Friday, December 19, 2008


And now for the other new pitcher, AJ Burnett. This is a more controversial signing than Sabathia, even though the attached pricetag is much smaller. Analysts seem to disagree on Burnett's value, some placing him as a very good pitcher who could become one of the best in the league if everything clicks (Keith Law, of ESPN) to feeling Burnett cannot be relied on for anything, including watching pies cool on windowsills (Steven Goldman, of the YES Network). In all probability, Burnett's results will lie somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. One of the first things to note about Burnett is his high strikeout rate (9.39 K/9 last year, third among qualified starters). However, Burnett also brings more control issues to the table than most high-strikeout pitchers. Among starters who struck out more than 8 batters per nine innings last year, Burnett's rate of 3.50 BB/9 ranks him 11th out of 17, with the only people worse than him being either very young (Tim Lincecum, Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto and Chad Billingsley), terrible (Oliver Perez) or apparently exempt to every single law of pitching and likely to cause me heart failure (Daisuke Matsuzaka, damn his eyes). In spite of this wildness, Burnett has a saving grace. Many high-strikeout pitchers are fly ball, and therefore home run, prone, as kicking back to put a little something extra on a pitch causes them to elevate it in the zone. Not so with Burnett. Out of our earlier group of 17, AJ's GB/FB ratio ranked second by a hair at 1.52. So, although he does put extra men on first, he also keeps the ball both in the park (I have yet to see the ground ball that could go over the fence. Although that is something I would absolutely love to see), and in position to get twin killings. While this doesn't get rid of the negative factors associated with his high walk rate, this does definitely help to mitigate the damage, and on a good team with a good defensive infield (Such as, say, last year's Blue Jays (Though oddly enough, AJ's BABIP was a very-unlucky .328 last year in spite of this) (Also oddly, the Blue Jays, despite posting a good team UZR, were fifth-worst in the league in double plays turned. Apparently David Eckstein's scrappiness quotient (SqA) isn't high enough (RIP, FJM) to rescue them)), the combination of strikeouts and ground balls probably would serve to elevate Burnett into at least the second tier of MLB starters. Unfortunately for AJ, he is going to be pitching in front of the Yankees patented Middle Infield Defensive Vortex of Suck. This shouldn't come as a great surprise to anyone out there, but Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano are both somewhere between bad and awful on defense*.

*Let's use a footnote-ish thing here to go into specifics. Last year, Derek Jeter posted his second-best UZR/150 (Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 Games) ever, being merely 0.4 plays worse than the average shortstop over the course of the season. Now, UZR/150 data has only been collected since 2002, and it is somewhere between possible and probable that peak-era Jeter posted better numbers than the aging version this data has been collected about. Still, projecting forward based on 7 years of data and factoring in a bit of an aging curve, calling Jeter a below-average defensive shortstop for next year seems like a very safe bet. The other half of the double play combination, Robinson Cano, has been all over the UZR/150 map in his four professional seasons, posting UZRs ranging from 8.3 (Which is very solid) to -16.9 (Let's play Manny Ramirez at second base!). He's been below average three of those four years, and scouting reports are not exceptionally kind to him either (Tom Tango's Fan Scouting fielding report actually has him given the exact same grade as Derek Jeter this year). Summary - They're bad at fielding.

And while getting away from the Blue Jays' double-team turning prowess can only help Burnett, he's going to the team that ranked one spot ahead of the Jays last year on that list, and sports a worse outfield D to boot. So while the Yanks are getting a very good pitcher, the odds of him making a leap to a new level seems pretty low considering his supporting cast. And this is only considering when he pitches. As opposed to Sabathia, who is an injury risk because of the history of other pitchers rather than himself, Burnett has spent what often seems like the majority of his career in the trainers room. If I were an oddsmaker (Which I most definitely am not), I would set the odds of both Burnett and Sabathia making it through the next five years with good health below five percent. But based on the way the Yankees are acting this offseason, I'm not sure if they care too much about that. It seems like as long as they get 60+ starts out of Burnett and Sabathia this year, they'll be happy, and let the chips fall where they may down the road.

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