Commentary

Change in ballpark won't 'fix' Burnett

Updated: February 20, 2012, 8:13 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Upon learning of A.J. Burnett's trade, initial reactions of both New York Yankees fans and fantasy baseball owners were probably one and the same: positive.

Yankees fans were right to be happy; his departure lessens the clutter at the back end of their rotation, affords Phil Hughes a clear path to the No. 5 starter role, the most appropriate one for him on Opening Day, and, perhaps most importantly, should significantly decrease their antacids intake.

Fantasy owners shouldn't be quite so quick to share in the joy.

[+] EnlargeAJ Burnett
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesA.J. Burnett did not give the Yankees or fantasy owners much to cheer about in the second half last season. He failed to get out of the fifth inning in nine of his final 14 starts, winning only three times.

Escaping New York has the potential to be a plus for Burnett, as he's freed of the petrifying "New York spotlight," he's now in the National League, where he'll get to face those .141/.175/.183-hitting pitchers (those were their 2011 major league averages), as opposed to those .268/.342/.431-hitting designated hitters (again, 2011 averages), and he's freed of New York's Yankee Stadium, where he served up 42 home runs combined the past three seasons.

Obviously, there's now potential for Burnett to improve, and in an NL-only league, that potential makes him worthy of a late-round speculative pick.

But beware overstating the extent of that potential.

Burnett's case to rebound significantly is typically formulated upon his peripheral numbers, like his strikeouts per nine innings and xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching). Among the 94 pitchers who qualified for the ERA crown in 2011, Burnett finished 23rd in K's-per-nine (8.18) and 56th in xFIP (3.86). But his other peripherals were as disturbing as those were encouraging: He had the sixth-highest walks-per-nine-innings ratio (3.92), had the third-highest homers-per-nine-innings ratio (1.47) and fifth-highest FIP (fielding independent pitching), at 4.77.

Burnett's numbers in the "luck" categories also haven't strayed much from his norms during the course of his career:

• LOB% (left on base percentage): 70.0 percent in 2011, 71.4 career.
• BABIP: .294 in 2011, .290 career.
• Home run/fly ball percentage: 17.0 percent in 2011, 11.3 career.

The latter represents Burnett's greatest area of potential improvement, but be aware that this is a pitcher who was actually worse away from Yankee Stadium (5.48 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, 39 home runs allowed) the past three seasons combined than he was at home (4.14 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 42 homers allowed). Perhaps it wasn't merely the ballpark responsible for all those home runs. For every possible positive hidden in Burnett's numbers, there's an equally compelling negative; the case that he's merely a volatile, enigmatic pitcher is valid.

If the result is a matchups/streamer pitcher, that's fine, but there's another major negative with Burnett if that's true: Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers typically aren't outstanding matchups candidates, nor are volatile starters like him. Wins come into play with such types, and the point being missed about Burnett's trade is the loss of the vaunted Yankees lineup backing him.

From 2009-11, the Yankees supported Burnett with the 10th-most runs in baseball (345) when he was actually on the mound, and his run support per nine innings -- that's the one we publish on our stats page right here -- ranked 30th out of 135 qualified starters during that span, putting him in the 78th percentile. Burnett also earned the win in 53.3 percent of his quality starts in those three seasons, and 18.5 percent of his non-quality starts; the Pirates from 2009-11 earned their starters wins in 43.3 percent of their quality starts and 10.3 percent of non-quality starts. And from a simple runs per game perspective, the Yankees (5.35) averaged more than a run and a half more than the Pirates (3.77) did in 2011.

Feel free to speculate on Burnett at low cost in deeeeeep leagues, or scoop him up for his most favorable matchups, but be prepared to release him at any moment. He has the ability to thrill, like when he had a 3.61 ERA and 1.19 WHIP during one 10-start span last season, just as he possesses the ability to aggravate, as when he had a 7.79 ERA and 1.79 WHIP in another 10-start span in 2011.

Hughes, meanwhile, might benefit most from the Burnett trade.

Ranked only seventh on the depth chart a week ago, Hughes might be the odds-on favorite for the No. 5 starter role now, if only because the Yankees still regard him a significant part of their future and shouldn't want to disrupt his projected career role as a starter, as they did Joba Chamberlain's in the past. Hughes will need to earn it; 2011 surprise Freddy Garcia is an adequate fallback should the 25-year-old right-hander fail to impress during the spring. The worry there is that, should Hughes be relegated to bullpen duty come Opening Day, there's a chance we might not see him back in the rotation again in 2012.

Compare Burnett's career Yankees statistics to Hughes' as a starter during his five-year career, however, and we see some similarities:

Burnett: 4.79 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 7.91 K/9, 45.9 quality starts percentage
Hughes: 4.90 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 7.02 K/9, 48.0 QS%

Hughes might not be any "safer" a pick than Burnett, but he's nearly 10 years younger -- Burnett is 35! -- and is the one supported by the more potent offense.

As with Burnett, merely gamble on Hughes late, especially in AL-only leagues. But pressed to pick between them in mixed play, I know my preference: I'm going with Hughes.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com, a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league, and a 2011 FSWA award winner for Best Baseball Article on the Web. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.

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