As a Yankee blood, A.J. Burnett is not a welcome name in my household. I don’t enjoy watching him play baseball—he’s made it easy to hate him, with a 5.26 ERA in 2010, a 5.15 in 2011, and a bad attitude for the whole ride—but he may well end up on several of my teams this year if (when) he becomes a Pirate. You might ask why. I might even ask why.
Not long ago, Burnett was a valuable commodity in all baseball spheres. He had a World Championship under his belt in 2003, an 18-win season in 2008, a sick strikeout rate along the way, and two five WAR seasons to his name (2005 and 2008). As such, he was signed to a (cringe-worthy) five-year, $85 million contract in 2009. He’s tumbled and fumbled since then, though, and fantasy owners and Yankees fans alike have come to hate the man.
In a 12-team, AL-only league, he was, in his first Yankee season, worth a rock-solid but unsexy $12 as the 23rd ranked pitcher. The subsequent year, he clocked in as the 118th most valuable American League starter, worthless on fantasy rosters in every sense of the word. A slight rebound made him the 72nd starter in the AL last season, worth less than Rich Harden (82.2 innings pitched with nearly identical ratio stats: 5.15 ERA and 1.43 WHIP), Matt Moore (who started two games), and Fautino de los Santos (who was wrongly classified as a starter but pitched only 33.1 underwhelming innings). Burnett, in other words, was fantasy kryptonite.
Throughout his demise, though, he’s remained well above league average in strikeout values and wins. According to Baseball Monster, his strikeouts had a value of 2.02 in his first Yankee year, 2009 (rated as very good), and maintained a 0.85 value and a 1.33 value in the following two years, respectively. Additionally, he won only 10 and 11 games in 2010 and 2011, both rated as above average in a standard 12-team AL-only league.
Let’s look at his Yankees years and dissect, as well as we can, his fantasy value.
Year 2009 2010 2011 3-Yr. Avg Career ERA 4.04 5.26 5.15 4.79 4.10 BABIP 0.295 0.319 0.294 0.302 0.290 WHIP 1.4 1.51 1.430 1.44 1.33 HR/FB% 10.8 11.6 17 12.8 11.3 K/9 8.48 6.99 8.18 7.88 8.22
The problem with Burnett, clearly, lies in his inability to limit base runners and his sky-high ERA. He still possesses some semblance of his former ability. In the past three years, his high-water marks (found in bold above, mostly in the 2009 category) make for a pretty valuable $12 season. A quick look at his rate stats might lead one to believe that Burnett has become a vastly inferior pitcher to his former self. Not so quick…
His home run to fly ball ratio will surely go down, as his rate was 17 percent last year while the league average clocks in around 10.5 percent. Burnett’s 2011 might not have looked so ugly with a league-average ratio, as his xFIP was more than respectable at 3.86. PNC Park will have a lot to do with the regression to the mean, as Yankee Stadium had a 1.267 HR factor in 2011 while Burnett’s (likely) home park had a HR factor of 0.799. The difference, for illustrative purposes, is nearly the same as that between Coors Field and PETCO Park in 2011.
These are likely here to stay, but shouldn’t ever look so bad as they did in 2011. Burnett’s walk rate has hovered around his career mark for the past several years (which never produced great WHIP numbers), but the difference in his recent performance is that he’s simply much more hittable (204 hits in 186-plus 2010 innings paints the picture pretty well). Perhaps there’s a little luck involved, though. His three-year BABIP was .302 in pinstripes, while his career mark is .290.
If Burnett can channel his 2009 version and find himself on the right side of the luck equation, he might be a golden dollar. You know, the one found in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory? His home run to fly ball percentage will surely go down, we’ve concluded. If his BABIP can stay as low as it did in 2011, then the HR/FB tumble will bring his ERA down to respectable levels and his WHIP won’t ever touch the mid-ones again.
Bad luck in several forms—BABIP in 2010 and home run rate in 2011—has kept Burnett in the fantasy dumpster, but I’ll bet my final dollar he returns to respectability (or better).
Even if he leads me to a championship or two, though, I’ll never love him.