Last January, the Tampa Bay Rays inked Pat Burrell to a two-year, $16 million contract. The long-time Philadelphia Phillie garnered a reputation as a potent hitter and a plodding fielder (they don’t call him Pat the Bat for nothin’), seemingly making him a good fit as Tampa’s DH.
The price tag appeared reasonable. Burrell posted a 131 wRC+ from 2006 to 2008, meaning his offense was 31 percent better than average, once park and league factors are accounted for. He was heading into his age 32 season, so some decline could have been foreseen. But even so, the first overall pick in the 1998 draft looked like a good bet to be a two-win player in 2009.
Instead, Pat’s bat went missing. Slowed by a neck injury that required a lengthy DL stint, Burrell was 15 percent worse than average with the lumber last season (85 wRC+). His Isolated Power, .250 from 2006-2008, checked in at .146. Burrell compiled -0.6 Wins Above Replacement for the Rays.
Again, we could have anticipated some decline. Burrell was transitioning from the NL to the AL. He was also moving from a ball park that boosts right-handed slugging to a venue that depresses righty power. According to the 2010 Bill James Handbook, Citizens Bank Park has a 117 three-year park factor for right-handed homers, while Tropicana Field has a 96 HR park factor for righty dingers.
But even so, Burrell pulled the ball less often and didn’t do near as much damage when he did hit to the pull field. Instead, Burrell hit more pitches to the middle of the diamond, with sub-par results there as well.
Whether due to age, that nagging neck injury or some combination of those factors, Burrell couldn’t catch up to fastballs in 2009. Pat the Bat smacked heaters for run values of +1.48 per 100 pitches in 2006, +1.93 in 2007 and +1.27 in 2008. But last year, he was at -0.48 runs per 100 fastballs seen. Burrell’s performance against gas, coupled with his decreased pull percentage, paint the picture of a hitter who isn’t turning on the ball as quickly these days.
Bill James: .237/.356/.439
Fan Graphs’ Fans: .251/.356/.467
That’s a pretty wide range. If Burrell logs 500+ plate appearances in 2010, that CHONE projection would peg him for about 0.3 WAR. The most sanguine forecast, from the fans, would make Burrell worth closer to 1.5 WAR. At this point, the Rays have to hope that Pat’s slack performance was due to a bad neck, not diminished bat speed.