4, 2.37 at PNC Park and 5-7, 4.22 on the road. He had a big platoon split, allowing a .735 OPS to left-handed batters and .547 to right-handed batters. His xFIP of 2.92 suggests that, if anything, he was better than his ERA. Unfortunately, his season ended on a down note as he got hammered in the opening game of the playoff series against St. Louis, enough so that the Pirates went with Gerrit Cole in game five.
The Pirates created considerable furor among their fans when they declined to extend a qualifying offer of $14.1M to Burnett. He ended up signing with the Phillies for one year at $15M, with a mutual option for 2015 of $15M and a player option that ultimately proved to be worth $12.75M. Many Pirate fans blamed the absence of a qualifying offer for Burnett’s departure, but Burnett and his agent made it clear he would not have accepted one. Instead, he reportedly signed with the Phillies due to their proximity to his Baltimore-area home.
Burnett had a rough year with the Phillies, leading the majors in losses. As in New York, Burnett’s peripherals were better than his ERA, although his xFIP still was only 3.95. Much of the trouble came from an increased walk rate, as he led the majors in walks, but he also lost a little less than one MPH off his fastball. A bigger problem may have been the fact that he was pitching with a hernia for much of the year, an injury on which he didn’t get surgery until October. He especially struggled late in the year, going 2-8, 5.63 in August and September. In spite of the injury, he compiled his second highest number of innings. Burnett wasn’t hurt by the Phillies’ bandbox of a home park, posting a 3.68 ERA at home and 5.52 on the road. His groundball rate dropped to a still-high 50.9%. He probably wasn’t helped by his team’s aging defense.
Burnett turned down his 2016 option with the Phillies and signed surprisingly quickly with the Pirates, making it clear that he wanted to pitch his final season with the Pirates. His decision meant leaving $4.25M on the table in Philadelphia. Through mid-July Burnett was enjoying one of the best seasons of his career, making his first All-Star team and sporting a 2.11 ERA. In three starts beginning July 20, though, he got hammered for 32 hits and 18 earned runs in 16 innings. At that point he was diagnosed with a strained tendon in his elbow. Having surgery would have meant never pitching again, so Burnett chose to rehab the injury. He returned on September 10 and, despite not having the benefit of a minor league rehab assignment, pitched reasonably well the rest of the season, with a 3.77 ERA over five starts.
Burnett has been very definite about his intention to retire this time, so nobody expects him to return. Despite his having pitched only three seasons of a long career with the Pirates, it’s fitting that he should go out as a Pirate. He’s one of the most popular players the team has had in recent years and will remain a symbol of the team’s emergence from 20 years of unremitting failure.
|Signing Bonus: N/A
MiLB Debut: 1995
MLB Debut: 8/17/1999
MiLB FA Eligible: N/A
MLB FA Eligible: 2015
Rule 5 Eligible: N/A
Added to 40-Man: N/A
Options Remaining: N/A
MLB Service Time: 15.038
|June 1, 1995: Drafted in the 8th round, 217th overall, by the New York Mets; signed on June 13.
February 6, 1998: Traded by the New York Mets with Robert Stratton and Jesus Sanchez to the Florida Marlins for Al Leiter and Ralph Milliard.
October 27, 2005: Became a free agent.
December 7, 2005: Signed as a free agent with the Toronto Blue Jays.
November 4, 2008: Became a free agent.
December 12, 2008: Signed as a free agent with the New York Yankees.
February 19, 2012: Traded by the New York Yankees with $18.1M to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Diego Moreno and Exicardo Cayones.
October 31, 2013: Signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Phillies.
November 3, 2014: Became a free agent.
November 14, 2014: Signed as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Pirates.